March 14, 2023

BEARD | The Unsung Victims

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Here’s a perspective you don’t hear that often: A sympathetic narrative on Cornell’s legions of Residential Advisors. Based on that sentence alone, I know all you campus dwellers are already writing me off as a “boot-licker” or something to that effect. Trust me, as an idealistic freshman back in 2020 I would’ve done the same. Afterall, what else did my RA do for me other than write me up on numerous occasions. For many underclassmen this is where their relationships with their RAs start and end. However, as you age out of on campus life, the terror of a 2 am knock on the door becomes a thing of the past and your RAs transition to classmates, peers and friends. Just like any of our university’s community members, they deserve an administration that looks out for them and upholds its mission to “do the greatest good” as Cornell’s 3.6 billion dollar fundraising campaign claims. But, in the school’s relentless march of progress, the scores of RA’s that cohabit Cornell’s dorms have been left behind and find themselves the victims of a revenue raising catch-22.

Recently in an effort to revamp their campus life in the wake of COVID-19, the university has mandated several sweeping decrees meant to affect underclassmen. Firstly, starting with the class of 2025, all freshmen and sophomores are required to live in University owned campus housing. This of course comes with the implicit requirement to have a meal-plan as well. What Cornell has also done, though, is  drop the 10 and 14 meals a week meal plans and require on-campus underclassmen to buy into an unlimited meal plan. In their infinite charity, however, this plan is now charged at the former 14-meals a week rate. The guise, of course, is Cornell dining’s commitment to fighting food insecurity. One group that this change absolutely does not fight for is the residential advisors that staff all these newly occupied dorms.

Believe it or not, Cornell RA’s do not get free room and board. Sure, they are granted the privilege to live in the buildings they patrol, but their meals aren’t free. Like any of the students they write up, the typical RA also has to shell out for a meal plan. Likewise, the policies Cornell mandates for its on-campus underclassmen population also apply to its on-campus RA’s. All incoming RA’s will be required to purchase the newly priced unlimited plan to the tune of 3,471 dollars.

One might then say, “at least they’re getting paid so they can afford it,” and you would be wholly wrong in that assumption. According to a contract that your author reviewed, the starting RA stipend is 3,050 dollars per semester. By cutting the smaller meal plan and forcing them to buy this more expensive option, the University at the minimum stands to make 421 dollars per head of their own employees. Not only does this decision rob the RA’s of their freedom to choose more affordable or smaller meal plan options, it also quite literally robs them and lines the University’s pockets. 

Honestly, based upon historical precedent this latest twist isn’t much of a surprise. Despite all of our potential misgivings towards our freshman year RAs, the indisputable fact is that the University has long treated its residential advisors horrendously. If we want to dive back into facts and figures, this becomes even clearer. The contract I reviewed says that RAs are required to work a minimum of 20 hours a week. For the fall semester this work period ran from Aug. 8 till dorm move-out on Dec. 19. That’s 19 weeks of employment. With the 20 hour requirement, an RA was contractually expected to work 380 hours. Dividing their stipend then by the hours worked reveals an hourly rate of just over 8 dollars per hour. This compensation alone should be illegal. The NY State minimum wage is 14.20 dollars, almost twice what an RA earns hourly. With this latest meal plan decision, the university is asking these beleaguered RA’s to blow more than their entire measly stipend on the right to have access to breakfast, lunch and dinner. This isn’t just a tale of undervalued employees, it’s a narrative of continuous employer abuse. 

To be clear, we’re not talking about just any employer either. Cornell is an ancient academic institution with an endowment surpassing $9 billion. For crying out loud, the University just raised a further 3.6 billion in a single calendar year. Why on Earth does Cornell need to nickel and dime its own student workers over a meal plan when it has cash reserves of this magnitude? I’m sorry, but it seems the answer can only be pure, unadulterated greed. Someplace, somewhere along the line there was a conscious effort to disregard the welfare of residential advisors. I don’t know if it was a decision made by the board of trustees, Martha Pollock, Ryan Lombardi or Tim Blair (the executive director of Housing and Residential Life), but someone dropped the ball. Either that, or the idea of “Doing the Greatest Good” was a lie all along. The meal plan is only the tip of the abusive iceberg, but it could very well be the spark of something bigger. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time for another RA strike. It could be the only way our administrators will pay attention to these unsung victims. 

Brenner Beard is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Agree to Disagree runs every other Tuesday this semester.