Saturday, November 12, 2016

Triangular Principal-Agent Model

    In my job as a Resident Advisor (RA) on campus, I serve as an agent for both my boss (the Resident Director) and the residents who live in my wing of the building.    These two principals do not differ entirely on what it means to be a successful RA, but there are several important differences.
    The Resident Director (RD) is a professional housing staff member (often a graduate student or young professional in student affairs) who is in charge of the entire residence hall.  As my boss, the RD of my hall requires me to make educational bulletin boards once a month, create “Door Dec” artistic nametags for each of my 45 residents, and hang up flyers for different events put on by University Housing.  I am also required to plan educational and fun programs for the residents of my wing and for the whole building, go on rounds of the building to help ensure safety in the hall, and fill out paperwork to document any alcohol, drug-related, or bias/intolerance incidents that happen.  I attend weekly staff development meetings, create program lesson plans, and hold extra programs once a month pertaining to aspects of student wellness (health and fitness, stress management, self-reflection, etc.).
    On top of all these measureable and objective tasks, my RD also expects me to build community and develop relationships with each one of my residents.  I am required to hold “open door hours” at least five hours per week for residents to stop by and chat or ask questions.  Though these actions are encouraged, the RD essentially has no way to tell if these events are happening, so it is not formally measured in success from an RD’s standpoint.
    Doing all this is what counts as success in the eyes of my RD.  Residents, on the other hand, would see their RA as a success for different reasons.  It must be noted that a lot of what the RD uses to measure success is insignificant to the residents.  Most residents will not look at the bulletin boards I put up or come to the educational programs. Usually, just two or three residents from my wing come to an educational program; maybe ten residents come if the program is meant for the whole building.  Residents don’t generally care about whether their RA is going on rounds of the building.  In general, they don’t care as much about the technical parts of the job; residents just want an RA who is friendly, caring, and helpful.  Residents have come to me with ideas for programs that they think would be fun.  They have asked for tips on how to find a campus job, study more effectively, and make friends.  They have come to me to sort out roommate disagreements and occasionally knocked on my door in the earliest hours of the morning to talk about life struggles. To residents, a successful RA is one who shows care for each and every one of his/her residents.  It’s one who plans fun events, helps floormates become friends, and lends a listening ear.  It’s also one who is there to help when a resident gets locked out of his/her room or when neighbors are being too noisy.  
    Ideally, my Resident Director also considers these qualities as part of a successful RA.  The problem is that the qualities that residents tend to look for in an RA are hard to measure.  There is no way for an RD to know how many times an RA has interacted with each resident or how friendly he/she is on a day-to-day basis.  My Resident Director is in charge of me and my fellow RAs, but she’s also responsible for all nearly 500 residents who live in the building.  This makes her extremely busy.  So, realistically, it’s impossible for her to attempt to measure these intangible assets of successful RAs.  
    This causes a dilemma for the RA as an agent of the RD and of the residents. Evidently, the most important part of the job is supporting residents - that is what RAs are there for.  The difficulty of measuring this facet of the job encourages emphasis on less important parts of the job (bulletin boards, program planning, paperwork, etc.)  
    It is nearly impossible to be successful at both the measurable and immeasurable aspects of the RA job.  Most importantly, the RA should be successful for the residents. But this doesn’t always happen because the residents are not as demanding as the Resident Director; the resident director checks up on you and makes sure you are completing requirements, but residents don’t ask anything of you unless they’re having a specific problem.  Coming up with creative bulletin board ideas, hanging up flyers, and attending weekly staff development meetings takes away from my time with residents.  My job comes second to my position as a full-time student, so I have only limited time to begin with.  As a result, it’s easy to push the community-building aspects of the job to the back burner.
There multiple potential ways to solve this problem.  The first is to do only what the RD says, taking care of the measurable aspects of the job while ignoring the others.  This would make my look good in my boss’s eyes, but I wouldn’t be very connected to the residents.  Basically this method would make me a bad RA who looks like a good one.  Pleasing the RD principal does not often do much to help me be a successful RA for my residents.  In this case, pleasing one master would leave me failing for the other.
    The opposite extreme would be to skimp on the formal duties given to me by my RD to maximize my time with residents.  In this solution, I do just enough of what my RD says for her to see me as successful, and I dedicate most of my energy to the residents.  This, in my view, is the best solution because it allows both masters to be satisfied to some extent.
    Disregarding the requirements of the RD to focus only on the residents would not work because I would very likely lose my job that way.  It must also be mentioned that although they are less important than interacting with residents, the duties that my RD gives to me do contribute to my success with residents.  
    The only other option I see would be to sacrifice my learning or my personal well-being in order to be a “perfect” RA.  I could complete all the requirements that my RD gives me and be there constantly for all 45 of my residents, but I would have to give up sleep, study time, and exercise in order to do so.  At the beginning of the year, I tried this method and it ended up backfiring - I could not be a successful RA without getting enough sleep or feeling like I had put enough effort into my studies.  
    Though it is not ideal in some ways, doing the bare minimum of requirements from my RD and spending as much time as I can with residents seems to be the optimal solution.  I must complete the checklist of measurable requirements to satisfy one principal (the RD), and I must build community and form bonds with my residents to satisfy the other.  The two principals are not directly opposed, as pleasing one often helps in pleasing the other, but there are important differences which must be accounted for.



  1. This is an interesting post and you definitely have the elements of the triangle with it. But I wonder if you could take a step back and try to consider the job from the perspective of the RD. Why are there all these stipulations for function that seems not very productive? A lot of it sounded like make work. Are there reasons for it that you have haven mentioned in the post that would make it seem like more meaningful work? For example, are there external visitors to the residence that the RD would like to impress? I don't really understand why the RD would otherwise insist on this work. Is that that the way it is done at all dorms on campus?

    Now the other thing I found surprising is that you didn't mention at all any work that I would term either "policing" or "looking the other way" at mild indiscretions that students make when in college. My understanding, from afar, is that the RA is more there for those things, to have a mature head in case something goes wrong, and to keep things from going over the deep end.

    Also, I was in a dorm at MIT for 3 semesters and then one more semester at Cornell after I transferred there. I don't recall having an RA in either setting. At MIT there was a night watchman kind of guy who came through in the evening. I was never sure what he actually did. At Cornell there was none of that, as far as I can recall.

    Do all dorms at the U of I have an RD and RAs?

    Finally, I wonder if you might speculate on the following. If you want to continue being an RA into the next time period (is it by semester or by year?) then the incentives are right for you to do the job as you've described it. But what about during the last period doing the job? RAs aren't replaced in mid stream or are they? If not, does the RA start to shirk then? And if sow, what of the work gets cut?

    1. Professor Arvan,

      To consider things more from the perspective of the RD, the boards make the residence hall seem less institutional and more homey while giving the residents an opportunity to learn something about wellness or campus resources. Since I work in the newest hall on campus, my RD encourages us to keep the building looking nice for when visitors come. The director of University Housing has brought professors and other important visitors on tours of the building several times. So, it would make sense that she would like us to make the boards to impress visitors. Even so, boards are something that has been around for a long time in University Housing, and every RA has to make at least two per month for his or her residents.

      To address the issue of policing - I am an RA in a predominantly non-freshman hall, so there are less incidents to deal with regarding alcohol and other problems. Even so, I am prepared to deal with alcohol-related incidents or help a student in need, and this is an important part of the job. Of course, residents do not want to be busted for things like smoking marijuana or drinking alcohol in their rooms, but the RD encourages it as necessary to ensure student safety and keep any drug-related activities from escalating.

      All residence halls at the UIUC have 10-11 RAs, one MA who serves as a multicultural advocate for residents in the hall, and one RD.

      RAs generally sign up to work for year-long increments. RAs can be replaced mid-stream if they are not keeping up with the workload or get caught drinking alcohol. There is one RA on a different staff than my own currently who plans to quit the job after first semester. He is shirking to an extreme extent; he still interacts with residents occasionally and goes to the mandatory meetings, but he has told me he hasn't hosted any programs this year and he does not always do his duty rounds. Granted, he will not be able to ask his supervisor for a letter of recommendation, but he cut out a lot of work this semester since he knows it will be his last.

  2. Before reading your post I didn’t know that residence RAs have so many work to do. I agree that as a resident, the thing I cared the most is whether the RA is friendly and caring, whether he/she could create an environment make residents feel like home, and whether he/she could be the one I could ask for help and advice when I face difficulties.

    I’ve never lived in dorms at U of I, but when I was studying in Hong Kong (I transferred to U of I after my sophomore year), I lived in residence halls. We had 1 RA for each floor (about 15-20 residents each floor), and usually there are 12-14 floors for each residence hall. One particular thing I remembered was that each year, they have floor decoration contests, which starts at the beginning of the year when students have just moved in. By working together at the beginning of the year, we had the chance to really get to know other people on the same floor. We worked on the floor decoration together so everyone takes pride of it, it was effective. I saw that at your residence hall, RA is the only person responsible for decorations? The residence halls also organize all kind of activities, and many of the times we attended as a floor. So residents develop friendships with each other, leading to a caring and friendly environment, which also made me feel more close to my RA. Another thing I remembered that is RAs are always the ones resolving conflicts, so being an RA also meant a great sense of responsibility. I think that’s the most challenging part of the job, I wonder if you have dealt with any difficult conflict situations as an RA?

    I also thought that it might be a good idea for the RDs to design some surveys and study what are the real needs of their residents. For example, even if those bulletin boards have useful information, if students never read it, it is meaningless and would be a waste. Maybe figuring out what the students really want, and how they want those information to be delivered would better serve the students. Or using some tactics to make students more involved might increase their interest in reading those bulletin boards/attending educational programs.

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  4. As an RA, I think that a lot of the purpose of an RA is to be a resource for students. However, students are consumers and I think our jobs are customer service. Even though I am somewhat of an insider, some of the seemingly meaningless tasks are justifications for our practices. My guess is that University Housing needs to justify some peoples' payrolls to the state. Otherwise, the RA and RD jobs are difficult to evaluate. Good customer service does not make a good RA/RD, but being a good RA/RD means to be good with customer service.