Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 5
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Residence life must amend contracts, apologize

With R.A. hunting season having just taken a month-long hiatus (the search finished a few weeks ago and selections will be announced right before Thanksgiving break), now is a great time to talk about the problems that have arisen for student Residence Life staff members. While I am not a Residence Life staff member, I pursued a story in September (it was not published) that will shed light and open discussion on a necessary issue of which all students should be aware.

On Sept. 2, an S.A. for 2-West (Jewett), turned 21 years old. That night, while away from residents and with friends in Douglas Hall, he decided to drink. Since he had rarely drunk before, the S.A. was not conscious of his alcohol tolerance and blacked-out after several drinks. His condition worsened throughout the night until he was taken to the hospital by his friends, where he suffered a coma for several hours. He was released two days later on Sept. 4 and returned to school.

Meanwhile, the administration became aware of the situation. Chuck Cleveland, Dean of Students, convened a group of several administrators to discuss the ramifications of his actions. After hours of dialogue, the group concluded that he breached his S.A. contract and, thus, should be fired from his position.

The group said that the S.A. failed to “serve as a positive role model in both personal and academic life,” and thus failed to comply with a ‘Responsibilities’ clause in his Residence Life contract. The problem lies not in the vagueness inherent in the term “positive role model,” but in the direct, inseparable connection between “personal and academic life.”
By hastily making this very poor decision, the administration has effectively blurred the line –– at least for Student Academic Advisors –– between the professional and personal aspects of student Residence Life staff member.

When this distinction is so clearly and purposefully blurred, it leaves employees powerless over the way they conduct their lives. Their life consequently becomes their profession at the expense of their family, friends and significant others.

There is no job that I know of in which the line between personal and professional is so needlessly tied together. Even when people work for, quite literally, weeks at a time, they are compensated with weeks of breaks. In Alaska, my home state, many families have someone working on ‘the Slope,’ as they call it, in two week intervals: two weeks on, two weeks off. When they are on the Alaska North Slope, typically working on an oil-related enterprise, they must act professionally 100 percent of the time. But the professionalism ends once they return home.

Moreover, the administration failed to adhere to its own rules regarding anonymity. According to residents of 2-West, they did not know that anything had happened to the S.A. until Cleveland and several others conducted a meeting regarding his firing in response to a letter from a resident, with the support of his section, asking why his S.A. was fired and if their petition would reinstate him. Whether the meeting was conducted amicably or not, the rules of anonymity regarding alcohol, which states that “confidentiality must be maintained by everyone involved in the process, whether staff, faculty or students,” were broken. If the administration believes in this policy, they should have either ignored the student’s request or, more appropriately, given the staff member a second chance.

Whitman prides itself on recognizing that second chances should be afforded to students after they mess up. In this situation, the S.A. was given no second chance. The group that spoke to the 2-West residents said they fired the S.A. so that he could take some time to reorganize his life. His life, however, never interfered with his work. The S.A. was legally drinking with his friends in no sight of any of his residents. Thus, he should not have been required to uphold the “positive role model” clause while pursuing personal interests in his personal life. The administration gave the S.A. no chance to demonstrate that the two were incompatible. Had they more clearly defined when personal life begins and professional life ends for Residence Life staff, the administration would have not had to make a haphazard decision on whether to terminate the S.A.

The decision has been viewed negatively from the several Residence Life staff members with whom I’ve spoken. It has kindled disapproval, anger and, more importantly, distrust. After making such a rash decision, the administration is repudiating one of its biggest policy selling points: encouraging students to come to them when they are having problems. Students now are less likely to go to the administration when they are in need out of the fear of being punished for their transgressions. They are setting the wrong precedent if their goal is to cultivate a balanced relationship between themselves and the student body. This precedent –– one void of second chances, anonymity and delineated boundaries –– can be easily interpreted as a hegemonic assertion of administrative power instead of a more appropriate communal dialogue between the administration and the student body. While this may not be their intent, I hope the administration realizes how effortlessly their decision to fire the S.A. can be viewed as such.

Regardless of whether the administration believes its decision was correct, it should do the following in order to regain the student trust they have so carelessly taken for granted:

1. It should revise the Residence Life staff contract so that the difference between personal and professional life is clearly defined. Residence Life members should not be required to adhere to the administration’s redundantly ambiguous term “positive role model” while in their personal life. The administration has the right to regulate student activities on campus –– and perhaps they should have thought of this before the situation arose –– but they have no right to regulate all of students’ personal lives unless they directly affect their well-being on campus. If this clause is not changed, it is likely that this issue will come up again at the expense of a student’s job, scholarship or enrollment at this school.

2. It should apologize to the Residence Life staff members for the unnecessary trouble this situation has caused them. The administration’s key to regaining the trust of the student body is through the student intermediaries they employ. They should work to not only regain this trust, but also to ensure that it endures. Merely revamping the Residence Life contracts, however, will not work. Mending the torn relationship between the administration and the student body will require the administration to be more transparent with its actions –– raising tuition costs, considering student opinion when hiring professors and being straight with students when students believe they have made an error, just to name a few –– and will require the student body to listen, discuss and become actively involved in what is happening at the administrative level.
It’s better to solve this problem sooner than later. Let’s start talking.

This op-ed is neither endorsed by nor was written at the request of the aforementioned S.A. Permission, however, was granted by the S.A. for its publication.

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