An Open Letter to Pomona RAs

I want to start this letter humbly, by tipping my hat to the RAs. I don't think anyone could choose a harder job at the Claremont Colleges, so thank you for graciously stepping up to the plate. Honestly, thank you for doing your job so that I don't have to. Because why would anyone in the world want to be a Resident Advisor? It is truly a thankless job. You have to straddle two identities, at all times both a college student and an administrator. (In case you hadn't realized, these two groups tend to butt heads every now and again.) So yes, RAs get housing and a paycheck, but this is surely meager compensation for their job, which pretty much consists of holding their ground over a piping-hot volcanic fault, of stubbornly setting their fingers down to rest in between a rock and a hard place.

If you'll please continue to lend me your ears, RAs, I want to ask you to consider your role in the Pomona community. I mean this letter sincerely, and I hope that you'll take my comments to heart. The issues cropping up lately are ones of real gravity, affecting everyone in the college community, staff and students alike. Somewhere along the line, in the rank mess of the “Gotcha!” program and its acrid aftermath, I think we all became a little confused in our own bloodlust. RAs are here to keep students safe. You are our friends. I mean this both in the vague sappy way—you are here to protect and serve—and in the literal way that you are our classmates, roommates, and mates.

RAs must protect students by upholding various tenets of campus policy. These laws (or instructions) are on the books, and the difficult job of an RA is to interprete these laws, extrapolating them into whole new dimensions, into the unmercifully complex moral sphere that is the student dormitory. Like I said, it's far from what you'd call an easy job. Let's turn to the student handbook for a sec. It guarantees students “the right to reasonable privacy.” So far so vague. But it elaborates: “college officials [RAs] will not enter residence hall rooms without reasonable suspicion that college policies or regulations have been violated.” A “disruptive situation” or a “credible report” of drug use or sale also warrants dorm room entrance. This all seems fine as long as we, the Pomona College community, are on the same page about what constitutes “reasonable privacy,” “reasonable suspicion,” a “disruptive situation,” and a “credible report.” Judging by the recent controversy surrounding RHS, I don't think this is the case.

RAs, how can we come together on this point? It'd be easy to point my finger to a Care Bear conclusion, to chalk up what is unquestionably an extraordinarily complicated issue to a single golden rule. I do think we'd be doing much better if we were “doing unto others…” the way our grade school teachers taught us. What's harder to say but equally true is that the ambiguity in campus policy is actually a good thing.

The small miracle of Pomona's campus policy is that no one person can execute it. I call it a miracle because I am personally convinced that Ric Townes wants to come into my room while I am asleep and devour my most coveted vital organs. While that is mostly a joke, the truth is that Mr. Townes has, with a straight-face, pushed some very frightening interpretations of policy which (all joking aside) actually do keep me and many other students awake late into the night. Fears for our privacy may be trained on the boogeyman figure of Ric Townes, but I know that this is silly. I won't ever spy his fingers curling underneath my door at night. Indeed, there are 35 reasons why it's silly to be afraid of Ric Townes: these are our beloved RAs—a bunch of critically inquisitive and fair-minded individuals specially selected to interpret and execute with their own razor sharp wits, the fallibly ambiguous campus policy.

The purpose of this letter, simply put, is to encourage you, the Pomona RAs, to assume your positions with the autonomy and dignity to which you are entitled. You are a student-leader; you know how to critically engage, how to reach out to students from all backgrounds in order to facilitate dialogue, open-mindedness, and progress. Every single situation in the residence halls is unique and demands a unique response. That is why I believe the Student Handbook is strategically vague—to allow RAs to exercise their demonstrated critical thinking skills. Ric Townes cannot tell you how to handle each and every situation you encounter. No two RAs could possibly see exactly eye-to-eye regarding policy interpretation. Let's view this ambiguity as a blessing, not a problem. With it, RHS has the opportunity to serve as a working model of the kind of pluralism and individuality that Pomona prizes so highly.

RAs, you do not answer to Mr. Townes but to the tenets of the Student Handbook, as jointly agreed upon by the student body and the administration. But perhaps most importantly, you answer to yourselves. You are not allowed to be the boy who cried “policy,” to claim that “you're just doing your job.” If you happen to enter a student's room under questionable circumstances, you are not licensed to simply wash your hands of the matter, Pontius Pilate-style. You represent yourself and your understanding of what is right and wrong. You determine what is “reasonable suspicion” for suspending a student's right to privacy and thus dictate what is “reasonable suspicion” to suspend your own right to privacy. We all know Pomona College looks great on a brochure. Our reputation as an intellectually vibrant, sun-soaked progressive haven is so intoxicating that it's quite easy to slip into complacence. This is not okay. If the brochures are right and we truly value critical engagement, responsibility, and liberty, then we must fight tooth and nail to keep them safe.

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