RAs SPEAK OUT: ResLife has become mismanaged workplace

unnamedLate one night — as many on campus traveled in packs to nearby bars, reveling in carefree abandon and the fleeting pleasures of alcohol — a first-year resident assistant at Rose Hill was desperately banging on the locked door of a student who had written a farewell note and appeared ready to die.

A small group of friends gathered around the door. Tears flowed. Seconds felt like minutes, minutes like years. 

Finally, the door swung open and the student on the other side, who had a history of depression and was eyeing a bottle of prescription medication, insisted that she was fine. Public Safety officials burst into the room and the incident was quickly and quietly resolved. (Specific details of events have been withheld to protect the identities of the students involved.)

It went from a scene of horror to one of strange calm in a matter of minutes, the RA recalled.

The building was quiet again, but the RA couldn’t shake the harrowing experience. The resident director on duty at the time briefly checked in, but the RA said she was neither debriefed nor contacted by the resident director of her building.

“It was as though it didn’t happen,” the RA told Fordham Daily.

Despite school protocol that requires resident directors to regularly check in with their building’s RAs, particularly after dealing with high-stress situations, this RA said she was left completely in the dark. As the days passed, the aftermath of the near-death incident didn’t get any easier to swallow — and the RA’s attempts to speak with superiors about the resulting emotional discomfort fell on deaf ears.

In fact, when the RA sought help from higher-level staff at Residential Life, she said she was scolded for jumping the chain of command.

“It felt suffocating because it was made clear that I had no resource for making this job any emotionally easier,” the RA said. “At the same time, if I was fired, I wouldn’t be able to put myself through school.”

RAs at Fordham receive free room and board, which is between $15,000 and $18,000 for a year’s worth of housing and Sodexo meal plan. RAs who live in apartments with kitchens receive a $2,100 check to be put toward food.

While still trying to mend this emotional wound, the RA said she continued to work on the front lines of other high-stress situations both professionally and personally. Slowly she fell into a depression and independently sought psychological counseling on campus.

“I wasn’t leaving [my dorm] and I didn’t want to make plans,” the RA said. “I was going to class, but I dropped most of my extracurriculars. This was a part of my life where I didn’t see my friends.”

Jeffrey Ng, director of Fordham’s Counseling and Psychological Services, confirmed that resident assistants have independently sought professional counseling on campus. 

“The role of being an RA can be taxing and strenuous, and we want them to know there are support services available,” he told Fordham Daily

Ng said he was not aware of whether Residential Life encourages RAs to seek psychological help after handling crises. “When we work with RAs during their training, we let them know that just because they’re an RA doesn’t mean they can’t use our services,” he added.

But a few weeks later, the RA took to social media and, in a moment of weakness, unloaded some pent-up frustration. (The brief post included an expletive, did not mention Fordham and was meant to be a joke, the RA said.)

Finally, Residential Life reached out. 

“Kim saw that you [wrote] this, and wants to know if you’re having anger issues,” the RA’s resident director said, referring to Kimberly Russell, assistant dean of students and director of Residential Life.

The RA was speechless. She was not connected with Russell on any social media networks, and is still unsure of how the post was highlighted so quickly.

This story is not an isolated one, current and former employees say. An apparently increasing number of RAs at Rose Hill say they have come to expect an uncomfortable combination of professional neglect and personal surveillance from top-level Residential Life staffers, particularly after handling crises.

In another example, an on-duty RA raced across campus last year after hearing that a resident with a known history of depression was having a panic attack and threatening to commit suicide.

The RA was able to reach the student before the situation escalated, but again the occurrence — and the RA’s well-being — went largely unchecked. The resident director on duty — who the RA described as “particularly compassionate” — reached out later, but the RA never heard from their building’s resident director or any other Residential Life staffer.

“For a situation like that where you have a possible suicide on your hands, where you’re talking to someone and trying to talk them off the ledge, that’s a big deal,” the RA told Fordham Daily. “As a first-year RA, if you get some of those really intense and stressful situations, you’re going to burn out.”

Since Russell took control of the department in 2011, hiring statistics show Residential Life at Rose Hill has seen an uptick in staffing turnover, leaving seats frequently vacant. Insiders have speculated that the frequent staffing changes have negatively impacted the support and attention given to the 95 student workers who serve as RAs at Rose Hill.

This has, in turn, forced many students to turn to each other for counsel, instead of their bosses.

“I have seen other RAs who did not have a support system, and you have to reach out as a friend more than a coworker,” an RA said.

But a disregard for emotional and logistical support appears to be only the tip of the iceberg.

Current and former Residential Life employees at Rose Hill charge that the department has become a dysfunctional workplace — plagued by mistrust among staff, debilitating fear and widespread mismanagement — fostered largely at the hands of Director Kimberly Russell.

Fordham Daily has spent the past six months investigating Residential Life at Rose Hill by reviewing documents and interviewing several current and former employees, including resident assistants and professional staff. Because administrators have told employees that speaking negatively about the school in public is a fireable offense — and because the Student Affairs field is relatively tight-knit — most sources spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Lack of Oversight

Alongside handling high-stress situations as they arise, RAs at Fordham are tasked with a number of clerical tasks, including decorating bulletin boards, holding office hours and organizing programs for residents. But the job doesn’t end when they get off duty or leave the residence hall office.

RAs interviewed for this article complained that their responsibilities are not clearly defined and miscellaneous tasks often fall under the blanket contract clause that is paraphrased: “Be responsible for the well-being of your residents.”

The job is constant and never-ending, and often takes precedence over other aspects of the student workers’ lives. One third-year RA summed it up by saying, “You’re an RA first, a student second and then a human being third.”

Several RAs described the responsibilities of the job as having a clear academic cost.

One RA described how he went from having a cumulative GPA of 3.8 to 3.4, in large part because of the 24/7 stress that goes along with the job.

“When I’m studying, I’m thinking, ‘Did I do that? Did I do that?’” he said. “That kind of thinking is not conducive to being productive in other facets of your life.”

While serving as an RA at every college is an intensive and often rewarding experience, students say taking on the role at Fordham is unique — and not in a positive way.

“Here you’re just [seen] as an RA,” a student said, noting the difficulty that goes along with enforcing relatively strict alcohol and guest pass policies that are often not fully explained to student workers. “I’ve lost a lot of friends through this job.”

Too frequently, RAs say, top-level staffers do not provide student workers with an outlet to speak freely, in search of help or clarification, fostering a widespread feeling of dissatisfaction. From the point of view of some RAs, there appears to be no checks and balances system functioning within the department.

“They tell us this is a real job, they tell us we need to be an RA all the time, but they don’t give us the resources that a real job has,” a former RA said. “With a job that is emotionally challenging, they really should do that.”

Another former RA said the job is not unreasonable, but the lack of accountability by top staffers makes it very difficult.

“Why don’t we have Human Resources? Because if we did, HR would come back and say fire Kim Russell,” a former RA said.

Managing With Fear

unnamedOn top of the pressures and responsibilities of being an RA, some student workers say there is an added burden within Russell’s Residential Life operation: the ever-present worry of losing employment, which for some means a Fordham diploma.

“We shouldn’t have to be scared of Kim Russell,” an RA said. “She goes from one extreme to the next and can be very unpredictable. Some days, she’s bright and your best friend. But the next day you’re on her blacklist. And if you get the sense that you’re on her blacklist, you live in this constant state of fear.”

Aside from Russell’s management style, students interviewed for this article say it is her personality that does not mesh well with the principles for which the department is supposed to strive. Fordham is values-based, but insiders say Residential Life has become an office that largely operates by way of threats and closed doors.

Kim Russell

Kim Russell

“It is extremely un-Jesuit,” a former RA said. “We are taught throughout training to uphold these Jesuit values [in Residential Life] as much as you would for Campus Ministry or Dorothy Day. This is a clear tactic, that you can’t question anybody.”

“We signed up for this job. We know what it entails,” added a current RA. “Talk to us if we need to do more or go the extra mile or fix something, but I shouldn’t have to live in fear.”

“Once you become battered down with all this negativity, you don’t feel as readily able, capable and willing to do your job to the fullest,” another RA said.

Relief appears distant. Most student workers said they need the job in order to stay enrolled at Fordham. Some have even said Residential Life takes advantage of RAs because it knows that given the high tuition price tag, it can get away with it.

“They are distinctively dangling a $15,000 carrot in front of us, and I think Kim Russell sleeps with that information under her pillow,” a former RA said. “Like, ‘I hold these kids’ futures in my hand.’” 

Accusations of Espionage

Sources say that behind closed doors, Russell has a long history of using Grindr, a popular dating app used solely to romantically connect gay men, on her school-issued iPad, which has raised eyebrows among staff.

“She is either looking for staff or students who identify as gay,” said a former staffer, who worked closely with Russell at Fordham. “Between monitoring her staff or identifying students and staff, there was no good reason for her to have this on her work iPad.” 

“I felt upset and horrified that this was a leader at Fordham and in the field of Student Affairs,” the staffer continued. 

Screen Shot 2015-04-19 at 9.47.11 PMUniversity administrators have been aware of this since the 2013-14 school year when a photo displaying the app installed on Russell’s device was submitted to Fordham’s Human Resources Department, a source said.

“This type of oversight goes against everything our field stands for,” the staffer said.

Insiders say it’s possible Russell had installed the app in an effort to keep track of Residential Life’s shifting social media policy after one staff member was “found” by a student on the app. But the discovery was troubling to those who knew about it, and a full explanation has not been given.

When told about Russell’s alleged social media snooping, one RA responded: “It’s another thing to add to the list.”

Revolving Door of Staff

Since Russell became director in 2011, as many as 15 professional staffers — of which 10 were resident directors — have left (or plan to leave) their positions after spending a year or less at Fordham, according to an analysis of hiring data.

Staffing changes are routine at college Residential Life offices around the country — graduate students often serve as resident directors — but the rate of staffing turnover appears to have spiked under Russell’s watch.

“This has left a large pool of resident directors who haven’t even made it through a full year working with her,” said a former staffer. “The resident director job sees a lot of turnover, but a one-year turnover is rare — unless you’re at Fordham.”

The most recent departure came last week when Brittany Iwaszkiw Story, associate director of Residential Life for Student Conduct, submitted her resignation after being on the job since August 2014, according to sources in Residential Life. (Story did not respond to a request for comment.)

In trying to fill the staffing holes, more Residential Life employees have been weighed down with added responsibilities in recent years.

“Because of this huge turnover rate, I feel like we’re ending up with the leftovers,” an RA said. “It’s not a happy place to be a part of — it’s just not.”

When it comes to hiring — both professional staff and RAs — many say it helps to be friends with Russell.

“She often hires people before they go through an interview process,” a former staffer said. “There are several staff members who were former students that she loved and made sure they had jobs, despite the worries and concerns of the rest of the office.”

(At least two students from the Classes of 2013 and 2014 are current Residential Life employees.)

Russell is said to share meals with a select few RAs and one or more members of the Residence Halls Association, a student programming group on campus.

“She’ll take you out for lunch, she’ll hang out with you in the office for hours on end,” an RA said. The advantage? “It’s knowing that your position is secure.” 

In addition to displaying overt favoritism when hiring certain candidates, insiders say Russell has fostered an acrimonious internal work environment.

“She has been known to badmouth other resident directors on the staff, sometimes in public forums, such as staff meetings or in front of large groups,” a former staffer said.

In addition, Russell has been known to express crude staffing frustrations in work-related correspondence. One former staffer provided Fordham Daily with screenshots of text messages in which Russell went on profane rants about an RA who decided not to reapply for hire (left) and a resident director who pulled out of consideration for a job (right). Russell’s messages are in gray.

Screen Shot 2015-04-27 at 12.26.03 AMLooking in the Rearview

Questions, not regrets, linger on the minds of those who have devoted much of their college careers to being an RA.

“This job has been a great experience, but I’ve always wondered what my Fordham experience would have been like without it,” a senior RA said. “Would I have enjoyed it more? Would I have been able to do other things with my time?” 

For others, there is a bright light at the end of the tunnel.

“I know a lot of senior RAs who are more looking forward to the day when they are no longer officially an RA than they are to their graduation day,” another senior RA said. “That will be more exciting than walking up and getting my diploma.”

Most RAs said they wanted the job for the financial help, but they also said students should not have to choose between maintaining their personal well-being and earning money. The seniors interviewed say they worry for the underclassmen who will be stepping into the jobs soon.

“Being an RA for three years, I’ve seen ResLife start to go down the drain,” an RA said. “It’s gone further and further into dysfunction, and not the organization that made me want to apply and made me want to be an RA.”

Response of Administrators

RAs say that because Jeffrey Gray, senior vice president for Student Affairs, has told them that speaking out against Residential Life or the University is a fireable offense, many feel uncomfortable bringing their concerns forward — and when they do, they are often dismissed.

unnamed-1(In fact, some RAs declined to be interviewed for this article in fear of losing their jobs.)

Just this year, at least two members of Residential Life’s professional staff have approached Christopher Rodgers, dean of students at Rose Hill, expressing problems they had with Russell’s management, a source inside Residential Life said.

“Rodgers just shut them down,” the source said. He has been accused of being “blindly defensive” of Russell since she got the top job.

“If people had the time to sit and listen, and if we had the ability to speak out more, people would realize this is something that really does need to change,” an RA said.

All of the current employees interviewed for this article said they believe the only way to reverse the course of the department and repair the workflow would be to replace Russell.

“If someone had told her, ‘You need to fix this, this is not appropriate behavior,’ she could have stayed around,” an RA said. “People have tried to give that feedback, but it’s just been shut down. I feel like there’s not going to be any significant changes unless she’s not here — the image and understanding of ResLife is centered around Kim Russell.”

Russell and Gray declined to be interviewed by Fordham Daily. Rodgers did not comment. When asked to meet, Gray sent a brief comment through Rodgers.

“We don’t comment on personnel matters, but we of course follow up on all complaints that are brought to our attention,” Gray said. “Residential Life professionals are charged with some of the most challenging roles on any campus — leading very large staffs for whom there must be high expectations and overseeing challenging processes such as student conduct.”

“Complaints naturally arise from time to time,” he continued. “We will act on any that are substantiated.”

But for the RA who said she never received help from Residential Life after assisting a suicidal resident, closure never came and she ultimately left the job.

“They were going to push me as far as they possibly could,” she said.

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