Opinion guest column

RLAD process not a failure

Many claims about the AD process grossly exaggerated

The process of implementing Residential Life Area Directors (RLADs or ADs) has been criticized by certain undergraduates, recently culminating in an editorial in The Tech on August 31, 2012. While we are glad to see The Tech encouraging a warm welcome for our ADs, we believe that many claims about the AD process are grossly exaggerated or even inaccurate. While not perfect, the process has been neither unacceptable nor “disturbing.” In fact, it has had considerable student involvement, and we urge students to continue to actively participate in shaping the AD into a successful new support role at MIT.

We would like to start by addressing several of the major criticisms we’ve heard from some students:

There was insufficient student involvement.

Next House’s AD selection and implementation has been both engaging and collaborative. Shortly after the “leak,” our Housemasters actively approached the Next House President to discuss the impact of this role on Next. In this meeting, they jointly came to an agreement that this role would be valuable for the community. Interviewers were soon appointed and remained actively involved throughout the hiring process. In fact, after the interviews were complete, the Next Exec interviewers, the GRTs, and Housemasters independently agreed on the candidates that would be the best fit for our house.

Each dorm government involved was given the opportunity to appoint two interviewers. Even dorms that chose not to have ADs this year were invited to participate in the interviews. After the interviews, each dorm was able to choose ADs based on cultural congruence and experience. This administrative decision respected both student input and diversity of dorm cultures.

Admittedly, our example is specific to one dorm. We cannot speak for all the involved dorms, but Next House serves as a concrete example of how the process provided ample room for student involvement.

The process was too quick.

The timeline was very reasonable. Chancellor Grimson was interested in getting the position up and running as quickly as possible, and the most logical time to implement the position was at the beginning of a school year. In order to avoid waiting an entire year to implement the program, the process had to be kept to strict deadlines. There was simply not enough time to go through the tedious process of creating a rigorously selected committee, holding multiple student public forums, and appointing and approving interviewers through the UA Council. While that process serves a purpose in major campus-wide changes, it would have created unnecessary delays in the AD implementation process, which only affects select dorms.

The AD position description is too vague.

The job description of the AD posted by DSL has a clear description of the role and lists specific responsibilities in community development, dean-on-call duties, community standards, supervision, leadership, communication, and administration of dorms. While the requirements tell what the AD is supposed to do, it leaves flexibility in how each AD performs those duties. This allows the role to adapt to different dorms, while still ensuring accountability. Students should discuss the job role with the AD of their dorm if they are confused about the purpose of the role.

ADs take supervision of GRTs away from the Housemasters.

The job description states that the ADs should “Support the Housemasters in their roles as the supervisors of the GRTs.” This means that the GRTs are still directly supervised by the housemasters, but the ADs will be there to help. Housemasters are retaining their role as the supervisor of GRTs, but can rely on the ADs for assistance, especially when travelling.

The AD position was implemented without a pilot.

Last year, Simmons, Maseeh, McCormick, and Burton-Conner each had a live-in RLA, and these four staff worked with all the undergraduate dormitories. The AD is an evolution of existing support systems, not a new system built from scratch. For example, Next House has had both a Next House RLA and a Next House Director in recent years. Our suggestions on the time commitment, support roles, RBA implementation, and other topics have all shaped our AD’s role. In addition, Chancellor Grimson stated in The Tech on June 8, 2012 that the dorms that were concerned about having an AD during the first year of the program would be given the “opportunity to collect residents’ opinions and present them to Division of Student Life (DSL) staff during the first few months of the fall term,” effectively giving them the option to defer.

The ADs declined interviews with The Tech.

There is nothing improper about the ADs declining interview requests from a widely circulated newspaper within three weeks of their arrival on campus. In fact, it is perfectly reasonable to defer interviews to DSL until the ADs are familiar with the MIT culture.

The implementation has created more suspicion than support.

We disagree, as Next House has warmly welcomed our AD, and we have been jointly developing the position into one that is most meaningful for the dorm.

We must also remember that support goes both ways. How can our residents ask ADs for support if we don’t support them? The editorial last Friday questioned the legitimacy of their selection process, and, as a result, the AD’s intentions to first-and-foremost provide care and support for the residents were lost in their plethora of arguments. We hope students will avoid simplistic judgments (such as the AD strictly pursuing “a great opportunity for career advancement”) and instead focus more on supporting their passion for assisting students as we welcome them to our MIT community.

Concluding Notes

We do not claim the AD process has been perfect; we wish this process had started in the spring when we were on campus, and we wish there had been more student involvement in the decision to create ADs. However, we believe that the process shows clear signs of improvement in student interaction with the administration. Students were involved in the interview process, students have input on how the job works in their respective dorms, and the position was created as an improved support system for students. The AD role should be a big improvement to student support, but students and the administration must continue to work collaboratively to shape it.

Relevant dorm governments and engaged students should brainstorm the role of ADs and ways the ADs can aid Executive Boards, housemasters, GRTs, and residents. All parties should work together to customize a new support system for the residents, while trusting and welcoming ADs to their respective communities. Next has been happy with the process. We have a great AD who is actively engaging with residents and leadership.

As the editorial has pointed out, Chancellor Grimson has called to improve trust and rebuild collaborative spirit. We should continue to respect and uphold this goal from the student side as we incorporate the ADs, a group of talented and supportive individuals who are enthusiastic about their roles and ready to become a helpful part of our undergraduate community.

Austin D. Brinson ’13 is the current president of Next House. Alec C. Lai ’13 was the president last year.

Editor’s Note: In this letter, Alec Lai and Austin Brinson misleadingly suggest that The Tech’s editorial maligned the character of the RLADs. The letter reads “We hope students will avoid simplistic judgments (such as the AD strictly pursuing ‘a great opportunity for career advancement’) and instead focus more on supporting their passion for assisting students as we welcome them to our MIT community.”

However, the original context for the quote from The Tech’s August 31 editorial is the following:

“That being said, let’s be clear: the RLADs did not make any policy decisions, and they did not ask for any controversy. They simply took advantage of a great opportunity for career advancement and to work at an incredible, world-class institution. They’re part of our community now, and they deserve to be treated with the same dignity and respect as any other community member. Students should engage positively with RLADs and should go to them for advice and support, if they want to.”

Cynical Sally about 11 years ago

Oh boy, haven't seen this much sucking up in a while!

The student involvement only came to save face after the leak. The intention and original decision of the administration was to not involve students, housemasters, nor GRTs, at least not until the very final stages. How can we talk about a call for increase in trust and collaborative spirit?

Furthermore, dorms without RLADs seem to be scheduled for one, however these dorms were not included in any of these discussions at a GRT or student level. Again, a case of insufficient information and involvement. To by very cynical, did the administration just want to silent the restless dorms and then push an RLAD onto them when everything was implemented elsewhere to remove resistance?

The process _was_ too quick - we can't sacrifice rigor and involvement if we're implementing something that impacts a lot of people, involves a lot of funding, and is here to stay for a long time. It's just unacceptable.

The AD description _was_ vague - it was clear that GRTs and housemasters were not sure about how the responsibilities will fall in particular cases.

The live-in RLA is in no way a pilot for the RLAD. Someone who registers parties is not the same as someone who's day job is to keep an eye on students...

The fact that ADs declined interviews just shows how puppet-like they are designed to be. We should be connecting to them on a personal level, should we not? So why are they not allowed to open up to us so that we can actually know them?

I wonder why Next House has "warmly welcomed" the new RLAD. Perhaps for the fact that the housemaster is the non-faculty Dean for Student Life Chris Colombo? Would be kind of awkward if his dorm were to show any resistance...

I wish our tuition didn't go towards this administration-puppetry and facesaving, and that MIT could reduce its administrative bloat and return to being academics-first in its goals.

Anonymous about 11 years ago

This piece is fundamentally dishonest and needs a prominent disclaimer, especially since freshmen and other members of campus may not know this or make the connection: Austin and Alec's Housemaster is Dean for Student Life Chris Colombo. Dean Colombo happens to be the person who is pushing these controversial changes, and the person who is responsible for implementing them. However, the piece never once mentions this fact, and Alec and Austin only speak about their 'Housemaster' - never referring to him by name or title, or indicating that this may have colored their experience.

For better or for worse, one would simply not expect that Alec and Austin's experience is representative. For example - "Shortly after the leak, our Housemasters actively approached the Next House President to discuss the impact of this role on Next" - although this happened in most other dorms, in no other house would this entail speaking directly with the person in charge. Students elsewhere feel unheard and disenfranchised in part because they don't have the direct line to power that Alec and Austin do.

Without this important disclaimer being prominently featured, this piece is fundamentally dishonest and does not serve to further the discourse on this topic. Beyond this most basic problem, there are also a number of other falsehoods and misleading statements in this piece, beyond that which the Tech has already corrected. Perhaps someone will take the time for a point-by-point rebuttal. Until then, to Alec and Austin: For shame.

Melissa Skan about 11 years ago

First of all, these two kids call on students as though they aren't, themselves, students. As far as I can tell, there would be no interest in writing up a point-by-point rebuttal because the language is harsh and biased and all of their data is based on a very small sample size. "We like our RLAD; we have been nice to our RLAD; shame on you for not being as good as we are."

Y'all are wack.

Sweet Tea about 11 years ago

" Even dorms that chose not to have ADs this year were invited to participate in the interviews. "

I'm from Random. I only got to participate because I led the last RLA search. My dorm president heard I was participating and showed up day-of, otherwise she wouldn't have been there. We two from Random are the only folks from dorms not involved who interviewed the new RLADs.

ssssunanda about 11 years ago

While I agree with Melissa that a point-by-point rebuttal would not make sense, I feel the need to point out a few things. I do respect the writers' opinion, and their voicing of a seemingly minority opinion; however, much like the process they are discussing, the article is vague and glosses over important issues.

One of the main issues which stood out to me was the response to complaints that the process was too quick. In the paragraph that followed, all I could find was further evidence that the process WAS indeed too quick. The writers mention wanting to "avoid waiting" and thus adhering to "strict deadlines" because there was "simply not enough time". This timeline would be "reasonable" for a small unavoidable change; but the introduction of RLADs is a campus wide one that affects nearly everyone.

The point about the pilot similarly glossed over the main problems. The purpose of a pilot is to try something out, get feedback, and then assess changes that have to be made and possibly try again. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't recall any opportunity for students to give feedback on the RLA program, which added to the top-down feel of this process.

Overall, I don't necessarily think RLADs are a bad thing. However, I didn't find a clearly articulated reason anywhere indicating why a new position had to be created (though I can think of some), why GRTs and housemasters could not tackle issues more effectively, what changes the administration was hoping for (how will RLADs specifically resolve the problems?), and a CLEAR timeline for the whole process. The administration can only expect a negative response if they use methods that are not transparent, well-explained, and fluid.

Just to show a bit more of the student body's opinion - some other dorms' residents were very very unhappy with the rushed introduction of RLADs. The process may seem to the writers to have had much room for student involvement, but from the perspective of someone in a different dorm, it definitely seemed entirely administration-directed, decided, and dictated.

Anonymous about 11 years ago

Chris Colombo wrote this article. Don't be deceived.

Ryan McDermott about 11 years ago

As far as I am concerned, the RLAD is one of the best things that has happened to Next House this semester. Alec and Austin have minds of their own, and we as a dorm voted for their words to represent our dorm. Saying that they are influenced by the administration is almost like saying that the majority of Next House is controlled by the administration, which is obviously not true.

It is really sad that not all dorms have been able to be bettered by this program that is growing. Hopefully in the near future all dorms will be happy with this situation, with or without an RLAD in their dorm. It would probably be best for RLADs into dorms that want them, and the administration should let dorms who decide against it to be left alone unless facts point to placing an RLAD in that dorm will better the community. I am sure not all dorms would be better with a RLAD, and I respect that.

I will defend to the death everyone's right to state their opinions about RLADs, but I will also defend that the RLAD process helped out Next House greatly.

William Wallace almost 11 years ago

Textbook example of Stockholm Syndrome.

The fact that the housemaster, one of the principal architects of the plan to insert an extra layer of bureaucracy into the residential system to cover his own ass, didn't say a word to the house government until after the secret plan was leaked, speaks volumes.

You just have to feel very sorry for these poor hostages at Next House.