Leonard Jones, director of University Residences, responds to RAs’ letter
The Western Front obtained this emailed from Leonard Jones, director of University Residences, which was sent to resident advisers on Monday, April 10. The email was in response to the RAs’ concerns — including compensation, safety and handling of harassment — which came forward on Friday, April 7. For more on this, see our updated coverage.
DATE: April 10, 2017
FROM: Leonard Jones, Director of University Residences
TO: WWU Resident Assistants
RE: Response to Document of April 7, 2017
Late on Friday afternoon, a document was delivered to my office with the list of concerns. The document includes some issues we have been working on together and some new concerns. All throughout this weekend, I have struggled with the level of frustration articulated. I want to say at the outset that I regret that individuals, working hard in their academic pursuits, as well as serving students admirably, feel disconnected and untrusting of the equally committed professionals who have the privilege of providing administrative leadership. I pledge the entire Residence Life leadership team to redoubling efforts to bridge the current perceived and real divides. My immediate goal is to expand avenues of communication and I am inviting all RAs to attend the upcoming second meeting of the RA Council this coming Thursday at 7 p.m. in the Highland Hall main lodge. I want to work with you to open avenues of direct channels between RAs and myself and, as the Director of University Residences, I want you to know that your collective and individual voices as RA’s are important to me.
Let me start by saying, I am sorry, that the communication within the department has left you feeling unheard and that several matters that are important to you, have not been addressed. I value and respect your input and your dedicated commitment to serving the students living in University Residences. I want to acknowledge the collective sentiment shared by RAs and pledge my active involvement in listening and responding to your concerns. I care deeply about all of our residential students and staff
As a part of improving communication, I am providing this document ahead of this Thursday’s meeting. I will be ready to listen and open up additional communication at the upcoming meeting. The responses below are directly related to the document I received. The intent is to share with you several actions that I have initiated, but also to initiate a more intentional dialogue with you to develop a common understanding of the issues and move them towards resolution.
In partnership with RAs and the rest of University Residences staff, I eagerly look forward THIS WEEK to starting and continuing this process of resolve, response and healing. I invite and encourage all RAs to join me on Thursday evening for the beginning of this important dialogue.
In the cover letter to the document, a number of different concerns were raised. I now want to address them in the following paragraphs:
It was mentioned that due to staff member’s resignation one month into the academic year, professional staffing was short. This is correct. In pursuing staffing resolution, with assistance from the Human Resources department, I reached out to four different candidate possibilities between October 2016 and January 2017. Due to individual circumstances, all withdrew interest. Eventually a RD was selected for the vacancy in January 2017.
With respect to the personnel complaint against a professional staff member, and after an initial review, an outside mediator was hired in early January 2017. Later that month, individual interviews were conducted with WWU HR. In early March 2017, the Vice President for Enrollment and Student Services (VP ESS) assigned independent investigator to provide an unbiased third party review. This outside investigation is presently ongoing and those RA directly involved received communication regarding this review on March 13. The assistant director in question is no longer in the position, and we are initiating the process for filling that position. While we fill the position, I have asked Holly Diaz to assume supervision responsibility for the residential area in question.
I want to acknowledge the complexity of personnel decisions at the university and the time it takes to address them. Nevertheless, going forward, the University Residences will strive do a better job of listening and responding.
The individual incident cited in Highland was reported to University Police, resulting in the immediate identification, arrest and trespass from campus of the individual. Additionally, a Western Alert was issued to inform the campus community of the situation and that the perpetrator was arrested and trespassed.
The cited Mathes situation is new information to me and I am not aware of specific details about this situation. I will immediately evaluate what occurred and instruct staff to inform me in the future so I am aware of such matters.
In regard to the Identity Wheel, a version of which is used at Western and other campuses, we have eliminated this as an educational tool based on RA feedback. Please reference my April 6, 2017 communication attached which already indicated this commitment.
As it relates to compensation, I announced at a March 27, 2017 gathering with student RA staff a commitment to a systemic review of compensation and job description responsibilities. Such considerations will be based on job descriptions and best practice for similar positions from other public Washington state campuses, and will be in compliance with federal, state and University guidelines. Additionally, I will review responsibilities, given size variation between traditional residential communities and apartment style communities, where the ratio of student staff members to number of residents differ due to design structure of communities. We will engage the RAs in the process, which I expect to be completed prior to the start of fall 2017.
I am providing specific comments to your concerns as listed in the document.
1.Raise the compensation for Resident Advisors, to accurately reflect the total number of hours we work and the rigor of our duties.
Working with a subcommittee team of RAs, I will review compensation and job description responsibilities based on job descriptions and best practice for similar positions from other Washington state public campuses. All changes will be reviewed to be in compliance with federal, state and University laws and guidelines. Additionally, I will review responsibilities given size variation between traditional residential communities and apartment style communities where the ratio of student staff members to number of residents differ due to design structure of communities. This work will be completed prior to the start of fall 2017.
2. Compensate Resident Advisers for the time it takes to complete required training.
As I shared in my April 6, 2017 communication with RAs, we have decided to compensate RAs for up to 120 hours annually for post-hire training hours. Additionally, I also committed to immediately reducing the 12 hour training days down to 8 hours during September Pre-Fall 2017, and beyond.
3. Allow Resident Advisers to collect their earnings for working over term breaks before school is resumed.
While the University cannot pay employees in advance before work performed, I will look into possibility of food stipends during these time periods.
4. Allow for flexibility within the Resident Adviser meal plan.
I have previously agreed to review and consider meal plan compensation options for fall 2017 implementation. Due to tax implications and complexity of the meal plan issue, I will develop a questionnaire that incorporates input from all RAs along with best practices from around the state [please reference my April 6, 2017 communication]. I expect that we will complete this feedback survey during the spring 2017 term, with the goal of making a decision prior to the start of fall 2017.
1.Remove Spring class from the Resident Adviser requirements.
We understand the issue that is being raised regarding the requirement of taking a leadership class. We will evaluate course content and course relevancy. Additionally, we will consider including education on diversity, equity and inclusion in this leadership training activity.
2. Revise current training content to include education on social justice issues taught by professionals who specialize in having conversations surrounding identity.
The professional staff of the Equal Opportunity Office (EOO) provide essential training in this area. As I have indicated in my previous response, I will work with the EOO to include education on diversity, equity and inclusion in leadership training for RAs.
3. Provide adequate and timely training to Resident Advisers who are hired in the middle of the academic year.
We will follow up on implementing this suggestion immediately and I will direct staff to deliver training to RAs hired in the middle of the year.
1.Install an external gate around Highland Hall to minimize the access people have to it and reduce the risk of trespassers.
Three campus residential halls are designed with outside entrances (Beta-Gamma, Birnam Wood and Highland). These are like some off campus apartments in the Bellingham community. In the short term, University Residences will make it clear to applicants which campus residences are designed with outside entrances. The same information will be provided to RAs prior to their assignment to those residences.
With respect to security concerns, I will evaluate the security of buildings with outside entrances with Facilities Management and the University Police. I will make sure that RAs, as well as student leaders in RHA and NRHH, are involved in these discussions.
2. Address ongoing building concerns which threaten the health and safety of both residents and Resident advisers.
The 10-year capital plan presented to the Board of Trustees in December 2016 includes a $200M investment in maintenance and improving infrastructure of existing residences, in addition to a potential new facilities. We will prioritize health and safety concerns in the implementation of this plan.
In the meantime, we will continue to address specific air quality concerns. For example, air quality recently assessed by Environmental Health and Safety in two rooms in Fairhaven was found in acceptable ranges.
1.Standardize the required duties of Resident Advisers despite the variation in community size.
We will examine the standardization of duties as we review job descriptions and compare those with other public universities handling of variation in size and scope of RA positions. As already stated, the 80% rule will be eliminated.
2. Allow Resident Advisers to hold off campus jobs and positions in extracurricular activities without having to ask permission.
We will revise the contract template to allow RAs to pursue other job opportunities on campus, as long as the expectations and demands of the RA position are not compromised and appropriate conversations take place between the RA employee and Resident Director supervisor to ensure the absence of any potential conflicts with their RA responsibilities.
3. Reevaluate the end-of- and start-of quarter responsibilities implemented by University Residences.
Predictable dates and times of fall opening and end-of-year closing is important. Supporting the University activities of early arrival (or late departure) of students, graduation, and other reasons requires staff coverage. I will evaluate whether a minimum number of a skeletal staff could effectively close out (or open) campus residential buildings.
Social Equity and Inclusion
1.The immediate implementation of religious tolerance and accommodations within University Residences.
I will look into the details of this concern and consult with the Equal Opportunity Office to assess how to address it.
2. Trainings on, and enforcement and implementation of, gender-inclusive policies and languages, as well as adding additional gender inclusive housing options.
Along with Buchanan Towers, gender inclusive housing exists in Birnam Wood. Consistent with the present practice, I will work with RHA and other campus stakeholders in assessing the demand and expansion of gender inclusive options. Please also see I and II under Training Section above.
3. Recognize and take steps to fix accessibility issues within residence halls.
The 10-year, $200 million maintenance and improvement plan for residences includes addressing accessibility issues. In the short term, I will work with the ADA Coordinator in the EOO to assess accessibility in residences and provide appropriate accommodation for impacted students.
4. Immediately cease problematic and tokenizing tendencies in University Residences in training, programming, recruitment, and advertisements.
As a professional of color, with over thirty years of my professional life addressing issues of diversity on college campuses around the United States, I am personally committed to the ideals of diversity and, more importantly, inclusion. It is an extreme professional pleasure to be part of an institution that is also so committed to these same ideals. I am in complete agreement that any effort without real deep and sustained work will not be successful. I am committed to both deep and sustained work.
Currently 25% of Western Washington University students come from ethnically diverse backgrounds, I will review University Residences training, programmatic, recruitment and advertisements to ensure accurate reflection of diversity. Finally, we must never rest on the work that is needed. I will rededicate myself to these ideals in partnership with our student leaders in RHA and NRHH, Equal Opportunity and other campus stakeholders. I look forward to working with you to identify further specifics that will help in the advancing diversity and equity in residence life.
5. Offer an alternative to the Identity Wheel program from REM 3.
As mentioned previously, a decision has already been made to eliminate the discussion vehicle that ask RAs to identify sensitive social identity information.
6. Stop prioritizing male-identifying Resident Advisers for hiring when it is not necessary to do so.
I am unaware of such situations with exceptions for when the RA position opening is located in a traditional residential floor environment where restroom access dictate such hiring. I welcome information regarding such situations that reflect this concern for immediate assessment.
7. Develop a departmental policy that reflects and acknowledges that oppressive behavior exists and works actively against these behaviors in residents by providing departmental avenues for access to conversations combating oppression.
Providing advice, mentorship, education is especially necessary in residential environments. We will continue to work with EOO regarding the nuances in educating and holding residents accountable for behavior that is considered oppressive.
1.Implement a feedback system where Resident Advisers can submit comments and concerns without having to go through their Resident Director.
I will ensure that there is direct access to the Director, while recognizing the role of supervisors. To this end, I have instituted an RA Advisory Committee earlier in the academic year, to meet with me on a regular basis, so we can communicate more openly and directly. I welcome other suggestions to enhance communication and feedback.
2. Create an evaluation system wherein residents can comment on issues in the residence halls that they do not feel comfortable bringing to their Resident Advisers.
The department conducts an annual Quality of Life survey. I will work with others to assess this survey instrument and specifically, consider including additional open-ended questions, which allow residents to comment on issues and provide suggestions for improvement.
3. Develop and implement policies that prioritize communicating with Resident Advisers about the ongoings in their communities and any concerns they may have.
I appreciate RAs collective understanding that CARE and behavioral conduct reports are confidential. I will explore with staff on methods to increase communication relative to activities within respective buildings, including move-in and move-out of students and critical incidents.
4. Establish a timeline for midyear RA hires and increase transparency about the midyear RA hiring process.
I will develop a timeline and greater transparency of hiring midyear RAs by end of May 2017.
Personnel and Management
1.Allow Resident Advisers and students-at-large to serve on all hiring committees for positions within University Residences.
While we presently invite students to be involved in hiring processes through open forum sessions to review candidates, we will include an RA (appointed through RHA) on hiring committees. Additionally, we will continue to engage RAs and students in the interview process through open forums and other engagement activities.
2. Establish a formal committee, that is accountable to students and positions outside of University Residences, designed to deal with issues concerning University Residences and allow Resident Advisers and students-at-large to serve on it.
Direct communication with administrators and utilization of the RHA governance structure is important. I will discuss with RHA their active involvement in issues concerning University Residences. I will welcome opportunities for participation and consideration to the RA Advisory Committee while recognizing that the most direct forms of communication are important to success.
I also will invite the VP ESS to join us periodically for direct communication and dialogue.
3. Standardize treatment of residents when it comes to Incident Reports and subsequent disciplinary action.
I have already begun conversations regarding the importance of residents reviewing and signing incident reports in order to ensure accuracy prior to any sanctions. In addition, we will add training for consistency in handling incident reports. The RA Advisory Group is intended as a direct feedback mechanism to the Director and additional conversation regarding training will be included in our conversations. RHA is another important component in assessing feedback from residents regarding their experience of our conduct system.
4. Immediately dismiss professional and classified staff that emotionally, mentally, and/or physically abuse or intimidate students and Resident Advisers.
There are institutional policies that provide oversight in personnel matters. These policies include provisions, when appropriate, to reassign individuals during the investigative process. Additionally, the Student Employee Handbook is under evaluation and will expand the grievance procedures for all student employees to options outside the departmental process.