Peerless wickedness

By Daniel Stratford

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When erstwhile high school students cross the threshold into college, hurried whispers of the greatness of “student life” abound. For most incoming freshmen, student life is not simply a diversion from academics, but the epitome of the college experience. Consequently, the average daily schedule for most college students is replete with activities of every conceivable sort. However, most fail to consider just what it really means to be involved in “student life,” and instead view the term as being a pithy slogan.

To be involved in student life means far more than balancing academics with fealty to an organization or cause. It entails a careful appreciation of the complex interactions of and between the academic, administrative and social hierarchies on campus, which in turn requires the assistance of those skilled at navigating such perilous waters. These upstanding and courageous souls are rightfully cultivated and invested in positions of power, most notably as resident assistants (RAs), peer mentors (PMs), apartment living advisors (ALAs) and assistant resident directors (ARDs). By virtue of their appointment to these positions of immense influence, they are charged with not only positively influencing the life of their residents, but also with providing them a safe harbor from the tempestuous realities of college life.

Without a doubt, the four aforementioned positions are filled to the brim with enthusiastic servants of the student body – people who desire nothing more than to see those placed under their care to succeed in the stressful environment that collegiate life thrusts upon them. They engage in every possible activity –  from the production of bulletin boards detailing current events, to the provision of crisis counseling, to the maintenance of law and order in raucous dorms – to encourage the vibrant and multifarious student life that the University of Massachusetts is famous for.

However, despite the unrelenting effort, unbridled passion, and unmatched sacrifice that many PMs and RAs embody on behalf of their residents – and despite their crucial role in the maintenance of law and order in the residence halls in which they serve – there have been murmurs in past years about a proposed radical restructuring of Residence Life that would eliminate or significantly alter many of these positions. For many years, these murmurs were simply dismissed as conspiracy theories concocted by overactive imaginations with a penchant for lurid tall-tales. “So what?” thought so many students who were so firmly convinced that such debasing changes would have any noticeable impact.

Within the past week, however, it was discovered by vigilant students that all of these hitherto-dismissed fears have not only resurfaced with a vengeance, but are in the process of being implemented in a dark and secretive manner.

According to a document distributed by Eddie Hull, the executive director of residence life, and Tara Loomis, director of residence education, the position of ALA will be eliminated outright. It would be misplaced, however, to hope that offices of the director and executive director would be just as forthright regarding the fate that they have unilaterally decided for peer mentors.

After lauding the important role that peer mentors play by commending the “…academic supports to first-year students, including time management skills, support in connecting with academic advisors and departments, and other worthwhile supports,” the document goes on to state that their responsibilities will be assumed by “…First Year Experience Specialists, Graduate Learning Specialists, Residence Directors, and RAs going forward…” This document, in a highly circuitous and deceptive way, announces the end of the peer mentor program as we know it – the end of a program that has provided first-year students with senses of purpose and aided in their quest to “fit in” at UMass for so many years. However, that is hardly the end of it – there is a preponderance of evidence to suggest that Mr. Hull and Ms. Loomis seek to eliminate ARDs and lessen the importance RAs in the future, imperiling the safety of dorms and unwinding the meticulously-woven fabric of community that RAs and PMs work so hard to foster.

Make no mistake: It is just as myopic to view with conspiratorial suspicion every decision that comes out of Whitmore. It is the opinion of this humble columnist that the vast majority of decisions that are made by the University administration and its subsidiaries are well-informed and well-intentioned, with the best interest of the University and its inhabitants in mind. However, there are, on occasion, attempts by elements of the administration to rush through important decisions without consulting the proper governmental authorities, from the Faculty Senate to the Residence Hall Association to the Student Government Association.

It is actions such as these – actions best exemplified by the iniquitous changes that will affect residential life – that smack not just of a complete disregard for deliberative decision making, but of a deviant desire to subvert student life itself. The fact that changes are being made to Residence Life policy is not in itself damnable – indeed, changes to Residence Life in some form are perceived as increasingly inevitable by members of a University that must reconcile fiscal austerity with its aspirations to the rank of “Public Ivy.”

Change is not inherently malicious. However, it was the speed, surreptitiousness and wanton disregard for public discourse underpinning these changes that cause so many to be so furious at such a precious few.

Dan Stratford is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]