Last semester, an unprecedented number of House Advisors (HAs) were replaced, according to Julia Nicholson, Assistant Director of Training and Education for the Residence Life team. One of the HAs who was replaced because of their part in a disciplinary process initiated in response to actions that compromised the safety of the HA’s residents.
Many students are unaware of or indifferent to the boundaries of their relationship with their HA. However, speculation about the reasons for these replacements has called into question the power dynamic that exists between HAs and their residents and its potential to be exploited or complicate existing relationships.
Among other responsibilities, including various administrative and departmental duties, HAs are tasked with providing “non-judgmental, appropriate student support in accordance with the limitations of [the] job.” However, definitions of “appropriate student support” can vary between HAs, which can lead to confusion about the HA-resident boundary.
“During our training, ResLife does emphasize that the HA role is definitely a professional role separate from the friend role, since there can be conflict of interest when you are also a friend with one of your residents,” said Tabia Schmidt, one of the House Advisors for Westport. “But I do feel like relationship boundaries aren’t established very clearly during our monthly trainings[, which are] intentionally just to foster relationships between the HAs and their residents. We do have group sessions led by groups like SAPR, but I don’t think we’ve had a session dedicated to establishing boundaries. [That] is sort of left to us.”
Some students, like Peter Mulgrew ‘21, agree that HAs must always maintain some degree of professionalism. “I wouldn’t call them a friend,” he said, “but to me, they should be a friendly resource who helps us adjust to living on-campus and building a sense of community.”
Other students are less informed about the role of their HA. While HAs can also serve as resources for academic, health, and mental health support services, they are non-confidential and mandatory reporters. This means that they have a relatively high amount of authority over the personal information their residents choose to share.
Some students are unaware of this aspect of an HA’s role. Freshman Andy Zhao admitted that he did not know HAs were mandatory reporters until recently. “I’m sure my HA has told us that he was an obligatory reporter during one of our meetings,” he said. “But it could’ve been made more clear.”
During the HA hiring process, ResLife requires application finalists to sign a Release of Information form, which authorizes hiring managers to request educational record information typically protected by FERPA, including records protected by the Judicial Board, the Title IX/Sexual Misconduct board, the Administration Committee, as well as Medical Amnesty and AOD records. Students who have violated Reed’s college policy or Honor Principle are not eligible for the HA position.
However, a perfect record history does not guarantee how someone will act once employed, Nicholson admits. “There’s nothing we can do to prevent unforeseen reasons for leaving, such as personal reasons. We just can’t predict that when we’re hiring people.”
HA evaluations also happen every year around November and December in order to ensure that the HAs are meeting the expectations for their job, according to Nicholson. Evaluations consist of resident surveys and self evaluations. They are both used by Area Coordinators (ACs) in their formal evaluation of the HAs, which are then submitted to the Residence Life team. If evaluations point to the poor performance of a particular HA, there is a re-interview process with no guarantee of re-employment the following semester.
According to Nicholson, when HAs are temporarily suspended from their position or on a leave of absence for personal reasons, the ACs and other HAs in the area group step in to provide programming for the floor and meet with individual students. An article published in the Quest last October, however, revealed the weeks of anarchy that ensued in Scholz 2 following the removal of their HA, a time during which the lack of supervision led students to behave with “no rules and no ruling.”
In response to questions about changes being made to the HA selection process, Nicholson said that the Residence Life team “make[s] changes every year. For example, this year we’re doing the application process through Handshake and we’ve changed almost all of our interview questions in response to residents’ and HAs’ feedback.” However, none of these changes were in direct response to last semester’s incidents.
Tabia Schmidt also questioned why the Residence Life team did not put in more effort into creating an inclusive discussion between all students to clarify relationship boundaries between HAs and residents. “I know that student confidentiality must also be protected, which I’m sure is one of [ResLife’s] concerns … but the details of what happened doesn’t really need to be discussed,” said Tabia. “I just wonder why we didn’t have more conversations about this issue to understand it and prevent something like it from happening again.”
Residents voiced their own suggestions for moving forward. “In light of recent events, I think there definitely should be someone from the ResLife team who talks to us about boundaries of the [HA-resident] relationship that should not be overstepped,” says sophomore Peter Mulgrew. “If the HAs themselves emphasized these boundaries to us, it could make residents feel awkward to approach them for any problems.”