Photos by Coco Wang
Thick tension piled in the air as Residential Life and Housing staff members met on April 19 to dissect criticisms of current employment policies and procedures. For nearly two hours student employees and staff members sat in Gates Common Room and discussed the demands of a petition spearheaded and written by junior Resident Advisor Spencer Spotts.
“One of the main reasons we are here today in this space,” said Yolany Gonell, Director of Residential Life and Student Activities, in her opening statement, “is in response to a petition that was written by members of our team.”
On April 5, Spotts shared a link entitled, “Improve employment practices & policies of Resident Advisors at Colorado College,” to their Facebook profile. The petition demanded eight major reforms, including: rescheduling, revision, and immediate compensation for fall training, improved staff support initiatives, a RA student concerns committee, equitable stipends between RAs staffing different locations, transparency, and professionalism.
Spotts’ language and word choice in the petition were pointed and intentional. The document cites the current requirement for RAs to return for training on Aug. 1 as “pressuring students to sacrifice financial and professional growth” and “manipulating students into only prioritizing… their employment as RAs.”
It accuses the Residential Life staff of conducting illegal employment practices by not providing “a reflection of equitable pay” for RAs during training. It also notes a culture of “discriminatory/triggering content” and behavior being allowed, brushed aside, or “sponsored” by current Residential Life administration.
The petition, according to Rochelle Mason, Senior Associate Dean of Students, was received on the day of publication and elicited an immediate response from Residential Life administration. Though Dean Mason was away traveling on behalf of the college, she reached out to the authors of the petition the same day.
Director Gonell arranged a meeting with the authors of the petition immediately on campus, calling forth the importance of such strong student concerns to the Residential Life office.
“We wanted to hear from the authors of the petition [as soon as possible] because[…] we recognize that these experiences are very real and very true for them, and we want to honor that and honor it with sensitivity,” said Gonell.
In discussion, however, Spotts was wary of such sentiments being expressed by the administrators. “Yolany opened with ‘we’re here because of this petition,’” Spotts said. “Well, the thing is, we shouldn’t have needed a petition to make that kind of conversation happen.”
Spotts wrote the petition as a culmination of casual conversations they engaged in with other RAs in the last year of employment. In the petition they acknowledge that employment policies and practices have been less than satisfactory to students for several years.
Dean Mason attested to the truth of this claim.
“I don’t think anything that was raised is really new,” Mason said. “In terms of compensation I think it’s been something the college has been looking at over the years and will continue to look at over the years.”
Residential Life staff fidgeted in their seats at the petition discussion, waiting their turn anxiously as compensation and equitable employment practices dominated the conversation. RAs were split across the board both in favor of and against the claims the petition brought forward.
Many students were concerned about the accusation of “illegal” employment practices by the Residential Life administration, but Dean Mason made clear that, “The college does not engage in illegal hiring. It’s illegal. There’s not illegal practices, but there are ways some practices could be better.”
According to the Residential Life website, the college currently compensates RAs by providing housing, a stipend for their work, and hourly wages for time spent working at the desk in residence halls. The stipend is $3,500 for large traditional halls, $2,000 for small houses, and $500 for apartments.
The discrepancy in stipends is due to the college running on a differential, as opposed to fixed, compensation model. The level of engagement with residents and requirements in each student housing location determines stipend amounts.
“All RAs are valued and they serve a purpose in terms of ensuring safety and community building,” said Director Gonell, “An RA who’s a senior in Loomis, for example, will not have the privilege and flexibility to stop responding to e-mails or not come to a meeting because of a thesis or a project.”
The “flexibility” that Gonell cites as part of differentiating the stipends between large halls and apartments, however, did not fully explain discrepancies to some RAs present at the meeting. One apartment RA noted that the $500 stipend is a new edition to their compensation model, implemented within the last year.
To Residential Life, these policies are laid out loud and clear, and students should not feel tricked or deceived when accepting the offer to be an RA.
According to Director Gonell, when RAs are presented the offer of employment, the contract they have to sign is explicit in mentioning that training is included in the current compensation model. Further, the contract covers the required training dates and dates RAs will need to be present, including the extended training date for the 2016-2017 school year.
Spotts finds it concerning that Residential Life administration would address issues of compensation and extended training by primarily noting contractual policy. “That’s the one thing, saying ‘oh, this was in your contract’. Yeah you threw it into the contract without talking to anyone about this, or you threw this on new RAs and they’re just expected to not be able to negotiate it.”
The petition addresses the extension of training as “manipulating” students into prioritizing financial stability in the immediate over the summer or having to wait for stipend dispersion, with stipends being inequitable across the board. Spotts also found the contract argument weak as it does little to address the “unprofessionalism” and “discriminatory” practices they and other RAs have experienced working under the Residential Life office.
Spotts brought up a blatant lack of response from administration in dealing with irresponsible behavior from Residential Life staff that contracts simply do not prepare RAs for.
They claimed to have personally reported their grievances with RLC posters in dorms, behavior in interactions on personal and professional levels, and programming that encouraged discrimination and exclusion for underrepresented students.
Director Gonell claims that these grievances are handled, but are not to be reported or become public spectacle for all to indulge in. “The student had some valid claims about feeling targeted and [concerns about] language that was used, but I don’t believe in public shaming,” said Director Gonell. “Whenever there’s a performance issue that needs to be addressed, it’s handled. That’s not something that you share with students.”
Director Gonell is pursuing bringing Human Resources representatives to the upcoming round of RA Training to keep students informed about their rights as employees and how to approach professional workplace concerns. This is a first of many reforms that Director Gonell and Dean Mason would like to see implemented in the training program.
As students and staff of the Residential Life program sat in Gates Hall listening to their peers share emotional and anxious accounts of their time as employees, a sense of hurt, exhaustion, and frustration loomed in the air. It was not an air devoid of hope, listening, or the intention of healing from administration.
“What’s important, I think, is to recognize where students are coming from,” said Director Gonell. “The root of this is a lot of insecurity going on in [students’] lives. And we have to acknowledge that, but it doesn’t mean that the practices in place are wrong.”
Dean Mason and Director Gonell expressed sincere pride for the issues the current and upcoming RAs brought up at the meeting. “It’s so encouraging that students get it, “ said Gonell. ”They get how important this effort toward inclusive spaces and this effort to create a new narrative around the sense of belonging.”
Spotts remains skeptical of the ability to rebuild trust as a Residential Life employee, as they feel current lapses in policy are not being acknowledged and politics are playing into current discussions.
“When we started training, there was this idea of ‘Oh, we’re all a family’. And right now I feel like that’s all gone…It feels like we’re reduced down to our labor,” said Spotts. ”There needs to be acknowledgement that [the administration] has hurt people, and it needs to be a more public thing.”
RAs expressed desire to see more transparent procedures when engaging with staff, including sharing what is going on between RA committee meetings, programming that halls are coordinating and can coordinate together, and a general need to end the stigmatization of some RAs working harder than others.
The RA and Residential Life staff intends to continue dialogue concerning moving forward and come up with plans of action to address the grievances brought to light by the petition.
To view the petition in its entirety, please click here.