University of Iowa resident assistants demand more transparency from campus administration

Concerned resident assistants penned a letter to UI Housing and Dining that expresses disappointment at the lack of information and support provided to them by campus administration, and demands concrete plans in the event COVID-19 causes the UI to close.


Ashley Morris

Hillcrest as seen on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017. Hillcrest is one of the University of Iowa’s Residence Halls.

Rachel Schilke, News Reporter

In an open letter to the University of Iowa Housing and Dining and campus administration, resident assistants expressed concern and uncertainty about how the school year will operate in the residence halls amid the COVID-19 pandemic and demanded more transparency from UI leadership.

Among the concerns listed in the letter, resident assistants said they were afraid of losing their sole source of income, housing, and meals, in the event the university has to close down residence halls and send students home due to the pandemic.

“We’re scared,” the letter stated. “Not only are we risking our lives to support students in your residence halls during a pandemic, but the question looms on whether we would even become reasonably compensated for such duties.”

Resident assistants who penned the letter added that many of them come from disadvantaged backgrounds or have family members who are at high risk for contracting COVID-19, and said they wanted clear answers as to how the UI would assist students who depend upon the stipends and amenities provided by the position.

The assistants called the university’s failure to address their concerns “ironic,” considering Residence Education’s promise to support and implement diversity, equity, and inclusion within residence halls. The letter included six requests of the UI Housing and Dining team to be completed before and during resident assistants’ move into the residence halls:

  • Personally responding to resident assistants (RAs) who voiced frustrations and fears
  • Legally committing to paying RAs the stipend promised for the 2020-2021 school year
  • Officially including RA representatives in decision-making processes regarding residence hall living for the 2020-2021 school year
  • Formulating a sustainable, accessible, and binding contract between RAs and the UI promising to provide stipends and explanations of financial security
  • Revising RA duties that require calling the police for non-violent violations and overall reduce police presence within the residence halls
  • Re-evaluating the effectiveness of the plan to enforce safety and COVID-19 related requirements in the residence halls

UI Dean of Students Angie Reams said while the UI does not anticipate students will need to leave campus due to COVID-19, resident assistants will continue to receive housing and meals in the event that they do. Whether or not they receive their stipend will depend on the UI Human Resources guidelines that all UI employees are subject to, she added.

Reams said she understands a lot of resident assistants do not have the option to return home if the UI closes campus, so resources will be provided for them to remain.

She said safety for resident assistants is top priority, and they will be accommodated with embedded counselors within residence education, the Center for Diversity and Enrichment, and the Office of Student Life.

“We have shifted a lot of policies and created defining roles to make sure [resident assistants] are not making hard choices about their safety,” Reams said. “We are working closely with RAs to support their decisions and we have additional students as alternatives to serve in the RA role if the decline in RAs continues.”

In their letter to UI administration, resident assistants said many of them have resigned and are frantically looking for off-campus housing due to the lack of communication and support from UI Housing and Dining and Residence Education.

Reams said she has not seen a significant decrease in resident assistants, however.

RELATED: University of Iowa prepares for students to return to on-campus living by adapting residence, dining halls

UI Director of Residence Education Greg Thompson said the letter from resident assistants was not a surprise, and he knew the planning and information given was coming at a slower pace than desired.

Some of the frustration may have stemmed from Residence Education not addressing individual concerns on an online form and holding a general open town hall instead, he said.

“Right now, our concerns are to ask the resident assistants, ‘What is it you need?’” Thompson said. “We want to know how we can continue to let them know that we will work with them to make sure they feel secure and safe.”

He said Residence Education has worked to modify resident-assistant requirements to ensure their safety and convert many in-person interactions to a virtual platform, including check-ins with residents, floor meetings, and social events.

“A lot of the RA job is making that face-to-face contact with their residents,” he said. “Instead of dropping in, we will find some virtual ways to connect residents, like sharing films virtually, online game experience, and other ideas. We have gone through what we have asked RAs to do, and if we are prioritizing health and safety, RAs do not have to make a hard decision.”

UI junior and former resident assistant Joseph Haggarty said he did not resign due to COVID-19, but felt more confident in his decision not to return to the position in the fall after hearing about a lack of information around the virus provided to his fellow RAs.

With the coronavirus requiring many in-person activities to move online, Haggarty said he would be concerned about fostering a community with the residents on his floor and is worried for residents’ mental health if they are to remain in their rooms for the majority of their stay.

“When RA training begins, it is going to be very [important] to train students to deal with residents and have those critical conversations about what to do when someone tests positive,” Haggerty said. “What are the contingency plans? What [do we] do if the UI shuts down, what will be the number of students that catch COVID-19 before we have to go online, what will quarantine situations look like? At the end of the day, the lack of transparency is the cause for a lot of students not wanting to return to their position.”

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