As the Gazette began to interview students, RAs, and administration members for our previous story on the RA system at Swarthmore compared to other schools around the nation, a central concern came up again and again. Because students play an enormous role in the selection process for Residential Assistants, the process could be biased towards certain social groups. Students voiced concerns that RA selection, among other things, favored athletes, was biased against conservatives, and left out other students groups.
Our investigation suggests that the students and administration that make up the selection committee are very aware of these concerns, and they inform every step of the process.
Myrt Westphal, Associate Dean for Student Life, and Liz Derickson ’01, Coordinator of Residential Life, led the Gazette step by step through the process. The students on the committee are either second year RAs, an appointee selected by Student Council, or, in years with a dearth of second-year RAs, other seniors.
This group is joined by a rotating group of representatives from the Deans Office. In particular, all of the multicultural deans are involved in the RA selection process.
The committee cloisters itself into Parrish’s basement to consider every single individually. There are no factors that would cause a student to be immediately removed from consideration, explained Westphal. Every applicant is also granted an interview and a role-play which helps to flesh out their thousand-word application.
“We go through the applicants one by one,” she said.
The committee does not have strict list of requirements. “We ask ourselves, “Will this person be a good RA?”” explained Westphal.
Jenna McCreery ’10, an appointed committee member, looks for enthusiasm in particular–but admits that Swarthmore’s different dorms each require dramatically different RAs. A Mertz RA is expected to like to throw study breaks, a Willets RA should be a cheer leader for the College, and a PPR or Wharton RA should be a “responsible person who wants to give back,” she said.
After the first round of meetings, the committee creates a short-list of candidates and tries to match individual students to dorms. Slowly, the list is winnowed down and each finalist is assigned a dorm. Normally, this is the final step, though occasionally students decide not to accept and one of the committee’s back-ups is given the job.
This second committee is all about making dorm teams, said Genevra Pittman ’08, a second-year RA and committee member. After asking if a student would be a good RA, the committee’s second question is always “how will they work with another set of people,” said Westphal. Sometimes, this means particularly qualified candidates get left out. “Some people are very flexible and open about where they’ll serve,” she said, “but if you just want to be in Wharton, you have less of a chance of being an RA.”
Derickson stressed that while the committee looks for strong candidates, it also seeks balance within the RA community. This means the committee approaches the selection process with the explicit goal of “not being 100% athletes, or homogenous in any way.”
By late Spring semester, the list of RAs has been finalized and publicized.
After RAs were announced last year, Dean of Students James Larimore told the Gazette that a “number of students expressed concerns … about bias.” In response to these concerns, Westphal re-examined the entire process.
“She stepped back to question the process and looked into those concerns because she wanted to know to her own satisfaction that these things have been fair, and she wanted to be in a position to do things right,” said Larimore. “She didn’t dismiss it.”
Larimore cautioned students about leaping to bias as an explanation for the outcomes of the process. “People [can be] disappointed in the outcome and feel the only way that an outcome could have resulted is if there was some failing in the process,” he said. He believes that bias is something that the College can, and has, tested and checked for.
Many other schools address bias concerns by largely removing students from the selection process. Larimore described Swarthmore’s student-led process as an “outlier.” But every single student and administration member the Gazette interview was confident that Swarthmore is well served by a high level of student input.
McCreery believes the presence of non-RA students on the committee is vitally important to broadening the selection criteria. “I want to be an outside voice … helping to get new people in or just testing the objectivity of the committee,” she said.
Pittman, a veteran of the process, said that the selection process can be “hard because some people who are applying know more people on the committee,”but the committee still does “a really good job of getting a good group of people.”
Every member of the selection process told the Gazette that they believe bias could be a problem–but it is a problem the committee is prepared to overcome.
“In some situations, the best approach you can take is to label the potential conflict of interest right up front, talk about it, and make sure you’d know it if you saw it,” said Larimore.