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Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024
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Opinion: ‘Don’t talk to student media’ policies are avenues for abusive employment

AU denies RAs the right to protect themselves and advocate for their community with controlling policies

From the Newsstands: This story appeared in The Eagle's December 2023 print edition. You can find the digital version here

Editor’s Note: Anthony Bayyouk is a staff writer for The Eagle’s sports section. Bayyouk was not a member of The Eagle at the time of this interview, and was not involved in writing or editing this piece.

Resident advisors are undergraduates who live in and manage University housing, assisting their peers with community-building, roommate disputes, academic resources and mental health encouragement. With disclaimers and emails prohibiting RAs from engaging with media, American University’s Housing and Residence Life hides behind claims of protecting RAs from news outlets, but in reality are covering up their abuse of RAs’ time, emotions and finances. 

The University’s Freedom of Expression and Expressive Conduct Policy states that the school is “committed to protecting free expression for all members of its community.” However, in staff meetings and outreach with RAs, the administration’s tone drastically changes. Administration has told RAs, “Do not engage with any media personnel in the capacity of your HRL role,” as stated in HRL emails acquired by The Eagle. HRL has created a power dynamic in which they underpay and overload RAs with little to no administrative or public consequences. This dynamic works to isolate RAs from public attention and community organization. If they attempt to share their experiences of unjust employment practices, RAs fear job loss, and in turn, losing their housing and stipend. 

In restricting their employees from communicating with media, AU breaks its own policies and devalues RAs’ experiences as people. The Freedom of Expression and Expressive Conduct Policy asserts that the University respects and encourages journalistic pursuits “without outside interference” and that free inquiry and truth-seeking for every University member is “based on respect for human dignity.” Both statements fall through in execution. 

It seems that American University is in support of journalistic freedom, so long as it can control and manage the conveyed message. HRL has now directly interfered with journalistic freedom and by their own definition, has disrespected the human dignity of their resident advisors.

Anthony Bayyouk, previously employed by HRL as a resident advisor for the 2022-2023 academic year, shared the fears of reaching out to student media with me. Bayyouk stated that he experienced unjust treatment by HRL, but was unable to advocate for himself and his peers due to media engagement bans. He said that RAs, “aren’t being treated like people. We’re being treated like figures in a contract.”

He continued to report that RAs are continuously held to unreasonable standards, with singular “warnings” that end with eviction from RA housing in a 48-72 hour period with no relocation aid. The warnings occur after an RA does not keep up with HRL’s stringent employment standards, which are inherently subjective. The warnings can be issued on any minor action. Bayyouk explained that HRL “take[s] housing away from human beings like it's nothing.” Barring RAs from communicating with media effectively bans their collective and public activism, leaving them to either adhere to HRL’s demands or be evicted in two to three days. 

Moreover, Bayyouk states that adhering to HRL’s employment standards is extremely difficult, even for the most dedicated RA. In the Department’s policies for RAs, which are not available on public platforms, RA’s responsibilities are broken down into six categories. These categories, along with training, add up to 39 individual responsibilities throughout the semester. Most of the outlined responsibilities are to be completed on a weekly or biweekly basis. RAs are then left in a state of constant worry with no avenues to object or public to aid them.

In the policies for RAs, the Department also writes, “The RA position cannot be easily translated into hours worked per day or week … The nature of the RA position does not allow for all duties to be explicitly described.” Therefore, HRL can add on unlimited responsibilities, hours and demands, leading to “essentially work[ing] 24 hours a day,” Bayyouk said. “I don’t know how we survive.”  

By blocking off RAs’ communication with media, HRL destroys workplace accountability and forces RAs to work toward extremely stringent standards. Public communication would allow for more reasonable policies and outward accountability as well as housing security for those taking care of all residents on campus. 

Allowing RAs their basic freedom of speech and engagement with media would also expand their ability to negotiate for fairer wages. Resident advisors are compensated with provided housing and a stipend of $375 per month, $1,875 per semester, as of spring 2023. Despite having a baseline of 39 responsibilities and essentially nonstop work hours, resident advisors at AU are some of the lowest compensated in the D.C. area. The average wage for resident advisors in the D.C. area is $20.09/hr. With this average wage, RAs at American University would be compensated $4,098 a semester, as opposed to $1,875, for their 12-hour weekly shifts alone. 

RAs cannot communicate this inequality due to media engagement bans. With more community attention, RAs may be able to coordinate with one another for fairer wages and demand change from the University. This raises the question of AU’s intent with media engagement bans. With no avenues for reporting or media attention, students are made to deal with unjust living and workplace circumstances. 

RAs, as well as desk receptionists, are the only University employees we know about who cannot engage with media. If there are other employees who have been silenced, this article is also for them. Media engagement is a right each employee should have, as bans extinguish public aid and allow administrative policy violations to continue. This type of restriction is, by the University’s own standards, more than workplace injustice; it is a lack of respect for human dignity. If AU is as committed to free speech and dignity as it claims, it should allow University employees to engage with media as an avenue for advocacy and communication.

Rebeca Samano is a junior in the School of Public Affairs and a staff columnist for The Eagle. 

This article was edited by Jelinda Montes, Alexis Bernstein and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Isabelle Kravis, Sarah Clayton and Luna Jinks.

 Hosts Sara Winick and Sydney Hsu introduce themselves and talk about their favorite TV shows. This episode includes fun facts, recommendations and personal connections. 

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