Two Decembers ago, a University of Colorado Boulder Resident Administrator asked to enter the dorm room of a friend whom I was staying with over winter break. Seven or eight of my good friends from high school were drinking together in the room, and the RA had to investigate because she’d heard someone yell, “that shot was awful!” When the RA saw a can of beer sitting in the corner, she was required to get valid identification from each of us, call a police officer to the room,and pour the beer can out while the officer watched. My three University of Colorado friends, including one friend who wasn’t drinking, had to go through a lengthy, expensive alcohol safety training; the rest of us got off scot-free. It’s unclear what would have happened had any of us been undocumented or without valid ID.
Four weeks later, my first-year resident counselor caught two friends and me smoking weed in our dorm. It wasn’t hard to catch us: we were inexperienced smokers, and we had neglected to open any windows or doors. Unlike the administrator in Boulder, our RC didn’t have an exact protocol she was required to follow. She could have called campus police or reported us to the Dean of Students, but she chose instead to address us at an all-floor meeting. At the meeting, she told us that she felt profoundly disrespected because we had violated a previously agreed upon community standard and that she’d expected more from us. We apologized and never smoked inside again.
I tell these two stories not to reminisce about what an idiot I was my first year, but to highlight an important point about the unique structural position that resident counselors occupy at Amherst. As their name suggests, RAs at many other American universities are actually low-level administrators. The Boulder RA we met was primarily responsible for setting in motion a bureaucratic procedure: taking names, calling police, making sure the correct information was relayed up the administrative chain. However, unlike Boulder RAs, RCs at Amherst don’t have the power to demand identification, confiscate beer or issue fines. Our primary authority stems from the fact that we devote nine days to an elaborate training on how to establish fair community standards (training that includes, by the way, extensive sessions that directly address issues of class, race, sexual preference, gender and ability). Moreover, though we have bi-weekly meetings during which we update Amherst’s area coordinators on our community’s state of affairs, during these meetings we have a remarkable amount of freedom with regards to what we choose to disclose. RCs are not quite peers and not quite administrators: we have a host of communal responsibilities beyond those of a non-RC student, but we also have significant control over the degree to which we employ administrators in this process.
The resident counselor position, then, hollows out a middle space between administrator and peer from which to establish communities and mediate dorm-wide conflicts. Rather than putting an administrator in a living community and creating a series of procedures that must be followed in all situations and at all times, Amherst’s approach to residential life offers RCs training in how to approach their residents as a unique, irreducible web of interpersonal relations and thus allows for meaningful community development beyond the purview of the administrative gaze.
This August, Amherst rolled-out its new reporting system, open to all members of the college community: “Amherst College strongly encourages all good-faith reports, and will respond to all reports based on the nature and quality of the information that is shared.” These good faith reports are divided into three categories: Community Standards Reports, which go directly to Dean Gendron, Care Reports, which go to Scott Howard and Sexual Misconduct Reports, which go to Laurie Frankl. Though Gendron, Howard and Frankl were all resources whom students could turn to in the past, someone in Amherst’s growing body of administrators has clearly put a lot of time and thought into this consolidated, streamlined reporting system: “report, report, report” quickly became a refrain during RC training. From an administrational perspective, the reporting system is an attractive response to a school year where it became clear that Amherst can be a threatening, unsafe place for many students. Enacting the new reporting system didn’t require any significant structural change; the system is essentially a justification of the work that several administrators have already been doing for years.
In this three-part article, I want to play out the logic of this injunction to “report” using an online form that goes directly to someone who is almost entirely cut off from day-to-day residential life. I will suggest that the Community Standards Report, if effective, would have drastically reduced residence counselors’ ability to establish and maintain dorm standards and thus wreaked untold damage on the quality of Amherst student life. Of course, up to this point the reporting forms have had no meaningful impact on campus life, positive or negative. I want to conclude by exploring why this attempt to establish a reporting culture has been ineffectual and suggest, through a close reading of the reporting website’s homepage, several possibilities for actually cultivating a more meaningful sense of community life.
In part two, I will begin with a discussion of how the RCs’ broad obligation to fill out the same reporting form for all instances of Sexual Misconduct actually inhibits us from effectively addressing sexual misconduct within our own communities. Though RCs have been mandatory reporters for a number of years, an analysis of why mandatory reporting actually hinders RCs from doing meaningful work surrounding issues of sexual respect will lead nicely into my broader argument.