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Residential Life Task Force
 

STRUCTURE OF RESIDENCE LIFE STAFFING

The Structure of Residence Life Subcommittee (Jeannine Belton, associate dean of residence life, chair; Maura Ambuter '04, house community advisor; Rae-Anne Butera, assistant dean of student affairs; Soda M. Lo, president of the class of 2005; and Tom Riddell, associate dean of the college and dean of the first year class) was asked to evaluate questions with regard to the structure of residence life staff (current structure is shown in Appendix 9). These questions include:

What residence life staffing model is most appropriate to address student needs and achieve the desired educational outcomes associated with the residential life experience?

What is the most appropriate relationship between residence life staff and elected student house leaders in order to achieve the educational mission of residence life?

Members of the subcommittee, building on the work of the mission subcommittee, determined that the residence life staff must support the educational mission of residence life in the following ways:

Provide experiences that support students’ growth and development as scholars, citizens, co-workers and friends.

Prompt students to challenge their ideas and beliefs through exposure to individual, racial, cultural, religious, moral and political differences.

Create opportunities for students to be actively involved in the Smith community and beyond, while supporting their need for solitude and reflection.

Assist students in managing and resolving conflict as well as helping them learn how to live with disagreement and ambiguity when no resolution to disagreement is possible.

Foster students’ acknowledgement of their interdependence and responsibility to one another as well as their independence.

Current Conditions
House life today operates under two parallel systems. One is the elected student leadership of each house, in place since 1942, which includes the House President and many other elected positions. The second is the system of paid residence life staff, including student Head Residents, House Community Advisers and House Coordinators, and professional Residence Coordinators and Area Coordinators. The elected student leadership, under the House Presidents, is connected to the Student Government Association since the "Head of HPs" sits on the SGA cabinet. The paid staff reports to the Associate Dean of Residence Life, which is an office of the Dean of Students. The parallel system has produced tensions and confusion over the years in terms of appropriate roles and authority. Smith students and administration have struggled with the appropriate balance between the desire of students to govern themselves and the college's responsibility to administer a safe, educationally relevant housing system.

Findings and Observations

Residence Life Surveys
Members of the subcommittee reviewed residence life related surveys conducted in 1999 and 2000 (by the office of residential life) to obtain historical data about students’ perceptions of the residence life staff and house presidents. The surveys show that many students were satisfied with the work of the residence life staff and the house presidents. However, in each year a significant number of students (typically hovering around 30%) expressed dissatisfaction or no opinion about the effectiveness of the residence life staff and/or house presidents. Further, the survey responses about the effectiveness of elected house leadership and residence life staff were essentially the same, attesting to a blurring of responsibilities and roles. This blurring of roles and responsibilities lies at the heart of tensions between the structure of the house governance system and residential life staff, and contributes to student dissatisfaction with both. At issue here, for example, is leadership in the house community vs. accountability and enforcement of policy.

Focus Group Findings
In mid-January the subcommittee conducted three focus groups with the residence life staff. The first focus group contained the six professional staff (assistant director, housing coordinator and four area coordinators); the second group contained the 10 part-time residence coordinators staff; and the third group contained student staff (a total of 15 head residents, house coordinators and house community advisors). The focus groups findings include:

Concerns about the structure and operation of the house governance system and residence life staff and the tension between elected house leaders and residence life staff. This tension stems from blurred roles and responsibilities and conflict as to who is or should be in control.

Issues about student and professional staff recruitment and retention were identified. In part, retention concerns arise from the structure of staff positions. (For example, only seniors are allowed to apply for the 17 head resident positions, which produces a 100% turnover rate each year. Attracting and retaining residence coordinators in 13 part-time positions has been difficult for the last few years, although improvements in the salary and benefits in this past year have addressed this to some degree. The part-time nature of the position is perceived to be less attractive to current staff, however.)

High staff turnover has increased the need for training beyond the capacity of the department.

Staff at all levels express concern about the adequacy of staff positions in terms of the ratio of student staff to students, and professional staff to students. There are significant differences in the size of areas (supervised by area coordinators) and houses (supervised by residence coordinators or head residents), resulting in disparity in staff responsibilities for similar positions.

The majority of staff perceived that the role and responsibility of the residence life staff and the residence life department as a whole, while valued, is not well understood by students or the larger Smith community.

Other Staff Observations
A number of individuals with responsibility for student life offered observations of the residence life system garnered over time. These include class deans, dean of students, dean of the college, student affairs staff and others. Most have found Smith’s residential system to be unique and cherished by students. Its 36 separate houses have a long tradition of self-governance. The role of professional residential life staff was developed much later and in parallel to the “self governance” system. Since the abandonment of the “house mother” system in the 1970s, staff and students have struggled with an appropriate balance between the desire for students to govern themselves and the college’s responsibility to administer the residential life system.

The struggle for this balance, and the parallel and sometimes competing staff and governance structures, yields outcomes that reduce the quality of residential life. A significant minority of resident students report finding the houses unappealing, in that they allow a “politically correct” student culture to flourish, while at the same time affording inadequate education and conversation about differences. Insufficient attention is given to managing the conflict that often arises from these differences.

The transition for first year students to the house system is particularly challenging. Student-generated programming is in place to help new students learn about the perceived house culture and tradition but relatively little effort has been devoted to helping students appreciate and understand the differences that new students bring and the changes to house culture they might desire. First year students—especially those who decide to transfer to other colleges—describe an experience that is far from the democratic ideal of respectful disagreement and critical thought brought to bear on the problems of individuality and community. Rather, they describe a stultifying community where debate is discouraged and conflict avoided. At worst, the house system borders on operating like a sorority system. If you don’t “make it,” you may be ostracized. The hidden effect of Smith’s housing and dining structure, with its competing elected house leadership and residence life staff structure, is to create 36 intense, exclusive, decentralized sub-communities.

Summary

The central challenge for the subcommittee was to assess whether a different staffing structure (including roles/responsibilities, scope of responsibility, compensation, etc.) could be readily identified that would better meet the educational mission of residential life. Given the range, magnitude, and history of concerns elicited by the research efforts, such a model could not be identified at this point. The subcommittee urges that a more comprehensive assessment, one that also considers recommendations contained elsewhere in this report (i.e., theme-living and housing options and changes to the lottery system) will be necessary.

Proposals of the Structure of Residence Life Staff Subcommittee

Basic Tenets:

Affirm the necessary and unique functions of professional and student residence life staff and elected house leaders in contributing to an educationally purposeful residence life environment.

Ensure that residence life staff and elected house leaders have responsibilities and a scope of authority consistent with their complementary roles, training and/or academic preparation, student and institutional needs.

Ensure that the workload of student and professional staff is fairly distributed and expectations are appropriate.

Recommendations:

  1. Address the wide variations in residence life staff responsibilities, aiming particularly at achieving a more equitable and manageable distribution of students/houses/staff supervised. This will require analysis of staff responsibilities, number and type of staff needed, staff training and development requirements, and the level of resources allocated in light of the characteristics of students and student life at Smith.
  2. Address the historic tension between residence life staff and elected house leadership by clarifying the roles and responsibilities of each within the context of the educational mission of residence life.
  3. Determine the most appropriate staffing structures for the traditional house system and for current and future living options.
  4. Engage consultants knowledgeable about residence life and its purpose in a residential liberal arts college to evaluate the current organizational structure and assist in redesign efforts. We urge this be done immediately (summer and fall of 2003) so that reorganization might be implemented for AY 2004-05.
  5. Adopt into staff design and evaluation nationally recognized best practices to be responsive to the unique characteristics of Smith’s housing system and the needs of students.

Mission

Housing Options

Theme Based Living

Structure of
Residence Life
Staffing

Dining Options

Conclusion

Appendices

 
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