Choosing the “RAs”: Who Should Decide?

Nassau Weekly (2/21/85)


By E. Randol Schoenberg (Randy) (’88), Staff Writer  in collaboration with Albert Kim

Almost from the inception of CURL, two years ago, the residential colleges have called for control of the residential adviser selection process, and slowly but surely, the process has moved out of the central domain of West College into the realm of the colleges. With this year’s selection of RAs completed, many participants in the process have expressed their dissatisfaction with it, and questioned the legitimacy of decentralization. Residential college administrators, whose very function is to foster closer relationships between students and faculty must make personal evaluations of these student applications. Is the college selection process fair and objective enough to warrant autonomy from the centralizing influence of West College?

The resident adviser selection process began in December with the submission of a written application and two recommendations to the Dean of Students Office. On the application form, applicants stated their preferences for one college or another. The 165 applicants were divided into five groups of 33. Each college pre-selected 17 candidates for consideration, and the remaining applicants were then divided up among the five colleges by West College on the basis of stated college preferences. A committee of administrators within each college selected 12-13 of the candidates and wait-listed several others.

The Masters then met, each with their list, to compare and finalize decisions. Applicants not chosen by one college may be picked up by another if a Master feels the person merits the selection. Similarly, if an applicant doesn’t quite fit the specific profile of the college considering him, they may recommend that another college pick him up.

The last step, essentially a safeguard against overlooking qualified individuals, means that no college is responsible for the rejection of an applicant. So although the individual colleges distribute acceptance letters, West College is left with the unenviable job of sending out rejection notices. This handling of “dirty work” highlights the diminished, peripheral role that West College has assumed in the RA selection process.

Until 1983, the entire RA program was conducted by West College officials from start to finish. Since the institution of the residential college system, the Council of Masters has pushed for a decentralization of administrative control, and for more college autonomy in the process of selecting RA’s. Assistant Dean of Students Patsy Cole described the transfer of responsibility from the West College to the Masters as a “gradual break” which has left the Masters and their staffs responsible for the majority of the selection process.

Even the required West College interview is conducted for the benefit of the colleges. The notes compiled by the interviewers (in most cases an administrator and a current RA) are sent directly to the colleges. “The purpose of the West College interview is to add further information,” says Cole. “My responsibilities include coordinating the orientation and selection process, therefore I can’t speak on how it is run.”

Emory Elliott, Master of Butler College, supports the preeminence of the colleges in the decision-making process. “When the colleges were created, it made sense to the masters and the deans to place the RAs under each individual college. We feel that it’s an important plus to the system and that the strengths of this design far outweigh its weaknesses.”

Elliott praises the move toward decentralization, noting that the selection process has subsequently become more flexible and individual. “Each college has a somewhat different character, and much of the way this tone is communicated to new freshmen is through the RAs. So it’s important for the colleges to pick up people who seem to agree with the tone and temperament of the college.”

Critics of decentralized selection question the extent to which an applicant’s previous involvement with the college staff influences the ultimate selections made. A Master and members of the college’s staff will most likely be familiar with many of the applicants.   In the worst possible case, outright favoritism and prejudice may be seen as the cause for a selection or a rejection. Critics wonder how else but through prior contact could the Masters preselect 17 applicants.

Nancy Weiss, Master of Mathey College, strongly denies than any irrational biases come into play in the decision making process. “Everyone is considered equally. In terms of subjectivity—certainly it exists, every selection process is subjective. It’s not an objective process. But favoritism—absolutely not. That’s simply not the case. Some of my favorite people don’t get selected.”

A current Mathey RA who was involved in the selection process disagrees with Weiss. “I think that the process shows favoritism—favoritism that leans towards people in the college already. It seems to me that people are being selected to be RAs who seem to have had other ties elsewhere in the college. And I believe mistakes are being made.

“[Familiarity with a specific college] doesn’t mean that they’re going to be better RAs. I understand that the Masters want to assemble a group of people that they can work with, but I think they’re bending over backwards a little too much. A lot of people don’t get the consideration they should, and many good people are passed up.”

Dan Nelson, an assistant master in Mathey College, admits to the difficulties in the RA selection, yet defends it. “One of the things that is hard about the process is when people you know do apply and don’t make it. I think it just shows how strong and how qualified our applicant pool is that we can’t take people we know and like. We try to look at each application individually.”

However, many veterans of the selection process remain convinced that politicking amidst the Masters is rampant, and that the colleges make many questionable selections. One concern is that some applicants with questionable qualifications campaign among a college’s staff and are selected as a result of such “brown-nosing,” while many less well-connected but highly qualified applicants are left out in the cold. Disgruntled applicants point to the high percentage of RAs who are chosen in their “home” college as proof of favoritism; for example, 11 out of the 12 RAs chosen in Mathey College this year were Mathey residents.

Weiss denies any discrimination against out-of–college applicants and attributes the high percentage of Matheyites chosen as Mathey RAs to the disproportionately high percentage of Mathey applicants who wanted to stay in their college. “So many people from Mathey indicated it as their first choice that it was inevitable that a great majority of the final selections would be from Mathey. If all of the qualified people in California applied to Princeton, I’m sure that Princeton would reflect a high California contingent. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the University favors Californians.”

Elliott also stressed the equanimity of the process. “Everyone is treated equally, and we’re going to pick the people we know would make good RAs. It’s in the Master’s best interests to have the best group of people he can find to work with.”

However, horror stories and broken hearts still abound among the rejected applicants. Rumors of prospective RAs leaving in tears after brutal interviews are matched by stories of questionable social relationships between college officials and applicants. Several current RAs and alternate RAs were rejected without explanation. And everywhere, seemingly qualified applicants were left questioning the selection process that decided they weren’t “RA material.”

One way to improve the process, one RA sees, is to increase student input. “I feel very strongly that we need more input. We live with the people involved and know them far better than an interview could determine.” Peter Hammond, currently an RA in Mathey College, agrees: “One thing that they ought to emphasize more is having present RAs come and talk about the people they know. [The RA’s] information is more impressive.”

Hammond who applied to Rockefeller College this year but was reappointed in Mathey, suggests that a centralized selection process would be more fair. “If West College could pick out the top 50 people and then have the colleges pick from there, that would have advantages, such as letting fewer good people slip by. That way everyone would be judged against each other, not just against the people applying to a certain college.” However, Hammond does believe in the sincerity of the colleges. “I do think that the interviewers and all the people involved in the process, do take great pains to really get to know people as well as they can and be fair about their decisions.”

Many structural changes in the process such as increased centralization are unlikely. The Masters do not claim that the process is perfect, but they are pleased with its basic design. As for West College, Cole states, “I don’t foresee any great change. At present the decision aspect rests in the colleges. Any changes must be initiated by the colleges.” But Cole remains open to suggestions. “I would appreciate hearing any concerns a student might have, and I’m sure the Masters would also. We need to know how to make it more fair.”

Whether the current RA selection process is truly unfair or not remains to be seen. Every selective process breeds its share of discontents. Yet, critics feel that the Council of Masters are acting with almost total autonomy and that there are few if any checks on their decision making power. Allegations of favoritism within the colleges can never be tested, but a centralized selection process directed by West College might be more consistent.

The ultimate test of the decentralized selection process will be the performance of next year’s RAs. “Think of it this way,” says Elliott, “The prime motive behind the Master’s thinking is self-interest—you’re going to spend a year with these people. If they’re not first rate, the Master and the college staff will suffer. That’s why I think this business of unfairness is simply not the case.

“It can’t be the case. The Masters would have to be fools.”

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