Senior Associate VP for Student Affairs Tom Ellett Responds to Reports of Mistreatment, Exploitation and Lack of Transparency by Former RAs
As he departs in his capacity of overseeing the university’s Residential Assistants, WSN spoke with Senior Associate VP Tom Ellet, as well as former RAs, about their complaints regarding the position.
May 25, 2020
Three months ago, Cam Mesinger, a former Weinstein Resident Assistant and NYU Gallatin 2020 graduate, was on duty with their RA team. They were in a situation late at night where a first-year student was mentally unstable.
“We were on the phone with the Residence Hall Director on duty who tells us we should walk away from the situation, but if we walk away this person is literally going to kill themselves tonight,” Mesinger said.
In this particular incident, Mesinger said everyone was ultimately fine. This situation is not unique to the experiences of many RAs.
Bobbi Johnson, a 2020 Tisch Drama alum and former RA, also recounted a similar experience with a mental-health related emergency in a first-year dorm.
“We have to deal with so many traumatic events but at the same time, we go to RA meetings and feel like we are at summer camp,” Johnson said. “No preparation or care or training for the trauma that we face.”
Pleas for mental health training and suicide counsel have been at the forefront of RA concerns for a long time, most notably highlighed last May by alum Ary Reich who wrote a 40 page-manifesto titled “An Analysis of the Treatment of Resident Assistants in New York University’s Office of Residential Life and Housing Services.”
The manifesto outlined various issues surrounding mental health, compensation, unionization and general mistreatment in the role. It received widespread RA support.
“The Office of Residential Life and Housing Services at New York University systematically fails to adequately support the well-being of Resident Assistants at the University,” the manifesto read. “This essay is a collection of observations, issues, contentions, and analyses of how fundamental and purposeful these actions by the Office are.”
The manifesto caught the attention of higher-ups including Senior Associate VP of Student Affairs Tom Ellett, Senior VP of Student Affairs Marc Weis and NYU President Andrew Hamilton who hosted a town hall at the beginning of the Fall 2019 academic year.
“At some point in this town hall, someone asks Andrew Hamilton if he had seen the document,” Mesinger said. “Before he could even speak, the microphone was taken from Hamilton by Tom Ellet who allegedly said no questions would be taken regarding that. Students were pissed.”
The manifesto and town hall were cited by every RA interviewed by WSN.
When WSN spoke to Senior Associate of VP Affairs Tom Ellett, who will be departing NYU, regarding the town hall and its criticism, Ellett said: “I’m retiring from NYU and these are things that are long past. I do not want to rehash this.” He declined to comment further.
After the town hall, a role review committee was created to discuss issues raised by the manifesto. This committee consisted of a group of student RAs who could be elected through a process of self-nomination.
“It was not really a fair election,” Steinhardt 2020 alumna Kasane Tonegawa said. “It was not based on the amount of votes people got but rather who could meet during this specific time during the week. It was basically made off of scheduling.”
Both the committee and the manifesto did spark some changes including new printers in some buildings, metrocards for RAs located in Tandon housing in Brooklyn and new RA working groups that met regularly. As for mental health, RAs were not granted unlimited hours with NYU Health and Wellness counseling nor did they receive suicide prevention training.
While issues surrounding mental health were of top priority, other criticisms of the role include its pseudo-employee status, many suggesting that the use of the term ‘ParaProfessionals’ is done to discourage unionization of RAs and also does not subjugate them to the fair compensation that regular NYU employees receive.
“We work insane hours and are not properly compensated,” Johnson said. “We are told this should be our number one priority but I cannot make money? Some students have more need than just living, and even that is not equal.”
According to the RAs, compensation varies greatly.
“Compensation for the role varies so much.” Tonegawa said. “Someone who is in Rubin is going to have a very different living situation than someone in Gramercy. Freshmen also require much more work than upperclassmen so more hours should mean more compensation.”
Tonegawa also suggested that RAs are unknowingly exploited within their roles and feels as though she was not properly told what she was getting into.
“They are hiring us as RAs because it is cheaper rather than hiring mental health professionals to roam the halls or more public safety officers for violent or drug incidents in dorms,” Tonegawa said. “They try to mask that exploitation through fun activities and free t-shirts, and free housing but it really isn’t.”
Many RAs claim to fall into a love-hate relationship with the role.
“I still have a love for being in the role of an RA, for my team and my students, but us working to compensate for NYU Admin’s shortcomings should not be considered in the bounds of being a good RA,” Mesinger said.
When WSN asked Ellett for his reaction to RA’s disappointment with the role, Ellett questioned the origin of the sentiments.
“What is the motivation for them being an RA? I think that may play into why a lot of these students are unhappy,” Ellett said. “If I go in for the compensation, I will never really be happy in the RA position. I do not have the motivation for student success and helping them.”
Ellett emphasized the availability of his office and contact as well as the RA Council.
“Every Monday night you could have come in and changed it,” Ellett said. “There was an open forum. Shame on them for complaining without solutions. It is going to be hard to be in any organization if you are going to complain and not try and do something about it.”
Ellet questioned the motives that drove some RAs to their roles.
“I’m sorry if there are some RAs, whether it is 5%, 20% or 85% (which I don’t believe) of RAs who were unhappy, but what role did they play in the creation of their own unhappiness?” questioned Ellett.
WSN was unable to interview returning RAs due to a rule barring current RAs from speaking to the press, but recent graduates are not hopeful for the future of RAs.
“Look at the way [NYU] housing handled COVID-19,” Mesinger said. “It’s even beyond the RA role. It is a pattern of leadership having no transparency and little care for student wellbeing.”
Email Mina Mohammadi at [email protected]