Every college to some extent has departments that are rendered near-useless by the endless bureaucracy involved in managing higher education. According to my friends at other schools, however, one particular branch seems to be almost universally labeled incompetent. The Tufts variant, as you may have guessed, is the Office of Residential Life and Learning, or ResLife for the less pretentious.
ResLife at Tufts impacts every single student on campus – possibly the only Tufts Department that does, besides Admissions. However, while the student body likes Admissions and its primary staff, it dislikes ResLife and its primary staff in equal measure.
On first glance, ResLife seems like a functional enough office. Their website lists contact details, information about the residence halls, and some vaguely dubious suggestions about off-campus housing. As any student who isn’t a freshman will tell you, though, figuring out housing is a nightmare and tends to have ruinous effects on many friendships, but that can more or less be chalked up to a trick of the lottery system. For the majority of students whose only point of contact with ResLife is their Resident Assistant, the housing lottery is their primary glimpse further into ResLife – and even that small peek is often unpleasant.
“While I do see the benefits of having a random lottery system, and it’s the best way to ensure fairness, I believe that it should be changed to be more conducive to keeping friends together,” said a current sophomore. “Perhaps instead of averaging two lottery numbers for doubles, the pair could use their highest number instead. That wouldn’t work for suites and apartments, but it could save some students from the notorious horror of losing a friend because of something as stupid as housing selection.”
Resident Assistants, or RAs, on the other hand, are theoretically exactly what they sound like. They are students who live in the dorms and are there to help other students and ensure that people are following the rules. Most RAs who have been spoken to for this article – all are former RAs, including myself, since current RAs are under contractual stipulations not to tell us anything – have been united in saying two things: Firstly, that they are in it mainly for the free housing, and secondly, that it’s not exactly the most amazing job. Sure, it’s rewarding to help someone figure something out, but it may not make up for the less-rewarding aspects; in my own case, I know I made plenty of unfortunate calls to the night janitor when residents hadn’t gotten to the bathroom in time after a night out. Then again, any job has good and bad.
Besides that, different RAs do the same job differently. When an RA encounters a minor student issue on rounds, they are obligated to report it, but that doesn’t always happen. The ground level enforcement of Habitats varies wildly – some RAs are much stricter about the rules than others.
“Nobody likes an RA who writes up their residents all the time,” an ex-RA said. “If you want to be useful to your residents and do your job properly, you can’t be the RA who reports everything back to your boss, unless your boss is both understanding and available, which not all Area Residence Directors, or ARDs, are. A couple of them are helpful, but a couple can be hard to reach or unfair, from what I’ve heard – that’s how the RD system was last year, too.”
Another agreed: “Your residents won’t tell you when they have serious problems if they know they’ll have to have uncomfortable conversations with the adult staffers of ResLife. If they don’t trust you, you can’t really be the ‘assistant’ you’re there to be. That’s a problem. A lot of times, there’s a disconnect between what ResLife wants RAs to do and what the students need them to do, even though ultimately the students are the ones paying ResLife’s wages through tuition.”
Aside from the highly variable RA-ResLife relationship, the office has a reputation for not responding in a helpful or timely manner to student needs. The ripples of this are substantial – students who went abroad in the fall of this year and requested on-campus housing did not receive their assignments until Jan. 6, resulting in many finding off-campus living instead. The reasoning behind this is unclear, as both applications for spring housing and forfeits of it are due in November, well before winter break.
“I honestly thought I was going to have to couch-surf all semester,” one junior said. “They say that everyone who applies gets housing, but when the fine print says it’s not guaranteed and you don’t hear anything until the week before school starts, it’s pretty nerve-wracking.”
The root cause of ResLife’s woes, dare I name just one, is the lack of accountability to the students. The only people calling the shots for ResLife are other Tufts administration officials. RAs are not in an empowered position – they are employees of ResLife, so they can’t take issue with certain practices without risking their jobs. This is not to say RAs should form a union and agitate for more of a say in policies, as there is far too much turnover for that because not many people are tolerant enough to do the job for more than one year, but someone should be giving ResLife student input. Technically, RAs can do that – but oftentimes, in my experience, when RAs make suggestions they get quickly overridden. The solution probably lies in a staff position for a student ombudsman to tell ResLife what is and isn’t working so they can adjust accordingly.
Of course, that is incredibly unlikely to happen. Bureaucracies in general tend to resist such changes, and ResLife in particular has a penchant for treating Tufts students with kid gloves. But, after all – one can dream.
Diane Alexander is a junior majoring in political science and a former Resident Assistant. No current RAs or other employees of the Office of Residential Life and Learning were spoken to for this article. Diane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org