A number of resident counselors (RCs) formed a group — called the Organizer Team — to file complaints with the Office of Residential Life (ResLife) on issues including the lack of a structured communication system between RCs and supervisors, misunderstanding over the role of the RC and appropriate compensation for the position.
The Organizer Team — composed of RCs Leslikarina Patino ’20, Eunice Daudu ’21, Isiaha Price ’21, Zulimah Sawab ’22, Molly Sanderson ’22, Jonathan Paul ’22 and Ella Peterson ’22 — formed after members realized that they had been independently communicating their complaints with each other. The group officially launched in early February with the hope of representing the needs and concerns of RCs. The Organizer Team wrote three documents that the group later sent to student life administrators to express their grievances with ResLife: a letter sent to the RC staff, a prospectus and a document titled “Planned Action.” The letter to RCs emphasized the power of a unified RC body and invited those with concerns to present them to the Organizer Team during office hours in Frost Cafe and Val, while the “Planned Action” document enumerated measures the Organizing Team intended to pursue, including tabling in Val, occupying administrators’ offices and, as a last resort, not performing contractual duties.
The prospectus contained details about the proposed complaints and listed demands. “The RCs of Amherst College have collectively created a prospectus of asks, grievances and suggestions,” the document read . “This is in regards to the current model of compensation; the infrastructure ResLife uses to professionally support RCs; and the lack of formal communication around role responsibilities and expectations.”
“The dysfunctional relationship that has allowed our asks and concerns to be conveniently left unanswered under the guise of ‘we hear you,’ and ‘we will take your input under consideration,’ in the past is not enough,” the document added.
Over 50 of the 72 RCs have co-signed the prospectus.
Peterson, an RC in Charles Pratt Dormitory, said she felt especially burdened as an employee for ResLife. “ResLife is certainly a department that has a reputation on our campus for not being the best organized or the most streamlined, the most logical,” she said. “It’s been common for a number of years for people to be routinely frustrated working for ResLife.”
For Price, an RC in Valentine Dormitory, the unequal labor between RCs has not been adequately addressed by ResLife. “There are some RCs who still haven’t had a tea time this semester, though they are a minority” he said, referring to regular community times that RCs are required to host for their residents.
The prospectus also highlighted this issue, noting that “RCs are not always held to the standards outlined in our contracts.” The creation of bi-semesterly performance reviews conducted by the Community Development Coordinators (CDC), who are responsible for supervising between 9 and 13 RCs, would alleviate this issue, the prospectus continued.
Unequal labor does not only exist between the RCs themselves, but throughout ResLife as a whole. The prospectus notes that “RCs are asked to pick up tasks like assisting CDCs with RC training, setting up the on-call schedule, ordering food … and coordinating storage hours.”
“This work is disproportionately designated to returning RCs and RCs who are women of color,” the prospectus added, later proposing the development of a formal system to delegate tasks.
“ResLife historically relies on returning RCs to do this work. But it also becomes volunteer-based,” Peterson said. “Who feels like they need to be offering the most? It’s women of color on staff.”
In an interview with The Student, Director of Residential Life Andrea Cadyma stated that the claim is already being discussed in the ResLife department.
“There is no system for keeping track of who volunteers,” she said. “We’ve already had conversations about how we can handle this issue better. We’ll be talking about this more with the RCs to better handle it.”
Dean of Students Liz Agosto added that “regardless, if that is the perception of the students, it’s something we need to address.”
Increased compensation is another issue in which the Organizer Team highlighted in the prospectus. According to the document, RCs on the first year quad work more hours than those working in upperclassmen dorms, often hosting more tea times or other activities for their residents. The prospectus proposed a yearly salary of $7,875 for RCs in upperclassmen dorms, and $8,715 for those on the first year quad, deriving these numbers by calculating the number of hours RCs work, volunteer and train for the position. RCs currently earn $4,400 for a full academic year of work, with no differentiation in pay between roles.
In recent meetings with the Agosto and Senior Associate Dean of Students Dean Gendron, ResLife has expressed interest in redefining the role of the RC, considering a pay raise and managing the short term grievances filed by the RCs. The Organizer Team met with Agosto and Gendron to discuss changes to the RC position. The details of that meeting will be formally announced to RCs on Wednesday, March 4.
“What would create real problems for Amherst administrators is if we do not pick up on call phones, having transparency about the RC role in interviews with new RCs, and not filling out paperwork that the administration depends on for legal security,” the Organizer Team wrote in a letter to the RC staff.
“We were hoping these problems would be fixed in conversation with ResLife … If they didn’t want to compensate us more, the next step would’ve been to strike, to unionize,” said Price. “We’re putting that on the backburner for now until we see what this redefinition of the RC role will look like.”
Agosto first learned about the complaints against ResLife in early February. At a meeting with the Organizer Team last month, Agosto created a timeline for addressing the RCs’ concerns. “One of the questions that we will continue to engage with the students on is, ‘What is the compensation for the desired work we want an RC to do?’ And ‘Does the RC position currently meet the needs of the students on campus?’ Then we’ll have a conversation with the RCs,” Agosto said.
She also expressed optimism regarding the future of the negotiations with the Organizer Team. “We’re glad they came forward with their concerns,” Agosto said. “We’re excited to work with them to build the RC position and what may be appropriate compensation for that work.”
“We are doing the best we can to best respond to the RCs’ concerns,” she added. “We have meetings scheduled, we’ve been responsive in doing some short term, immediate action — ultimately the actions students take is their choice … We’re going to work in good faith.”
This is not the first instance that ResLife has faced criticism regarding the management of the RC position. In 2018, The Student reported that RCs underspent their designated money used for a bi-weekly tea time, with RCs expressing frustration over the lack of communication on the use of unspent funds.. In 2015, RC Rachel Boyette ’17 wrote an op-ed in The Student titled “Residential Life Doesn’t Care About You,” in which she laid out her grievances as a worker for the department. “At the end of my first year as a Resident Counselor (RC) in 2015, all five of the Area Coordinators (ACs) — who supervise RCs — quit, forcing Amherst to hire a completely new staff in less than three months,” she wrote. “With three out of five positions filled and only a couple of weeks’ notice, the new and understaffed ACs were forced to create the one and a half week-long RC training schedule, assign freshman housing and handle student move-in as well as other miscellaneous residential life duties, none of which they had done before. During one of the training sessions in August, an AC approached me and asked, ‘Be honest, how much of a shit-show is this?’”
“The failure to secure long-term employees has created a culture within Residential Life that is willfully ignorant of students’ needs,” she continued.
Additionally, the departure of David Watts, former assistant director of student life, for Tufts reflects the broader trend of ResLife’s inability to retain staff. Watts worked at the college for just under four years.
Despite the complaints, Peterson remains optimistic for the negotiations with ResLife. “The meetings have been incredible…they’ve taken our considerations very seriously,” she said.
She added that the RCs depend on their jobs, and hope that the issues raised will be quickly resolved. “The RC hiring process is committed to diversity which means we have a lot of RCs on financial aid…The RCs really need this money,” Peterson said. “The work matters to us…I really care about building community at Amherst and my 16 residents. I want this to be a better program, because it will make it a better college.”
As for the meeting scheduled between the RCs and the administration on March 4, Price expects sweeping changes to the RC position to be announced. “There are going to be foundational changes to the RC role that I’m excited about. Agosto and Gendron will address the changes at the Wednesday meeting,” Price said.