Former HRL staffers report lack of support, high turnover rate

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Former HRL staffers report lack of support, high turnover rate

Emily Carmichael, Print News Editor

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There are six vacant positions among the Tulane Housing and Residence Life professional staff out of 22 positions, according to the HRL website.

A few former professional staffers and residential advisors expressed their frustrations with HRL ranging from a lack of communication to a poor work-life balance. Brian Johnson, assistant vice president of student affairs for Housing and Residence Life, heard these frustrations and has begun addressing them since his July 2015 start date.

“We have our work cut out…,” Johnson said. “We’re only going to continue to get better, but we’re years in the making, unfortunately. It’s a process, but Tulane is a special place. HRL needs to make the experience even better. That’s what we’re here for. That’s our job.”

Associate Director for Residential Education Danielle Klein attributes the concerns to the nature of the entry-level, live-in work in housing and said it is a trend across many universities. Resident advisors and professional staff who recently left housing, however, said it is additionally due to the stressful work environment in HRL created in part by a disconnect between central HRL administration and those below them that do more hands-on work in residence halls.

The entry-level nature of the residential director positions often lead to high turnover rates that in turn limits change.

Gabriella Noa Betancourt, a former RA in Willow Residences and former senior resident advisor in Warren Hall and Mayer Residences who worked in housing from 2013 to 2015, saw this disconnect as she attempted to give HRL administration feedback through committees.

“The professional staff members that were sitting in on those committees left,” Betancourt said. “So there’s not continuity and accountability because people just leave the department.”

The nature of working as residence hall staff is that employees often live where they work. They are first responders to conflicts and problems in residences halls, dealing with situations ranging from alcohol violations to mental health issues on their floors.

“Living on, being on call and dealing with crisis, it can be a lot,” Klein said. “And so making sure that we work with our staff to have a sense of balance is important, so if we all support each other it becomes easier to do.”

While this is essential to the job and employees accept this dynamic when they are hired, some former professional staff and RAs felt HRL unfairly assigned last-minute tasks or seemingly random tasks that they did not understand the purpose behind.

Noa Betancourt cited the example of mid-semester room checks that were assigned last semester and to be done on what she said was a week’s notice.

“It’s really difficult when you are not really told what your role is,” Noa Betancourt said. “And then, on top of that, whenever the department feels like it, they’ll add a random task that you have to do.”

When the former professional staff and RAs tried to have a conversation with central HRL administration about their concerns or job experience, they had a hard time communicating with the central administration.

One former professional staff member found the work environment to be so stressful that when she developed severe mental health problems she felt they were connected.

“In my experience, in housing departments we really try to take care of each other … [but] at Tulane it was more pushed under the rug,” the former professional staff member said. “When I reached out and I said that I am potentially at the point of being suicidal, that wasn’t addressed, despite all the issues we had on campus last year.”

Particularly among RAs, employees of HRL said they were afraid to voice their complaints because they feared losing their jobs.

Noa Betancourt said that many RAs depend on their job in order to be able to afford their education at Tulane. RAs are employed under an “at-will” contract, meaning HRL can fire them at any time for any reason.

“It’s kind of an abusive relationship in a lot of ways, because you have these students — a lot of them have a lot of financial need and are really grateful for the opportunity to have the RA job,” Noa Betancourt said.

The re-application process adds to job security concerns for RAs. Former RAs said they did not understand the process, and worried that they would not be rehired for the job they depended on if they upset a member of HRL by speaking up about a concern.

Klein addressed the concern for transparency. Klein, who is in charge of training and recruitment for RAs and professional staff, said HRL is trying to improve in these areas with initiatives like committees.

“It’s possible that we haven’t been as transparent as we could be,” Klein said. “On the flip side, we’re trying to be as transparent as we could be.”

In his time at Tulane, Johnson has worked to create a culture in HRL that is more transparent, communicative and people-centered.

This past semester, Johnson, in a move that he credits to the cooperation of the university, Dining Services and Sodexo, increased the meal plan of RAs so they could live more comfortably on campus. The plan changed from 8 swipes a week and $250 in Wavebucks to 14 meal swipes a week and $150 in Wavebucks.

“It was the right thing to do,” Johnson said. “I heard from RAs that they weren’t getting focus on taking care of themselves, and that’s not what we’re about.”

Outside of their experience with HRL administration, some RAs said they gained invaluable work experience, personal skills and friendships from their work and enjoyed many aspects of their job.

“Honestly, my time in housing, apart from dealing with the bullshit, was really great,” said one former RA who asked to remain anonymous. “I got so much experience dealing with people, not only in the professional sense, but just on a personal sense, knowing how to navigate all those situations was really valuable.”

Johnson hopes that under his leadership, he can create positive change within HRL so people will want to stay in their jobs. This includes improvements in training, the addition of a Counseling and Psychological Services RA support group, a shift in RA culture and more.

“It’s a transition,” Johnson said.  “We’re peeling back the layers of what it takes to get to the ground level of what a good housing residence program is. … It’s going to take us a little time but hopefully in the near term, people will understand that we’ve got our hearts in the right place and that we’re moving in the right direction.”

Editor’s note: The names of a few sources in this article have been left out to protect the identity of the source.