Update on Response to RAs’ Concerns
Posted: April 19, 2017
Dear Scripps College Students, Faculty, and Staff:
The recent RA strike has highlighted what has been an ongoing discussion about the ways in which Scripps College supports students, and in particular, students of color and those facing financial, mental health, and other challenges. Improving the Scripps experience for all students should be where we focus our collective energy, creativity, and intellect. Therefore, I welcome a frank and honest discussion about these matters.
Such discussions yield the greatest change when we speak directly with each other, sharing information and perspectives, clarifying misinformation or misunderstandings, and identifying opportunities for better collaboration and communication. Today I met with the RAs to discuss the document they provided me when they declared their strike, and I believe we had just such a conversation. I was eager to talk with them about the current state of financial aid, emergency preparedness, the RA structure, and mental health support, and to explore ways in which we can learn from their experiences to strengthen Scripps’ culture.
I am sympathetic to the toll that the death of a close friend and colleague has taken on the RAs, and the severe pain and fatigue they are experiencing. The RA position is one that requires emotional stamina, and grieving reduces one’s mental, emotional, and physical strength. Out of concern for their wellbeing, I have encouraged the RAs to separate their decision to end the strike from the administration’s response to the demands, and instead to consider a return to work only if and when they feel they have the capacity to resume those duties. In the meantime, the College will continue to cover the RA responsibilities with professional staff and additional outside personnel to respond to emergencies.
Summary of Response to RA Concerns:
The College’s work in the areas of financial aid, mental health and safety, and RA structure is ongoing, and the administration is pursuing the following immediate and longer-term actions related to the RAs’ demands. In response to requests for greater transparency about the administration’s actions in these areas, below is a summary of the information I shared with them. We will continue to update this list based on our ongoing conversations with the community.
Providing robust financial support to students is one of the most powerful ways the College affirms its commitment to academic excellence. Financial aid ensures equitable access to extraordinary and accomplished students from diverse backgrounds. Accordingly, I am determined to increase funds available for need-based financial aid during my tenure as president.
As we consider ways to expand financial aid resources for current and future students, it is important to understand which aspects of the award are determined by federal regulations about the use of federal funds, and which are subject to Scripps’ discretionary practices. I am encouraged that the RAs requested to meet with the director of financial aid in order to increase their understanding of the general principles of the financial aid regulations. In response to requests from the RAs and others, we are offering an open session on financial aid processes to provide insight into how financial aid packages are determined and to answer students’ questions about the annual award process.
In the meantime, we continue to work diligently to increase our financial aid funds, maximize the impact of the funds we have, and improve the financial aid experience for students. As mentioned in earlier communications, we have increased the financial aid budget for next year and will use those funds to decrease the extent to which our students need to rely on loans for their education. The financial aid office is collaborating with the dean of students to identify students who experience a change in financial circumstances mid-year and to provide timely information about their financial aid options. Additionally, we plan to revise our financial aid letters and website so that the annual processes and expectations are more understandable and accessible for students and families.
This year, more than ever, we observed the importance of having a student emergency fund to cover students’ incidental or unusual costs that arise out of unexpected crises. The Scripps College student emergency fund was established in 2015, and the amount available has depended entirely on designated gifts from donors. Effective in the 2017-2018 academic year, the College will allocate $20,000 to this fund at the beginning of each academic year and continue to solicit donor funds to further augment it.
Mental Health and Safety
Students have consistently cited mental health and wellness services and programs as a top priority over the past year, and the College has responded by significantly expanding access to therapy on campus, within the Consortium, and in the surrounding Claremont community. The College advocated successfully for additional therapists at Monsour Counseling and Psychological Services last year, especially those with expertise counseling people of color, which has reduced student wait times. We have instituted a program that financially supports students seeing off-campus therapists, which has been utilized by approximately 110 students to date. Students may also request and be granted more than the standard eight-session package.
In response to ongoing concerns about unmet mental health needs, we are considering several options for further expanding mental health services, including increasing the budget to assist with co-pays, and/or hiring a Scripps staff position dedicated to wellness. Immediately, we will continue to work with area therapists to negotiate a student rate equivalent to the College’s contribution, paid directly to the therapist by the College, thereby eliminating out-of-pocket costs for students.
In the 2017-2018 academic year we will provide mental health crisis training, which will be available for students, student-facing staff, and faculty. We will offer programming oriented both around promotion of mental health as well as assessing and responding to crises.
Emergency preparedness is a top priority of Scripps College to ensure the safety of not only our students, but the entire campus community. The College has protocols and procedures in place to protect and stabilize the campus community in the event of a major emergency. This academic year, the College demonstrated its commitment to emergency preparedness by hiring a full-time emergency preparedness manager responsible for coordinating training and communication between faculty, staff, and students to optimize disaster response and recovery. He has trained Scripps students, staff, and faculty on emergency procedures, upgraded and increased the College’s emergency supplies, and forged partnerships with the dean of faculty, dean of students, campus safety, and local law enforcement. Consistent with the RAs’ request, in the next academic year, the emergency preparedness manager will collaborate closely with Residential Life staff to ensure the emergency protocols for residence halls align with broader campus emergency response policies, and review and update all emergency plans to reflect current best practices.
As social media and the internet have become central to the ways in which we communicate, we have observed a number of situations in which information has been distributed in ways that neither the College nor our students can control. As such, we will offer programming focused on internet safety during the 2017-2018 year as part of Scripps 360 so that students can maintain their online privacy in the complicated context of the Consortium and the broader public sphere.
The RA job is a complex one, and Scripps is due for a review of the responsibilities assigned to RAs to recognize the changing social context of the residence halls, address the needs of today’s Scripps students, and emulate best practices in undergraduate residential programs. For example, we will revise the alcohol and drug policy for 2017-2018 to eliminate certain requirements, such as closed doors. We will review the tasks RAs have identified as problematic to determine how best to accomplish and/or change those duties. Additionally, Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Charlotte Johnson will lead a broader review of the RA role, which will include an examination of different options for compensation, the resulting impact on financial aid, and a comprehensive assessment of the ideal skills, tasks, and attributes necessary for RAs in the Scripps of today. Dean Johnson will assemble a committee to begin this evaluation before the end of this semester. This committee will be guided by the principle that RAs should be oriented toward social support of students, rather than clerical or policing functions. My expectation is that this committee will provide a report that addresses short-term changes for RAs in the 2017-2018 academic year (who have already signed contracts), and longer-term changes in the role beginning in the fall of 2018.
As I shared with the RAs, the College will not make personnel decisions through demands, but will instead do so in a manner that is consistent with our institutional values and Principles of Community.
Scripps College is a place that is motivated by self-improvement. We discover the opportunities for that improvement through reflection and conversation, and we discover solutions through understanding and innovation. In general, the RAs’ underlying goals for the College are my goals as well, and we need to determine the right mechanisms for achieving the change we all desire. I look forward to continuing conversations about how we can further improve the areas discussed above. We will continue to seek new approaches in our quest to meet our students’ needs more effectively and to align the actual Scripps experience with the envisioned Scripps experience.
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