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.

Palladium Hall is an upperclassmen dorm on 14th Street near Union Square and one of the many dorms Tom Ellet oversaw during his time as Senior Associate VP. (Staff Photo by Alexandra Chan)

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.

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“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]

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5 COMMENTS

  1. I am curious why RA’s think they are not earning enough? Free private apt. in NYC + free meal plan + stipend are like $15k – $18k for a 3.5 mo. semester, or about $4500-$5k/month. Most of you will be lucky to see that salary after you graduate from college! And it’s not like they do much. I lived in NYU Housing for 2 years before moving off-campus, and I don’t think I ever met an RA aside from them giving out free candy or stickers on Halloween. One of my roommates actually overdosed on drugs in our Carlyle Court dorm and no RA ever reached out to us. It seems like they make a ton of $ for little to no work?


    ” As for mental health, RAs were not granted unlimited hours with NYU Health and Wellness counseling nor did they receive suicide prevention training. ”

    That’s a good thing! Based on what is known about the NYU Wellness Center, asking them for suicide prevention training is like asking Donald Trump for pandemic prevention training.

    • It seems like they make a ton of $ for little to no work?

      Hi Jerina,
      I dont know the specifics of your case but there was probably protcol that was place and sorry you had that experience. However, you shouldn’t make blanket statements like that that discredit all the work we have done, especially when you don’t understand it. In addition to our administrative responsibilities, collaterals, community building, intentional programming, etc., we handle a variety of crises from mental health related cases (like suicidal ideation and suicide) as clearly mentioned above, fire evacuations, intoxications, agressive residents, etc Please think before you write next time because that could benefit you.

      • “Please think before you write next time because that could benefit you.”

        LOL I’m an RN (Rory Meyers ’19 alum) and I’ve handled actual mental health cases in clinical inpatient settings. I’m sure that’s nothing compared to a college kid with a PT job handing out free condoms in a dorm room though! Don’t forget the free candy and stickers!

        I stand by my comment. In 4 semesters of living in Housing, I never had an RA reach out to me or help me with anything – INCLUDING after my roommate OD’d on drugs in our dorm room and nearly died. Nor did the Wellness Center reach out to either of us. Calling it ‘protocol’ is such a joke and exactly the kind of dismissive attitude cultivated by NYU admins.

        Furthermore, read the comment bellow by your fellow RA who clearly contradicts what you say. Personally I think RA’s should have to pay for their housing + meal plans like everyone else instead of being subsidized by other people’s tuition.

        • Like I said, I am sorry you had a bad experience with your situation and RA’s (and I don’t know what entirely happened) but your experience does not negate the rest of the things we have dealt with. I don’t want to pretend I know what your housing case was like but that sounds like the way it was handled was meant to be handled by those above the RA role. My major was in a helping profession from NYU so I have also seen these issues firsthand in my work life that I have seen in the dorms. In the role as an RA, me and my colleagues have handled cases like suicidal ideation, panic attacks, hostile residents, suicide, etc. The fact you think that our job is to hand out “free candy and stickers” is a “dismissive attitude” that negates everything we have dealt with. So I will say again “please think before you write next time” because you don’t know everything that goes on.

  2. The timing of this article makes it feel like a desperate ploy by these RAs to make their voices heard. This is old news. WSN would do well to find out what initiatives the working group have proposed to President Hamilton, or learn about what changes are being made to RA training (like the inclusion of mental health training workshops). For these students to still complain, after the year is finished and new initiatives are on deck to address these issues, speak to their own perceptions rather than what has actually been done.

    “We are told this should be our number one priority but I cannot make money?” | I have never been told that the RA position is our number one priority. Repeatedly we are reminded that we are students first. And is the issue with compensation the amount or the fact that is is not liquid? If you break down the monetary equivalent of our housing & meal scholarship, it would be far above a reasonable salary for the work we do. And, if we were paid through any sort of stipend, that would also be taxable, and in effect, we would be making less money. If you could immediately spend your paycheck, would that alleviate the stress of dealing with a mental health incident?

    “It was basically made off of scheduling.” | The working group was chosen through a combination of votes and availability. The ultimate goal, communicated to everyone (including Ms. Tonegawa) through RA Council, was to get the most RAs as possible onto the committee. It was impossible for everyone who wanted to be on the working group to be able to meet at the same time. They looked at the votes and then saw who was available. So if there was someone who was available but didn’t get enough votes, they wouldn’t have been on the committee.

    The RAs interviewed here also failed to mention the second town hall the department held during training, which I attended. In this session, Ms. Johnson yelled at SVP for Student Affairs Marc Wais to “shut up, sit down” (certainly a fireable offense anywhere else). In this meeting, Tom Ellett was transparent and vulnerable about his concern and distress over these RAs’ antagonism, to which one RA said, “Good,” compelling Tom to walk out of the room to regain composure. And these RAs are expected to display good interpersonal skills.

    I’ve had a wonderful experience as an RA, and that includes time spent dealing with several mental health incidents, roommate conflicts, belligerent and unresponsive residents, parents who threatened me over the phone, etc. I never felt like I was not equipped to handle something, and I was confident in my instincts in case I found myself in a new situation. If we are all held to the same responsibilities, where does the variation in our attitudes actually lie?

    Finally, the RA position is VOLUNTARY. If you think your time would be better spent earning money elsewhere, that is your prerogative. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t seek to change the role you inhabit if you think improvements could be made. But you can’t choose to ignore what is being done to address your concerns, you can’t expect impossible solutions (like giving everyone the exact same room), and you also have to figure out where your personal threshold for the experience lies. There is no shame in learning that the RA role may not be a good fit.

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