RAs Resign Over Pay, Stress and Philosophy
Two of Oberlin’s 57 Resident Assistants have quit mid-semester and 13 more will terminate their contracts at the end of December. While Molly Tyson, director of Residential Education, has said, “The majority of RAs who leave do so for academic leaves of absence,” several current and former RAs feel that discontent with the position is “high.”
Senior and former SRA Christine Binder agreed. “It’s really unfortunate that [RAs] are asked to do something so difficult, to have to do this to your peers, while Safety and Security takes 40 minutes to arrive, and then is lax. It makes us look like the bad guy.”
“When an RA calls, we respond. They give us the nature of the problem, and we make a report,” explained Director of Safety and Security Robert Jones. “We try to be on the same page as ResEd. I have not heard complaints before.”
Jones says that it generally takes between two and five minutes for an officer to arrive at a dorm after an RA’s call. “If officers were not responding in a timely manner, I would know,” he said.
Binder and McVay believe that the College doesn’t fully enforce its own policies. For example, McVay cited the number of times Safety and Security officers walk by students smoking marijuana, while at the same time requiring RAs to report any drug-related instances. “You can have a policy, such as ‘no smoking weed on campus,’ but you can’t have a policy that’s sometimes enforced and sometimes not,” said McVay. Other RAs commented that often, the worst that can happen to a student caught drinking is a mandatory online quiz.
College senior Jeffrey Vaudrin-McLean served as an RA for two years in a first-year dorm, was hired as Village Housing Assistant, went through training, then quit. “RAs don’t have the support they need to function,” he said. “I’ve had Safety and Security be extremely reluctant to deal with a situation, even refusing my list of T numbers when they arrived half an hour late. It undermines any authority you have with residents.”
“Every officer makes his own assessment, and different situations require different reactions,” said Jones. “If that’s labeled inconsistency, then so be it.”
Even with a significant wage increase, which has made the job one of the highest paid on campus, many Oberlin RAs feel unfairly compensated for the amount of work they do on campus, leaving ResEd with a dwindling staff.
“[The RA job] wasn’t worth the money for the emotional impact it had on my life,” said McVay. “I’d rather maintain friendships and enjoy my sophomore year.”
“If you’re expecting RAs to ‘be an RA everywhere,’ you’ve got to pay more,” said College sophomore Dory Trimble, who quit one week into the semester. “It was reiterated multiple times during training that we have to bust people anywhere, in other dorms, at off-campus parties, etc. I’m sorry, but for $183 a week after taxes, I’m not going to bust my friends. It’s not reasonable.”
“I don’t know anyone who thinks they get paid enough for whatever they do,” countered Tyson, who conceded that the job amounts to “living in a fishbowl 24/7” and “involves stressful situations.”
“The problem isn’t really money,” said Vaudrin-McLean. “It’s the best paying job on campus. The real question is the position that ResEd puts RAs in.”
“They have to take almost every single person who applied, and that’s not good,” said Binder. “There has always been desperation in hiring. Last year and the year before they extended the deadline. It’s a hard position to fill, especially on this campus.”
“ResEd selects students with absolutely no discrimination, because it appears that they can’t find anyone to fill the job,” said Trimble.
“There were more firings of RAs in the past, but now people are just severely reprimanded,” said Vaudrin-McLean. “[ResEd is] in a bind, so they can’t really hold us to their standards. We’re quitting like flies.”
Several students noted the organization’s new willingness to hire first-years as RAs.
“They’re willing to put freshmen in freshmen dorms,” said McVay. “It rings of desperation to me.”
Vaudrin-McLean agreed. “It’s kind of ridiculous that they have to stoop to hiring freshmen,” he said. “It shouldn’t be necessary. The job should be good enough that you can get upperclassmen to apply.”
Tyson commented on the first-years applying: “If they are good candidates, then they will be placed on a staff and in a building where their skills and experiences fit the student population and the staff team.”
College senior Benjamin Whatley, a program house RA who plans to quit at the end of the semester, feels that ResEd is “a system that doesn’t work for Oberlin and shouldn’t work for anyone.”
College junior Rob Watts, a former RA, agreed. “The position encourages socially deceptive relationships,” he said. “Eliminating the entire RA position is the only reasonable thing to do.”
College junior and current RA Liz Woodbury believes differently. “I think it’s important to have RAs,” she said. “If something happens at 2 a.m., we’re here to help. I think the student population forgets these important things that RAs do because they’re so hung up on them busting parties. While it’s messy having students upholding policy among other students, I’m not sure there’s a way around it.”
“I respect ResEd even though they have problems,” she continued. “I think they’ve become an easy scapegoat for students.”
Binder also believes that RAs are necessary to have on campus for safety reasons, but thinks the position should change to better fit Oberlin. “There’s an anti-administration, anti-authority, anti-ResEd culture here that makes it very difficult to be an RA,” she said. “I think that ResEd is afraid to change the system because when there’s a change that students don’t like, they protest.”
Many current and former RAs made suggestions on how to improve the position. Trimble, believes in the OSCA model, especially in the position of Housing Loose Ends Coordinator — the approximate equivalent of an RA. “While RAs try to build and destroy community simultaneously, HLECs are facilitators and community members with the same responsibilities as everyone else,” she said. “They don’t bust people. I can be friends with my HLEC in ways that I never could with my RA. During my brief and grim experience as an RA, I felt I was paid to be a mom and a cop and a best friend all at once.”
Woodbury works in a first-year dorm, which has given her a new perspective on the job. “It would be interesting to consider having RAs only in first-year dorms,” she suggested. “They’re the only ones that go to programs anyways and they’re the ones who need someone to go to the most. It gets complicated and unpleasant to be an RA of upperclassmen. Why would a junior go to a sophomore for help?”
Whatley believes that this is a problem unique to Oberlin that requires an Oberlin-esque solution. “The richest resource we have to tap is our ability to think of alternative systems and our pro-student, pro-participation culture,” he said, noting, “Utopia is not to be had in an authoritarian structure.”