Just over three weeks ago, Residential Education fired three Cedro resident assistants for drinking or smoking marijuana with their residents. How the decision was handled by ResEd, the student staff and the community itself requires that we set clearer expectations so as to avoid this moving forward.
The hazy details that have emerged from ResEd’s public relations suggest that the RAs must have broken their employment contract in one way or another. It goes without saying that on campus and under California law, it is illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to purchase alcohol and to furnish alcohol to an individual under 21. Additionally, ResEd student staff also sign a contract stating they “agree to… abide by University policies including, but not limited to, the policy on controlled substances and alcohol.”
That policy, found in Chapter 2 of the Stanford Administrative Guide, is to “maintain a drug-free workplace and campus.” Employees are prohibited from the “unlawful possession, use, or distribution of alcohol… on the Stanford campus, in the workplace or as any part of the University’s activities.” Employees are also prohibited from being under the influence while at work.
Strictly read, RAs under 21 cannot possess, consume, provide, dispense or be under the influence of any drug or alcohol while at work. Even the most minimalist definition of “work” must include the time that an RA is himself in the residence, as the presence of a dorm staff member in his own dorm is clearly a position of responsibility and authority.
Assuming that they were ‘at work’ while on ski trip, the Cedro RAs broke this contract in January, but so did every other dorm that went on a ski trip, one year or another.
We all agree that dorm staff should be role models while they are at work. ResEd emphasizes the leadership role RAs play in these communities. Koren Bakkegard, associate dean of ResEd, said their decision was not based solely on whether contracts were breached. They also included consideration of the context in which the behavior occurred and whether offending staff members can serve as a “credible role model for good judgment, decision-making, and leadership following an incident.”
What if a dorm staff member, over 21, is drinking responsibly while watching House of Cards in his room? What if the drinking occurs away from the dorm, as the Cedro RAs’ did? What if an RA drinks alcohol with a resident in another dorm, at a social event or at Thanksgiving dinner?
The oxymoron of “student staff” means that there are no hard and fast answers to these questions, and the staff member’s employment rests on whether ResEd deems them a “credible role model” after an incident.
One might argue that student staff should just never put themselves in a bad spot. Don’t drink with your residents, period. But what if everyone is 21, or the RF has condoned responsible alcohol consumption at dorm events? That different RFs have different standards for their staffs only compounds the job’s ambiguity and makes responses from ResEd more difficult to predict and less uniform across cases.
Stanford thinks of its disciplinary systems as educational, not punitive. But what can Cedro’s former staff – and dorm staffs all over campus – take away from this saga? Don’t drink while you’re at work. Though you will likely be drunk at one point or another during your time on staff, you may, or may not, be considered “at work.” If it is deemed that you were indeed “at work,” ResEd can also deem whether or not you are still a good role model in your community.
Perhaps this is already progress. Given that staff drink with their residents all over campus – not least in upperclass housing and on the Row – clarification of the contract’s exact strictures is necessary. The Fountain Hopper argued that the fired RAs were being “made an example of.” Perhaps we can, in some way, learn from their example.
But ResEd’s decision has been overwhelmingly punitive. Yes, three staff members broke the rules. But ResEd itself has admitted their disciplinary policy is inconsistently administered, leading to confusion all over campus about where staff members must draw the line. Three weeks ago, ResEd followed up on a list of dorms that were named as having also broken the alcohol policy over ski trip; trust in these communities has frayed as residents and staff alike have search for “rats” to scapegoat. Needless to say, the Cedro community is irreparably damaged.
Sudden intervention from above, with no accountability and no answers, is antithetical to Residential Education’s mission. “One of the things I enjoy about Stanford is that we respect our students and treat them as adults,” said Deborah Golder, ResEd’s dean, in 2009. “We have faith that our students will make good choices. Sometimes they won’t. Then we intervene with educational resources so that they don’t make the same mistakes again.”
However, instead of clarifying the RA contract, answering resident questions and publicizing the results of their investigation – in other words, educating – ResEd has chosen to punish the Cedro community. Despite this, it has overlooked the underlying structural problems that led to this behavior; it has certainly ignored its own role in unevenly enforcing ambiguous contracts over a diverse set of circumstances.
ResEd must see from the ensuing chaos – both in Cedro and elsewhere – that it made the wrong choice.
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