Some traditions have been around for so long that inertia makes it difficult to significantly alter them in any meaningful way.
This phenomenon has presented problems for Stanford’s residential staff roles: resident assistants (RAs), peer health educators (PHEs) and resident computer consultants (RCCs). The responsibilities and job structure in place for each of these positions have been in place for many decades. The RCC role, for instance, was instituted in 1987, when computers were, for many students, still a foreign concept. In the 1980s, it made sense to have a dorm staffer specialize in troubleshooting technical problems and providing basic computer literacy to residents.
Not so much in 2017. Now, students arrive at the University likely having used computers for most of their lives, and the official responsibility of RCCs doesn’t extend much beyond refilling printer paper and rubber-stamping wireless network connections.
The PHE program has been around for almost as long, and parts of the role are similarly irrelevant today. With a wealth of health knowledge at our fingertips via the Internet, there isn’t a clear need for a fully specialized, health-themed staff position.
This, along with equity and efficiency concerns, brings us to a necessary and overdue change to the residential staff positions present at most dorms on campus: Remove the specialist roles of RCC and PHE, and replace them with computer- and health-focused RAs.
In making this recommendation, we have to acknowledge that today, especially in freshman dorms, RCCs and PHEs perform many of the same duties that RAs do, ranging from monitoring the well-being of residents to providing advice and referrals. Many of us can likely recall a PHE or RCC who helped us through a personal trauma, guided us through a mental crisis or otherwise made a difference in our lives. If PHEs and RCCs in practice have many of the same responsibilities as RAs, the official distinction between roles serves little purpose and can even serve to create an unhealthy hierarchy between positions, where some opinions are valued less than others in residential staff discussions and residents respect certain staff positions more.
This also raises the issue of pay equality, a controversial subject that led to some dorms not hiring PHEs this school year. Although Vaden announced it would give PHEs a pay raise starting in the 2017-18 academic year, the promised $3,075 stipend still pales in comparison to the $10,000 figure RAs receive and the $7,000 figure RCCs receive. People should be paid less only if they produce less or lower quality work. For PHEs, neither of these seems to be true. The ASSU’s mental health survey from 2015 found that about three-quarters of students said that they or a friend had talked to a PHE for counseling in regard to stress, academic pressures, depression or anxiety. And, in many dorms, PHEs are treated and viewed like RAs already. “The residents generally don’t distinguish between PHEs and RAs or RCCs when they are looking for someone to talk to,” one resident fellow told The Daily in February.
Viewing the situation from the other end, there are many responsibilities currently delegated to RCCs and PHEs that would be better off shared among all residential staff. Refilling printer paper, approving network connections, providing care for minor ailments and advising residents on sexual health are all tasks that RAs can and should be trained to do. Shifts in responsibility like this among all staffers would be more efficient, and it makes sense. Your RCC won’t be in the dorm all day and all night, and another staff member can probably refill the printer paper more quickly.
This isn’t to say that PHEs and RCCs offer no specialized function. Each of these roles also features unique responsibilities – just not enough to warrant a separate role, especially given the aforementioned shortcomings of complete specialization. This is why the Editorial Board believes that replacing the positions with two additional RAs who, in addition to RA functions like being on call and building dorm communities, choose to take on the more dedicated duties of the former PHE and RCC positions. The health-focused RA in each dorm, for example, would take the Vaden PHE training class, manage messages from the current PHE email list and organize health-related events and campaigns for the dorm. The computer-focused RA would take the current mandated RCC course, keep inventory for the computer clusters and monitor internet connectivity. This RA would also put on classes or events relating to more complex technical skills like UNIX tricks, graphic design or multimedia.
The RAs taking on these additional responsibilities would be paid an additional stipend for their efforts. Vaden could use its freed funds from the PHE program to pay the health-focused RA stipend, whereas the Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning (VPTL) could do the same for the computer-focused RA. The difference is that duties which should be undertaken by all (refilling printer paper) versus those which should be undertaken by a specialist (teaching Photoshop in a dorm class) would be more efficiently divided.
There’s evidence that the RA-plus-specialization role would work. Due to the PHE boycott, Cedro, Junipero, Arroyo, Trancos, Twain and Larkin each hired an additional RA in place of the foregone PHE. In Cedro, one RA took on the responsibilities a PHE would normally have, and the resident fellows indicated that they were satisfied with the arrangement.
One potential issue that could impede a transition to this system is the current distribution of funding for each residential staff role. Vaden handles payment of PHEs, VPTL disburses the RCC stipend, and ResEd funds the RA position. Since the proposed RA-plus-specialization structure would eliminate a separate PHE and RCC role, the University would have to shift funding between Vaden, VPTL and ResEd to achieve the desired effect. Funding to ResEd would likely have to increase in any case, given the higher stipend for RAs versus that for PHEs and RCCs. Still, our school has deep coffers, and, bureaucratic friction notwithstanding, we believe it’s within the University’s financial capabilities to navigate such a shift.
We can’t let our attachment to institutions that have worked in many prior instances cloud our judgment as to how effective the roles themselves are and could be under a different structure.
Times have changed, and there is no longer a compelling reason to keep isolated specialist roles in the PHE and RCC.
Will Ferrer abstained from this editorial.