The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Commentary March 10, 2006

Re: Pay Must Precede Efficiency, other letters

To the Editors:

As one of the co-authors of the RA, VA and SRA Compensation Increase Proposal, I am writing to respond to last week’s editorial titled “Efficiency Must Precede Pay.” As the title of my response suggests, last week’s editorial presented a backward understanding of the issue at hand and was largely misinformed of our proposal (probably because the editor didn’t read it). In responding to the editorial, I hope to clarify the nature of our request and justify our proposal.

Last week’s editorial largely ignored the commitments and responsibilities of the RA, VA and SRA positions, while focusing on the mistakes made by a few individuals. According to the editorial, “RAs are expected to punish residents for activities in which they too might engage, even while on duty in their residence halls,” implying that RAs break rules. Furthermore, “RAs who conduct inappropriate relationships with residents break the contract of trust and therefore degrade the RA program.”

Although these concerns are legitimate, the editor focuses on the mistakes of a few RAs, while altogether ignoring the other commitments and responsibilities of the RA, VA and SRA positions, such as being on campus for an additional month every year for training, orientation and opening and closing residence halls, building community in residence halls through programming, ensuring that halls are safe and secure through rounds, participating in an on-call system in which we may be woken during the night, conducting a host of administrative responsibilities and miscellaneous tasks throughout the year and making ourselves generally available to listen and advise residents. Why didn’t last week’s editorial mention these aspects of the job?

The point of our proposal is both to reward RAs, VAs and SRAs for the commitments and responsibilities listed above and to raise expectations for job performance. Besides mentioning the above concerns, the editor states, “The current practice of employing underclassmen contributes to the lack of boundaries and leadership...if the positions were limited to upperclassmen, RAs would be more likely to possess the necessary skills for the job.”

Here, the editor confuses the relationship between RA compensation and job performance. If ResEd only accepted applications from upperclassmen, it could never fill all of the RA, VA and SRA positions. More importantly though, the lack of competitiveness for the position, stemming from inadequate compensation, is exactly what leads to low job performance; if more students wanted to be RAs, we could afford to fire those RAs who don’t do their jobs. If we compensate RAs, VAs and SRAs adequately, however, the position will be more competitive (thus leading to more accountability among RAs), RA retention will increase and more upperclassmen will apply for the positions. Of course, we support this argument with data from peer institutions as presented in our proposal (the one the editor didn’t read). As for the claim that raising pay for RAs will only attract more students interested in abusing the benefits, that is a concern for all jobs, including yours.

Ultimately, there is another way of understanding my response. Maybe if we paid the editors of the Review more, we could increase competition for the job and ensure that editors research the issues they write about: because when someone wants your job, you’re going to produce a credible editorial.

–Brendan Morris
College sophomore

To the Editors:

I am writing in response to the editorial, titled “Efficiency Must Precede Pay.” I am one of the RAs who carefully developed the proposal for a raise and I was offended by the value judgments nonchalantly placed on our proposal. I found it unnecessarily antagonistic and I do not appreciate being told that my job is one of hypocrisy.

Good RAs are not the exception. This year, I’ve worked with 13 RAs and three SRAs that work very hard and take ownership in everything they do. To issue a blanket statement that many RAs drink in their halls and sleep with their residents is a grossly erroneous overstatement and I don’t feel it’s fair to deny RAs deserving of a reasonable raise because of a few individuals.

That being said, I do agree that there are problems within “the system,” but fingers should not be pointed at RAs. Working for ResEd, I’ve learned about how the department operates. The problems run much deeper than appears. In my opinion, ResEd is both under-funded and underemphasized. It is difficult to maintain consistency and efficiency because there is an amazing rate of turnover among ResEd’s professional staff. RDs rarely remain at Oberlin for more than a year or two because, like the RAs, they are paid much less here than they would be elsewhere. This makes it difficult to retain staff with experience at Oberlin. These problems cannot be blamed on one person or group of people. They simply exist and need to be changed.

RAs at Pomona make the equivalent of room and board, valued at over $10,000. The compensation for Oberlin RAs is slightly above a quarter of that. It’s no surprise that the job at Pomona is more competitive and that they retain 75% of their RAs. Oberlin retains less than 40%, and this year, ResEd had to extend the deadline for RA applications. I personally know several exemplary RAs who will not return and just as many people who would make amazing RAs but didn’t apply simply because the wages are so low.

I firmly believe that better wages would attract and retain more RAs and even if this attracted people with impure intentions, just as many people with wonderful intentions would also apply. ResEd would then be able to be more selective and choose the best, rather than be forced to take anyone. To blame RAs for these problems shows a lack of foresight and it is unreasonable to expect problems to spontaneously change without any incentive for RAs or future RAs. A request like that is on par with asking our nation’s underprivileged to just stop being poor and automatically get better jobs and education, without providing any resources for this transformation.

If the Editors have had unsatisfactory experiences with RAs, I’m very sorry and I wish those experiences could have been better. Badmouthing RAs, however, especially when lacking a full understanding of our proposal and the situation at hand, is not productive. It is much easier to complain than it is to pursue change, and as your editorial suggested, words without action are full of hypocrisy.

Want to make a difference? Productively express your thoughts and concerns to ResEd. Sit on a housing or dining committee. Stand behind your RAs and support the proposal for increased compensation. I’m more than willing to discuss the proposal with anyone who’d like to know more. I also strongly suggest applying for the RA position. It’s a great job for anyone who is passionate about creating change for the better.

–Christine Binder
College sophomore
RA in Langston

To the Editors:

Within the next week you will be receiving an online survey from one of your fellow students (Allison O’Donnell) which attempts to assess smoking behavior, access to spaces to smoke and supporting our smokers when they decide to quit. Allison has been a tireless worker on behalf of all students, smokers and nonsmokers. Her work includes the senate referendum questions about smoking, updating Student Health smoking cessation efforts and planning active and passive education on campus.

We are asking ALL students to complete the online survey. The data that she receives will be anonymous and will be used in future planning for safe places to smoke. It will also direct our efforts to promote the health of Oberlin College students through education and better smoking cessation programs.

–Laura Hieronymus C.N.P.
Health Services Director
Student Health Services of Oberlin College

To the Editors:

In response to last week’s editorial “Efficiency Must Precede Pay,” I express my disappointment in the portrayal of Oberlin College RAs as people who “are expected to punish residents for activities in which they too might engage, even while on duty or in their hall of residence,” and who “conduct inappropriate relationships with residents.”

In fact, I work in a community of smart, dedicated, compassionate and professional students who take their jobs very seriously. RAs, SRAs and VAs show dedication to the job by spending almost an extra month on campus than do most residents. RAs, SRAs, and VAs sacrifice privacy by being available to the concerns or needs of our residents whenever we are in our rooms. As the first students to meet new freshmen, we are responsible for shaping possibly the most influential weeks of their college careers. I believe I speak for all of ResEd’s student staff when I say that the Review’s characterization of Oberlin RAs, SRAs and VAs is an overly negative one and does not acknowledge the incredible duties and responsibilities that each of us holds and sacrifices each of us makes.

Last week’s editorial, however, proved many points that Brendan Morris, Christine Binder and I were trying to make at last week’s Student Forum. Many Oberlin RAs have residents who are the same age as or older than they are. The majority of my residents are sophomores and juniors and I myself am only a sophomore. Also, RAs simply are not paid enough to think of our living spaces as a professional environment a lot of the time.

Perhaps if RA, SRA and VA compensation was equivalent to the cost of room, the job would be more competitive and Residential Education would be able to hire students more suited for the job. The Review made the point that students often take “advantage of the large room, bed, prestige and pay...” ResEd and its employees realize this fact and believe — as our research of peer institutions showed — that an increase in pay would increase competition for the job and allow ResEd to hire more qualified and reliable student staff.

The editorial also made the point that hiring underclassmen “contributes to the lack of boundaries and leadership. It is unreasonable to expect those with only a semester or year of experience in college life to be an assured and knowledgeable pillar for their residents.” This is an excellent point and one that was made to the Board of Trustees during last week’s Student Forum. If RA compensation was increased, competition would increase and ResEd might be able to limit residential assistant jobs to upperclassmen. This year ResEd was forced to employ almost 70 percent of its applicants, the majority of whom were underclassmen.

In the end, the numbers speak for themselves. Johns Hopkins, where RA pay is equivalent to the cost of room ($7000), received 100 applications for 30 positions. Cornell, where RAs are paid the cost of room ($6800) plus a $600 stipend, received 150 applications for 60 positions. There are at least nine other schools for which this is the case. These schools were able, due to the competitiveness of the position, to hire more qualified, dedicated and experienced student staff.

I speak for all underpaid RAs at Oberlin when I ask that the Oberlin Review not make sweeping generalizations about Oberlin College RAs. Please review the facts and know that Brendan Morris, Christine Binder and I (as well as members of ResEd professional staff) would love to meet with the Review to present our position based on our research.

–Leah Gage
College sophomore
RA, East Hall

To the Editors:

The editorial last week arguing against raising RA pay may have been well-intentioned, but, being poorly thought out and short-sighted, it ends up taking the wrong side on a very important issue.

Having worked for two years as an RA and worked for extensive reform within Residential Life/Education, I will be the first to acknowledge that there are serious problems with the system. We can list some of them — incompetent administration, too many levels of hierarchy, an overly long training focused more on “building RA character” than on teaching job skills and a patronizing attitude towards both residents and RAs from the college. However, none of them are structural problems within the RA program.

Yes, RAs are supposed to be both community builders and rule enforcers. But while frustrating and confusing, this is also better than the alternative. Rules should exist to help the community, not for their own sake. RAs who also help build the community are better able to strike that balance. Imagine a system where these jobs were separate. Who would apply for the job that only involves rule enforcing? Do the editors of the Review want a band of anal-retentive people walking around with little colored sashes proclaiming ‘hall monitor’? The community builders would be ineffectual, the rule enforcers would be hated, and the safety and community of residence halls would suffer as a result. Such a stance makes a mockery of the Review’s supposed support for resident communities.

That’s it for the Editor’s proposals for increased efficiency! The rest of their complaints all have to do with the failings of individual RAs. It is true that many countless RAs perform below par and should be fired. But who will replace them? In order to have accountability, you must have competition. Hence the need for better pay.

Over the years, I have referred many bright, caring students to the job, but most have never applied. Why should they? An RA is on call 24/7, expected to put a job that pays about $0.50/hour ahead of everything other than their health and classes. Any student can make far more money in far less time as a worker in CDS or an employee at the library, than as an RA.

Higher pay will also increase retention. The vast majority of RAs (and RDs) quit after one year — often many of the best ones. Such attrition in ResEd creates a department that cannot learn from its own mistakes and robs students of experienced resources. Given this (and also the reality that most students want to leave campus for their senior year), the Review’s argument against hiring sophomores thus rings hollow — the problem is not how many sophomores apply to be first-time RAs, but how many juniors don’t RE-apply.

The Review thus defies common sense when it insists that better compensation will not improve the RA program. When we get a pool of applicants not much larger than the pool of open jobs, it is inevitable that there will be more bad eggs than the department can weed out. The best functioning RA programs at other schools are those with competitive pay and an actively organized (sometimes even unionized!) RA base. That should be our model.

The pay scale of RAs IS a “structural flaw that has long gone unaddressed.” It is time that The Oberlin Review supported efforts to improve the quality of future generations of RAs, rather than shooting the messenger yet again just to prove it can be skeptical of student activism.

–Marshall Duer-Balkind
College senior

To the Editors:

Last semester Andrew DeFranco wrote an editorial titled “Encouraging Smokers to Quit.” I agree with his underlying notions: smoking is damaging to your health, second hand smoke is damaging to your health, Oberlin should work towards a progressive smoking policy in line with scientific knowledge and resources should be available to students who want to quit smoking.

Beyond these main points, I found many of Andrew’s arguments to be inaccurate and unfounded and hope to clarify a fraction of these errors. First, he states that one of the questions on last semester’s referendum concerning smoking in dorms was a “...pigheaded proposal pushed on behalf of smokers...” I helped formulate this question in order to gather concrete data about students’ opinions concerning smoking in dorms to guide Oberlin’s policy decisions, not to push the smokers’ agenda. 74.91percent responded that they did not want smoking rooms or lounges in dorms. A similar question on the referendum of Spring 2005 asking about the construction of sheltered smoking structures also received an overwhelmingly negative response.

Second, Andrew states that in five years we should begin to reject all new applicants who smoke and force current students and faculty who smoke to quit or be banned. I do not know of any credible institutions (such as The American Lung Association, American College Health Association, etc.) that recommend such policies for colleges.

A number of students responded passionately and creatively to Andrew’s editorial, calling his ideas autocratic and fascist. Again, I agree with them on many of their general points; smokers are not bad people, there is a difference between encouraging people to quit and banning them from Oberlin and tolerance is important. I would like to thank Max Gerboc for being a “conscientious smoker” by smoking away from buildings and non-smokers.

However, I would like to clarify some points that came up. First, both Max and Carl Schreep advocated for the reinstatement of indoor smoking lounges. True, there are rooms that used to be used as smoking lounges in dorms, but they are NOT complete with proper ventilation to prevent the spread of smoke. Second hand smoke (SHS) is a Group A carcinogen and kills 53,000 people annually (American Legacy Foundation).

According to the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, “At present, the only means of effectively eliminating health risks associated with indoor exposure [to SHS] is to ban smoking activity (June 2005).”

Second, Max also brought the issue of outdoor shelters. Having structures for smoking would eliminate the vagueness of smoking “away” from entrances. However, smokers would probably only use these structures during bad weather. This idea may work if smoking was limited only to the given structures and nowhere else on campus. According to a question on the Spring 2005 referendum, the majority of Oberlin students don’t want to pay for smokers to stay out of the rain.

Third, although smokers have the right to smoke, non-smokers also have the right to breathe clean air. Whenever smokers smoke, whether it is in front of an entrance, in Wilder Bowl or in the Feve, others are negatively affected and prevented from enjoying that space.

Many of the issues I have brought up have to do with misinformation and baseless claims. How many people at Oberlin really smoke? What does our student body really think about smoking policy?

Make your voice heard by filling out the Oberlin College Smoking Survey. This is a survey that I have formulated to gather information about the smoking practices and opinions of our student body to help Oberlin College make informed choices based on solid data. It will be distributed by e-mail to Oberlin College students in the coming weeks.

–Allison O’Donnell
College senior

To the Editors:

On Saturday night, the sign on the front lawn of the Edmonia Lewis Center for Women and Transgender People at 76 S. Professor St. was vandalized; it was torn out of the ground and placed on the front porch of the house across the street.

Within feet of the Center were two similar signs — one for the Center for Service and Learning and one marking Harvey (Spanish) House. Why was it that the sign belonging to the Edmonia Lewis Center for Women and Transgender People was the one targeted? We believe that Saturday’s incident was a hateful action and not a random occurrence, as it has precedence. Last year, when the Center was located at 124 Woodland Street, the sign was also ripped from the ground.

Clearly, there are some people who find the idea of a center for women and transgender people funny or unnecessary. We find this incident upsetting in light of the center’s mission:

The Edmonia Lewis Center for Women and Transgender People is a collective of students, staff and administrators doing the work of transforming existing systems of oppression based on sex, gender, race, class, sexuality, age, ability, size, religion, nationality, ethnicity and language. We recognize that these systems are interconnected and that our work must be multifaceted. We examine these connections as we create and maintain safe spaces, initiate and fund programming and serve as a resource for the Oberlin college community. We strive to maintain a space that will allow us to support and advocate for those historically disenfranchised on the basis of gender: women and transgender people. The mission of the ELC is to be a part of the struggles for social justice worldwide.

We are saddened and angry that, at Oberlin College, there is apparent and visible disrespect for a space that maintains these values and strives to serve as a resource and community center for people from traditionally marginalized communities and for those committed to the pursuit of social justice.

The vandalism against the ELC sign is part of a larger problem; acts of violence do, in fact, penetrate into the “Oberlin bubble,” and are perpetuated by members of our community. These incidents point to the fact that spaces like the ELC are important, necessary and must be taken seriously.

If you have any information about this incident, please contact Safety and Security or Adrian Bautista in the Dean of Students office (Wilder 105).

For more information about the Edmonia Lewis Center, please stop by our office hours (Mondays 12:30 – 2:30 p.m., Tuesdays 1 – 3 p.m., Thursdays 10 a.m. – Noon & 12:30 – 2:30 p.m.) or pick up a brochure in Wilder 105.

We are located at 76 S. Professor St., next to the Center for Service and Learning and across the street from the Conservatory.

–Rachel Marcus
–Melissa Sanchez
–Farah Joyner
College seniors
–Assiatou Diallo
–Eli Conley
College sophomores
The Board of the Edmonia Lewis Center for Women and Transgender People

To the Editor:

As someone who has devoted my career to labor issues, I share the concerns of student activists regarding labor conditions around the world. Through my work with the United Nations International Labor Organization, I have seen firsthand the manifold difference it makes in the lives of individuals, families, communities and entire countries when employers live up to their responsibilities to workers.

My employer, The Coca-Cola Company, is committed to fair labor practices everywhere we do business. Around the world, Coca-Cola workers are free to exercise their rights to union membership and collective bargaining without pressure or interference. In fact, we are one of the most highly unionized multinational companies in the world and we keep working to improve our labor relations practices.

Given the state of the world today, many of the countries where we operate are burdened with ongoing conflicts. Concerns have centered on Colombia, where violence against trade unionists and many others has been going on for decades and has deterred most people from joining unions. Even so, more than 30 percent of Coca-Cola workers in Colombia belong to unions, compared to a national average of four percent.

We share the concerns that many have expressed about the violence in Colombia and we are working to keep our employees safe. Coca-Cola bottlers work with unions and the government to provide emergency cell phones, transportation to and from work, secure housing and a host of other measures to protect employees. Additional security measures are routinely provided to union leaders and special measures are undertaken when a threat against unionized employees is brought to the attention of the bottler’s management.

We are proud of our 70-year history in Colombia and our contributions to local communities, and we are committed to supporting the country’s progress. We invite universities, non-government organizations, as well as our critics, to join in a constructive engagement process to improve the conditions for labor in Colombia.

To learn more about The Coca-Cola Company’s work in Colombia and throughout the world, visit

–Edward E. Potter
Director, Global Labor Relations
The Coca-Cola Company

To the Editors:

In regard to last week’s “Good Eating” column, I feel that it was completely lacking in substance. It was like a plate of parsley and other garnishes. I could eat it and gain no weight. Maybe that should be the new dieting trend.

If we look at the column, we find this lack of substance is obvious. In place of helpful insights towards losing weight which can be found in various religious texts, we are presented with flowery filler like “Asia — only a hop, skip and a jump away from the Western world — is host to a whole greenhouse of growing potted religions.” This adds nothing to the thesis of the column, though I think sight of that was lost long ago in the name of wit.

Surely religions do offer important lessons about diet. Taking up a religion purely for dietary reasons seems rather cynical, but extracting these lessons might have some merit. But that was completely lacking in this article. In place of examining Jainist/ahimsa and the non-violent foods it supports, we are left with the idea that followers of Jainism are left with nothing to eat due to religious restrictions. There are some worthwhile lessons regarding diet to be learned from some of the other religions mentioned like Judaism. Yet puerile jokes about rhymes and Jujubes appear instead.

Also, I don’t think that Mecca and Medina have lost their importance in the modern world. They are both rather of prime importance for Islam. Plenty of people still make the pilgrimage to Mecca, much as has been done for centuries. In fact, they may both be quite old but still can be considered “the modern center[s]” of Islam.

This column started from the same “hundred dollar idea” that might also lead to a diet book. I hope this book never comes to fruition since it would offer nothing useful.

I suppose the only redeeming aspect of this column was that the author did not claim that she was “the prettiest girl in the world.” That does, though, leave the opportunity for me to proclaim myself the prettiest girl in the world.

I relish to see what is offered up on next week’s menu.

–Arthur Jones
College senior

To the Editors:

The discourse of identity politics at Oberlin has apparently degenerated, as evidenced in the show “Family Portrait,” with works by Daviel Shy ’06 and Leila Macbeth ’06, which conveyed neither new understandings of racial and sexual identities nor engagement with artistic form and visual ideas.

Furthermore, the show lacked a coherent, focused thesis or sense of purpose and in many ways ended up negating its own vague intentions and at times even promoting what it attacked.

The show did not present any unique and interesting visual ideas that explored themes of identity. The sheer amount of accompanying text showed a reliance on language to do the work of visual thinking and a lack of intentionality to form and process. Contributing to this lack was the artists’ reliance on the appropriation of simplistic clichés of heteronormative representations in popular culture — for example, an attack on the obviously white upper-middle-class aesthetic of Abercrombie and Fitch — which failed to resonate with such a politically and socially aware audience.

If anything, it has been clear from our time at Oberlin that misogyny and homophobia are both ostracized and marginalized.A promise of the show, which was ultimately unfulfilled, was to create a community or space in which one feels at home.

The openness of the space, however, was discredited by the complete disrespect for the audience — as well as the space itself — through the distribution of cigarettes and promotion of smoking.

The exclusivity of the space was matched by that of the art. Viewers were forced to participate in the self-indulgent celebration of persons already recognized as beautiful, though this was supposedly subversive.

This contributed to the works’ insularity, excluding many who would have gladly participated in a visual exploration of marginalization in contemporary culture, in that it replaced one stereotype of beauty with glamorous representations of the artists’ beautiful friends.

Everyone on this campus has felt marginalized in some way, and everybody could have benefited from the artists’ intentions; when we left this show, we felt excluded as people who also have issues with our identities.

In the future we hope to see art that uses form and process in creating truly radical dialogue and which does not alienate its viewers.

Perhaps we’ll see more work like that of Melsen Carlsen, whose photographs pursue an innovative thesis and whose images are bold and formally sound.

–Joshua Castaño
–Miranda Siegel
College seniors
–Hanna Siesel
College junior

To the Editors and All Other Readers:

This is a call to action. As most everyone knows, since the genocide in Darfur began in 2003, 400,000 people have died and 2.5 million have been driven from their homes. It seems to me that many people, certainly myself included, look at all the causes staring us in the face and feel overwhelmed. But for those of us who feel that the urgent needs of these causes are thrown at us without any direction as to how we can help, for those of us who do nothing because we want to do everything, I want to tell myself and tell everyone that there is in fact a great deal we can do. When it comes to stopping the genocide in Darfur, we as individuals can help.

Now is a pivotal time; now is when we decide whether we will tolerate such cruelty to continue its rule. Our leaders have heard our voices; they know they have our support in ending the genocide, and so they are moving toward that end. The late Senator Paul Simon said that if each member of Congress had received only 100 letters from their constituents, the genocide in Rwanda may have been stopped before it reached such tragic proportions.

We will all eventually look back and have to answer for ourselves and what we allowed. My impression is that at Oberlin we have more than enough of our share of guilt for the privileges we have, and so I don’t say this to make anyone feel guilty. I say this instead to propose a solution.

I know many students on this campus have a cause they carry around with them and devote themselves to above all others, but for those of us unable to give more of ourselves and our time, we can still pay tribute to Senator Paul Simon’s words.

Whatever less-than-glowing things you may have to say about your elected officials, they have to listen to you. They want to get reelected and will listen to the voices of those who will keep them where they are. Tell them that you will not stand for a leader who does not sacrifice everything to stop genocide. Now is when we decide whether all things such as these can end, or whether we will simply choke in horror and look the other way. Call the offices of your congressmen. Call them once a week. It takes maybe seven minutes. The person who answers your call will listen and note that you are concerned about Darfur and when enough of us call, there will be no more turning away. On March 2nd, Resolution 383 passed in the Senate. It was a commitment to securing the safety of the civilians in Darfur through a NATO bridging-force.

Please call your senators and thank them, and then ask them for more. Call President Bush and tell him what you demand from him. The phone numbers for Senators DeWine and Voinovich are (202)224-2315 and (202)224-3353, respectively. Look out for a future article by Becky Bob-Waksberg about the unique opportunities to help this semester in conjunction with Students Advocating for Peace in Sudan.

–Penina Eilberg-Schwartz
College sophomore


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