The R.A. strike was a long time coming

Sunday, October 11, 2020 - 1:35pm

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Illustration by Eileen Kelly

The seemingly everlasting build-up to the Fall 2020 semester made me anxious about where I would live. My mind raced with questions as I was stuck in a state of limbo, full of unknowns. The hope that I would get to spend my senior year of college on a pandemic-free campus quickly dwindled and instead morphed into worry. 

Should I give up my lease? Is it safe to move back? What seemed to be the safest option was not necessarily the most financially sound. Amid deciding, I, and many other students, waited eagerly to see what the University of Michigan’s plan would be. 

As a former University-employed resident advisor for the last one and a half years, my mind immediately wondered what the intended precautions would be to ensure safe on-campus housing. My previous experiences with University Housing made me feel like there would be a disaster waiting for Residential Staff when they arrived for their training. Sure enough, when I checked on my peers during the August ResStaff training, they were already starting to get concerned. It seemed as if Housing had not come up with an adequate plan to keep R.A.s and residents safe during these unpredictable times. Rumors buzzed about facilities being understaffed, and supervisors did not have answers to questions surrounding safety precautions. 

This storm leading up the R.A. strike in early September was an explosion of tension that existed even before the pandemic. Upper-level housing, which refers to any full-time staff working in the Housing department above the level of Hall Director, and R.A.s may have always had a hard time finding common ground, but this time, this tension could cost the health and possibly the lives of Housing students and staff.

My personal animosity toward upper-level housing staff began from the moment of signing our contract called the Letter of Appointment, referred to as the L.O.A. Every ResStaff member is tied to this contract during their time as R.A.s. Any deviation from the included provisions results in disciplinary actions consisting of anything from a conversation with the hall directors — who are the R.A.s’ direct supervisors — or termination, depending on the severity of the behavior. 

I remember when I first walked into the West Quad Residence Hall Multipurpose Room, seeing my future fellow staff members seated together in a circle. I was bright-eyed and eager to start making an impact on the incoming class. As we started reading through our contract, a feeling of uneasiness settled into my stomach. I felt on edge about signing an agreement that I had just gotten without much time to think. There is no room for negotiation of the contract — it is an all or nothing deal. And even though we were able to bring our concerns to our supervisors, we knew we had to agree to the L.O.A. or be replaced by someone who would. 

While a lot of the L.O.A. is mundane detailing of hours and responsibilities, one of the more gut-wrenching clauses reads:

“I will not participate in discussions or activities that in any way disparage my colleagues or supervisors or undermine their authority with residents. I will show public support for all ResStaff decisions and University or Housing policies. If I disagree with a policy or decision, I will discuss it respectfully with my supervisors, but will continue to enforce the policy unless directed otherwise.” 

As a journalist, it felt against my ethical code to agree to this. As a student, I felt as if I should be able to take my grievances with Housing elsewhere if I feel like I am not being heard. No change comes without criticism and a little bit of pressure. I am someone who likes to use my voice when I see something is wrong. To me, this came across as an effort to silence staff, keeping all issues handled quietly within Housing.

Inevitably, the clause instilled in me an immediate fear and distrust of upper-level housing. Would I lose my room and board just because I disparaged the good name of Housing? Why did they want me to hide my criticisms? What was I getting myself into? This sentiment lingered throughout my time as a staff member, and I recently learned that I was not alone in feeling this way. 

During the pandemic and the strike, the aforementioned clause was a particular point of contention, and worsened the fear of retaliation. I spoke to a current R.A., who asked to remain anonymous with fear of retaliation from the University, over the phone about this ongoing battle. In this article, they will be referred to as Sam. 

“Here we are now, with a bunch of legitimate concerns that aren't being adequately addressed by Housing, and yet our contract says we can't talk to anyone about this but Housing,” they said. “We felt very trapped by that.”

This conflict grows even more complex when we acknowledge that R.A.s exist in a gray area, where we are both students and staff members of the University. And while I felt more like a student than a University employee, as soon as I left the confines of my room, I had to be there for my residents. In everyday life, there weren’t distinct lines drawn between my two roles. 

This ambiguity has proven to be another point of contention worsened by the pandemic. As a part of the strike agreement, R.A.s were given priority for COVID-19 testing; however, there was some confusion as to the logistics of this because of R.A.s’ unique standing. Sam described this tension and the obstacles it created.

“There’s a question on there that says: ‘What is your primary role in the University? Student, staff, faculty,’ and most of us put: ‘student,’” they explained. “How are (upper-level Housing) going to recognize that we are supposed to be getting priority as ResStaff when, primarily, we’re students here?”

This hybrid position has also caused issues in the past, as we struggled to put our academics, mental health and well-being first, which sometimes interfered with my relationships with my supervisors. I got a taste of this conflict before I officially started my position as an R.A. 

Before starting the role, all R.A.s must take and pass a class called ALA 421 where we learn to have open discussions about identity and analyze how our biases influence our interactions with others. Prospective R.A.s sign up for a section of ALA 421 at the beginning of a winter semester, after they’ve registered for academic classes. Around the same time I was meant to choose my ALA section, I was cast in MUSKET’s production of “In the Heights.” I was struggling to find an ALA class that fit into both my class and rehearsal schedule. 

The Housing administrator suggested that I choose between my love of performing and the R.A. job. She explained that the job meant I needed to make substantial sacrifices, refusing to acknowledge my role as a student who needs to engage in extracurriculars and take time to do what I love. The administrator told me that she gave up dancing for her own career. But being an R.A. is not a career; it is, rather, a role with some benefits. In fact, many students need to have a job on top of ResStaff, as they are not getting a salary as an R.A.

The stress became overwhelming. I was a freshman excited about being in her first production at the University and who planned her housing around the R.A. job. I wasn’t offered any concrete solution by Housing, but luckily, MUSKET was kind enough to accommodate for my missing rehearsal time. Yet I didn’t feel heard, reassured or guided by this Housing administrator. Instead, I felt disposable — like my thoughts did not matter. 

Even now, in a time when it is crucial that R.A.s’ voices and feedback be taken seriously, there is minimal accountability and action. Sam explained how difficult it has been to juggle the personal stresses of the pandemic and the frustration of miscommunication with upper-level Housing.

“The other night, Martino Harmon, the V.P. of Student Life, came to Bursley and Northwood — I don't know about any other dorm halls — and basically just wanted to hear from us,” Sam said. “It was very one-sided, it was basically us being like, ‘We're struggling, can you help?’ And him being like, ‘Well, I don't know.’” Upper-level Housing and administration often make it seem as if they care about the input of R.A.s; however, there is a disconnect between considering our criticisms and employing actionable change. 

During my time as an R.A., we were asked to take a cultural competency test. The test consisted of a series of situations and we had to choose from given answers how we would react to them. We then received individualized emails with our results, which placed us on a spectrum of cultural competency, and we subsequently met with a University staff member to discuss the results. We were required to take the exam, and we were also pressured into participating in the follow-up appointment. 

Needless to say, it was extremely uncomfortable to hear an older, white male who held a high position at the University tell me, a young, female Latina, what I was doing wrong in my cultural competency. While no one is perfect in the way they handle identity, being judged by a single test and someone holding a position of extreme privilege was agonizing. I sat there squirming in my chair as I was encouraged to open up about my ethnic background and other personal things with a complete stranger. 

It seemed like just another way the University could get data. I did not feel like the intentions of the test were to better myself. I got the impression that upper-level Housing was just curious to know where R.A.s measured up based on an arbitrary test. Upper-level Housing should feel confident enough in R.A.s’ abilities to communicate across differences because they hired us. 

During a later meeting with upper-level Housing and the R.A.s of central campus, we voiced our concerns and criticisms about the cultural competency test — we didn’t think R.A.s should be pressured to take the test (which resembled a Buzzfeed quiz in its triviality) or discuss it with a higher-up staff member. And while our concerns were said to be heard, new ResStaff took the test again the following year. 

This came as no surprise: There has always been a separation between R.A.s who work inside the buildings and upper-level Housing who work largely from the confines of their offices. We are told that our opinions and insights matter; however, upper-level Housing never seemed to act in a way that builds trust. I always felt powerless. 

The stakes are even higher now: Since the R.A.s struck a deal with the University, many COVID-19 clusters have formed in University Housing and Washtenaw County’s COVID-19 rates have risen to alarming levels. Sam, who is still currently working as an R.A., commented on the fear that built up before the school year and that has continued today.

“If there was clear communication between the University about what the semester was going to look like, there wouldn't have been so much fear with ResStaff, people living on campus and general students of the University,” they said. “I just think communication needs to be clearer.” 

While my time as an R.A. allowed me to foster valuable skills like achieving work-life balance and learning to communicate with people who are very different than I am, it was also a reinforcement of the lack of communication and trust that exists between University administration and students. This disconnect, especially in this time, has proven to be detrimental to the campus community and greater city. The holes that exist in the University’s “public-health informed semester” would be better filled if the concerns of R.A.s and students were taken seriously and valued. It is about time that when the student body voices their concerns, the University listens.


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