Who holds RAs accountable for their jobs?

By TOMMY KOH | September 7, 2017

Just as you do not get to choose your parents, you do not get to choose your residential advisor at Hopkins. Residential system pairings here can seem even more random than “random” roommates because of so many variables in the equation, such as floor layouts and RA assignments: Which residents live on which floors, and who of all the possible RAs is tasked with supporting the floor community? As a recent RA, I want to express concerns about the uncertainties in this process.

In an ideal residential community, variables would not be a problem. Each community is different and RAs should adapt appropriately. However, if RAs do not meet basic standards of care, we must ask tough questions about whether residents are receiving adequate support from the people meant to guide them through their freshmen and sophomore years.

We often hear stories of “absent” RAs who do minimal programing — perhaps perpetuating the cutthroat reputation of Hopkins — and this can be detrimental to their residents. Contrarily, RAs lament that their programs are not well attended and that residents are not interested in their programming.

Although I can see that thoughts may differ on this issue, I believe the RAs we hire should be expected to find multiple ways to persuade residents to engage in their communities.

RAs don’t just underperform on the programming front. Consider allegations of RAs drinking with residents (some even on the first day on the job), cases of RAs joking about their own employment on social media or rumors of sexual relations between some RAs and multiple younger residents.

Such stories range from inappropriate to predatory and beg the question: Who holds these RAs accountable? Who investigates these allegations? Are such RAs offered re-employment? Since residents don’t get to choose their RAs, surely we owe every single resident the assurance that all RAs are competent, effective and appropriate.

The biggest question in the entire residential life system is why nothing has been done to curb these various issues. These problems are persistent and problematic and damage the entire RA community. No matter how many fresh faces Residential Life recruits, the untapped potential of these new hires will never be achieved in the company of poor role models.

Perhaps we must dare to acknowledge the hard truth that one’s best — if an RA’s best includes inappropriate behavior — is not enough. In order to best support our residents, there cannot be any space in the system for low standards of behavior. Excellence is worth pursuing. If Residential Life cannot attract more RAs who are ready and able to do their jobs well, perhaps structures of incentives need to be re-evaluated by those with the power to do so.

Not all residents want to talk to their RAs, and many find equally supportive communities outside the residential system.

But for those students who might not be as active in clubs or societies, who long for a sense of belonging but find it hard to take the first step, residential life might be all they have at Hopkins. For these residents, an absent RA and an incohesive community can be devastating. These RAs and communities are failing the students that need them the most.

The Office of Residential Life and its staff might read this piece and argue that better communication and clearer expectations will prevent such problems (and future critical accounts of Residential Life). In the past I would have made similar arguments. However, I consider it equally likely that the problems above do persist.

If so, the first step towards a solution is to acknowledge the problem. Time is not on our side. As another class of students joins the Hopkins family this August, immediate and decisive action must be taken so the Residential Life community can begin serving all residents to the fullest extent.

Tommy Koh is a 2017 graduate of the political science and psychology departments. He is from Singapore.

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