A Look to the Future: What Happens When SAs Go Away

*The authors of this piece wish to remain anonymous in order to avoid retaliation from the administration and their supervisors in Residence Life.

 

Let’s be real, the proposed changes to the SA contracts, while absolutely abhorrent, have been a long time coming. Certain administrators don’t really like the way substances are used and abused on our campus—and to be honest, neither do I. I’ve been a Student Advisor and an involved community member who has seen a lot of bad things happen to a lot of good people because of substances, but I recognize that the reason we have so many problems is that we’re not addressing the underlying causes of the extreme substance abuse on our campus (along with every other college campus, for that matter). We don’t have adequate mental health care in Grinnell, especially not if you’ve been a victim of trauma. We don’t have resources for identifying and helping students with substance abuse problems (not appropriately trained resources, at least). What we do have is a new Dean of the College whose actions demonstrate that he believes that destroying students’ best resource—the SAs—is the way to solve these substance problems.

The SA contract change is about nothing more than clamping down on drug and alcohol abuse, particularly illicit drug use. It’s not meant to bolster “the community”, as the name “Community Advisor” might suggest. Rather, the change is meant to turn our SAs into every other college’s RAs—people mandated to ‘write-up’ first and ask questions later. The contracts are worded vaguely enough that the folks in Student Affairs and the offices that they report to can effectively deny that this is what is actually going on. The changes should be viewed in the context of actions Residence Life has already taken to impose cultural change through the SAs.

In the fall of 2014, Residence Life announced that SAs & House Coordinators would be mandatory reporters starting in the upcoming school year, meaning that they would be required to report students for drug offenses if they saw or smelled marijuana in their residence halls. The reason this policy did not go into immediate effect was because SAs and HCs refused to comply. But Residence Life has communicated a clear interest, both this year and last, in making Student Staff mandatory reporters for marijuana, and at SA training this year they refused to give a clear answer as to whether SAs & HCs could become mandatory reporters in the next year or two. So despite the neutral language of the contract, emphasizing “walk-throughs,” and an “on-call” rotation system, students should keep firmly in mind that there is a more destructive precedent set by these responsibilities. If Student Staff members accept these changes, the impacts to the community could compound quite easily.

We all dreaded this day since we first arrived at Grinnell: a place where you could ask for help without fear of reproach, of punishment. A place where we could talk about our issues with our SAs and know that they would help us, not report us. It was a crucial part of self-gov that drew me, and many of you, to our little oasis in the cornfields. But it is an oasis no longer.

Times have changed. You may not see it yet, but next year we are going to return to a completely different school. Any sense of trust and community that SAs worked year after year to foster will be gone. Trust in the community will be replaced with fear and paranoia at the realization that the person on your floor who is supposed to help you is contractually obligated to write you up if you step out of line. Who is going to come to these new CAs for help? Not me, that’s for sure. How can you be honest with someone whose job it is to punish you for the exact problems for which you might be trying to seek help?

As if that’s not damage enough to campus, the advent of CAs will cause parties to move off-campus, away from the people who are supposed to help in a crisis. It will increase chances of people getting busted crossing 6thAve., or worse, getting hit by a car while stumbling home drunk because a High Street party was the only place their CA couldn’t write them up. It’ll mean that more and more people are going to get into dangerous situations without an SA to help them—to make sure they get home okay or to walk them through their resources when something bad happens. How many of you have been on the receiving end of an SA’s tireless devotion to keeping people safe? How many of you got water or food or condoms at parties during NSO from SAs who were only there because they care so much about this campus that they’re willing to volunteer their time and abstain from their own fun just to be sure you’re all right?

That kind of dedication is dead come next year. The minute SAs turn into CAs, that kind of support is no longer possible. SAs won’t be able to be the caring, self-gov-practicing Grinnellians that they want to be. They’ll be locked in to a contract unilaterally proposed by administrators without the help or consultation of the people it will actually affect. And make no mistake, this will affect all of us—no matter where you live, the choices about substances you make, or the actions you engage in. The sky isn’t falling yet, but there is a clear trajectory to these changes that makes the future role of Student Staff members opaque at best, and, at worst, a permanent departure from the principles of self-gov and mutual trust that have made Grinnell special.

If any of this bothers you, SA or non-SA alike, I urge you to reach out. Get mad. Email [kington], [latham], [conneran], [moschenr], [rolonjoe], and [sgaprez]. Share your concerns, your outrage. Make your voice heard while you still can. I challenge each and every one of you to stand up for the Grinnell we want to be living in. Don’t sit back and wait for someone else to save it. This will take all of us, united, if we are to have any hope of saving our self-governing community.

{Editor’s note} the new contract can be found here: https://secure.grinnell.edu/sites/default/files/documents/Community%20Advisor%20Contract%202016-2017.pdf

10 Comments

  1. As a recent alum and former SA, I don’t doubt the claims made in this piece, however the lack of evidence cited in this article is concerning. As a follow-up, citing the actual language of the contract as evidence for these claims would be really useful, I think, for the entire campus community–alums included, who have the power to influence campus policy with their bank accounts.

  2. This article is so full of bile and vaguely informed opinion that it cannot serve to improve the discussion. Sorry.

  3. Would it be possible for the authors or the publication to post more specific information for the benefit of alumni? A number of us are concerned about this change and might be able to help by lending our voices, but there is missing information that would be helpful for the conversation. What are the stated reasons by the administration? Are there unavoidable legal reasons this is happening? What is the exact wording of the contract mentioned? What is the ramification of an SA/CA that breaches the contract? Is there any discretion? What happens after reporting? Does the college have an appreciation of the legal impact this may place on students? On that last note, many incidents that might need to be reported are actually criminal acts that create a criminal record, which in turn creates potentially life-long problems for the students. That record may impact scholarships, grants, future education opportunities, jobs, etc., and is often difficult to expunge from a record. This, in turn, will create a further incentive to hide problems. It will also shift the nature of the student population over time as it will not actually have the impact intended – it will not stop bad behavior, it will just make it hide or go elsewhere, sometimes by making some students not choose or transfer from Grinnell. Our culture used to be one of personal and community responsibility. Drinking and drugs were not hidden, they were monitored. They were not encouraged, they were understood and moderated. It’s a fool’s errand to curb bad behavior by reporting, so there had better be an undeniable reason for this move or someone needs a deep talking to by alumni (i.e., donors).

  4. Is there away I (an alumnus) can get a hold of the updated contract to read?

  5. Well it’s been 50 years in coming. We got away with a lot of shit, smoked a lot of weed, dropped a lot of acid and only lost a few souls.

    It will change the character of the Grinnell Experience, its not the loss of care free drug use but the loss of trust in the community.

    Never liked the student affairs types. Not at Grinnell nor at any of the schools at which I taught.

    Good luck with the change.

  6. From the author, to clarify: “A general email was sent out to all first- through third-years about applying to be a CA, and one to student staff asking us to recommend two students. That email also mentioned the role change: “In addition to the title change, you’ll note that there have been changes to the role responsibilities. We believe that these changes will enhance the work you all currently do and help better serve our residents.”

  7. If Student Affairs found themselves unable to meet their staffing demand for CAs, it might provide sufficient impetus to force a reconsideration of these changes.

    On the other hand, if they can find enough willing students to put a narc on every floor, I mourn for the Grinnell I went to, because it’s obviously dead.

    Have y’all considered collective action?

  8. A concerned staff member

    December 10, 2015 at 10:10 AM

    The below email was sent to all students on December 9th. All students were invited to a presentation on this data December 2nd where meals were provided at no cost to them and only about 30 students took it upon themselves to attend. This data was also presented to the SAs during their training this.

    I am severely disappointed in our students uninformed response to this clear breakdown of self governance.

    Grinnell students,

    The Department of Residence Life recently put out a call for applications for the Community Advisor position (formerly named Student Advisor). Since that time, we—Dean Mike Latham and Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs Andrea Conner—have heard concerns about insufficient consultation with students about the potential impact of changes to the SA role.

    First, we appreciate this input. It is a clear sign of how much you care about student life at Grinnell. We also agree that further dialogue with students should take place. The plan was discussed with the Student Staff Council, a group of leaders within the overall student staff. But we recognize the need for broader consultation and, for that reason, we are putting the implementation of this proposed policy on hold so it can be carefully reviewed with the Student Government Association and the full student staff. We will ask the Residential Learning Task Force to evaluate it as well.

    We also believe that you deserve to understand the reasons behind the proposed changes.

    Some students have taken issue with the provision that CAs would be expected to “enforce” College policy and state and federal laws. To be clear, Student Advisors have always been asked to abide by College policies and the law, and to serve as role models for self-governance. However, these responses helped us understand that use of the word “enforce” influenced how the news was interpreted: It suggested that student staff would have to police the behavior of fellow students.

    This is not the case. If a student were to break the law or disregard campus policy, the Community Advisor would be expected to ask them to stop. If that misconduct were to continue in a way that posed a danger to the student or others, then the Community Advisor might also be asked to reach out to Residence Life Coordinators or Campus Security, depending on the situation. But the primary role of CAs would be to serve as active bystanders.

    As you know, many students on campus now complete active bystander training. Under the proposed change to the position description, CAs would receive additional training to equip them to promote student safety and welfare, as they have in the past. But they would not be a police force.

    We are deeply committed to student wellness, and like many of you we are concerned about what the data tell us is happening on campus. Here are some significant findings discussed at the December Town Hall:
    • The most recent National Collegiate Health Assessment data indicate repeated increases in illicit drug use at Grinnell over the last three years. Our alcohol, marijuana, tobacco, and non-medical prescription drug use are all higher than average for our national reference group.
    • More than 48 percent of Grinnell students report that alcohol is used on campus more than they would want. More than 49 percent said the same about marijuana.
    • 44 percent of Grinnell respondents said their fellow students’ alcohol use interfered with their ability to study. An alarming 61.4% said it interfered with their ability to sleep.
    • More than 46 percent of respondents experienced unwanted marijuana smoke in their residence during the previous year.
    These detrimental impacts, reported by our own students, are impossible to ignore. But we are not reacting to them by abandoning self-governance. Instead, we propose to invest in self-governance by training students to more effectively look out for their peers and the community as a whole. The proposed change in title from “Student Advisor” to “Community Advisor” reflects the full scope of this responsibility.

    Finally, at the December Town Hall students strongly encouraged the College to consider the link between alcohol and drug use and mental health. This was already the planned subject of our next Town Hall. Even before then, we are glad to report that the College will make additional counseling options and hours available through Student Health and Counseling Services (SHACS) this spring, thanks to a new partnership with the University of Iowa. A second round of increases is planned for next fall. We will send you full details in a future Campus Memo, as soon as they are confirmed.

    Thank you.

    Sincerely,

    Andrea B. Conner
    Associate Vice President for Student Affairs

    Michael E. Latham
    Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the College

  9. The shear self-absorbed egotism displayed in this article makes me sad to be a Grinnell alumnus. The author makes spurious claims without evidence to support them. I have no particular love for the administration, but the idea that Grinnell is being destroyed by administrators who are putting in place a structure to protect students and abide by the law is ridiculous. As the author even states, most other colleges around the country have RAs of this variety. It is not reasonable to state that student life everywhere else is ruined because of them and Grinnell has been the only “oasis” of student independence. Please grow up.

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