Dear President Ryan: An Appeal from the Students of the Newcomb Hall Third-floor Service Desk
Dear President Ryan,
Under your leadership, the University of Virginia has begun to undergo a period of powerful and desperately needed change. At every turn, you have invited feedback from the student community in order to understand the obstacles that we face and the tools that we need in order to successfully overcome them. In addition, you have demonstrated a great deal of leadership when grappling with the University’s moral responsibilities, whether it be the University’s legacy of slavery, or fair and adequate compensation for the University’s full-time employees. It is with this understanding, that you have an open ear and a just heart, that we are writing to you today.
In case you are not aware, there is a staffing transition occurring under the Office of the Dean of Students, initiated in order to correct a deficit of the budget allocated to Newcomb Hall. The transition has already affected or is likely to affect student employees at the 3rd-floor service desk, the first-floor information desk, the Programs and Councils Office (PAC), the Student Activities Center (SAC), and 1515. As best as we can tell, the transition is being conducted by Dean of Students Allen Groves, Associate Dean of Students Julie Caruccio, Vice President and Chief Student Affairs Officer Susan M. Davis, Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs Gay Perez, Special Advisor to the Vice President Elisa Holquist, and Director for Rotunda Operations and Events Adam Stubits.
As the student workers of the Newcomb Hall Operations Team, our experience has been plagued with abuses, large and small, suffered from decisions made by the transition team without our advice or consent. We are overworked, disrespected, and, at every turn at which we have voiced our concerns, summarily ignored. A brief history of our experience will now be detailed.
Our experience began with our being informed of the sudden and unexpected removal of our supervisor, Kenny Roston, on October 26th, 2018. Kenny was an incredible manager and supervisor, who managed to take a workforce of about 70 students and make them feel like one great big family — we all were, and continue to be, incredibly fond of him. As you may imagine, we were all hurt and confused — why was this happening? What did it mean? We were quickly reassured by other staff — we had no reason to worry, it was merely a change of supervisor. This was a lie — a lie that we believed and, as we have learned through obtaining documents related to this transition through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, a deliberate lie planned by the transition team in order to abet any concerns we might have related to the transition — concerns which, we would soon discover, were well-founded. Changes were coming, none of them good.
The first change was the sudden dissolution of the Building Manager role. At the beginning of Fall 2018, we experienced a planned transition which created a new tier of student manager titled Building Manager, above the already existing positions of Event Assistant and Operations Manager, created in order to relieve the increase in responsibilities assigned to Operations Managers and Operations as a whole. This allowed for shifts to run with only one Operations Manager per shift, instead of two as was necessary the previous semester. Soon after Kenny’s removal, the Building Manager role was spun off to Housing and Residence Life — they were given a new set of menial, unpleasant tasks to perform, with dramatically cut hours assigned without consent, while their previous responsibilities were returned to Operations Managers — who were now performing at half the capacity they had when last those responsibilities belonged to Operations Managers alone. They felt that they were purposefully being treated poorly, and were by Winter Break discouraged from associating with the remaining Operations team. This poor treatment caused many to quit, and their vacant positions were not filled. Following a request on the part of a few to be demoted and returned to Newcomb as Operations Managers, all who remained were forced back to Newcomb and demoted.
A tumultuous period has ensued — realizing the uncertainty of the position, facing sudden increases in responsibilities, and faced with new management who we did not trust, and did not make themselves easily available, employees continued to quit. As a result, we have been chronically understaffed and had to go through two rounds of hiring simply to attempt to compensate. As a community of coworkers, we have to constantly ask each other to pick up new shifts left understaffed, simply to accomplish our assigned tasks, and have even had to summon an employee on shift at 1515 to aid in a particularly large setup. Since then, Adam Stubits has instituted a hiring, raise and promotion freeze, permanently understaffing us as employees continue to quit, even leaving a shift without a manager — forcing Event Assistants to perform all of the functions of a manager without a corresponding increase in pay (Event Assistants are paid $8.50 per hour, while Operations Managers are paid $10 per hour. Operations Managers perform all of the furniture setup tasks which Event Assistants do, in addition to their managerial responsibilities). We are faced with an accelerating increase in workload, without any corresponding increase in wages, and a chronic understaffing problem which leaves us barely able to accomplish our role.
One of the main goals of the transition is to decrease student staffing — abusing your employees to the point that they all start to quit is not the appropriate way to achieve that. When signing up for this role, we all agreed to do so with a certain understanding of what the job would entail. Faced with demanding academic obligations, most of us work this job because we have to — to pay rent. To pay tuition. To pay for our groceries. Those who can afford to have already quit — those who cannot are stuck in this role, as finding a new job is time-intense and uncertain, and job listings are scarcely available at this point in the semester. The current policies amount to taking gross advantage of low-income students who literally cannot afford to do anything but suffer through them.
As we were constantly left out of conversations regarding changes to our employment and Newcomb Hall, we recently appealed to the Office of University Communications under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). This resulted in a 377-page document consisting of various emails, presentations, and files regarding Newcomb’s transition. While we sought these documents simply to understand what future we faced — a last resort, facing management who, it was increasingly clear, could not or would not tell us what truly was happening — what we found was far more concerning than anything we had possibly expected. Furthermore, it was immediately clear that every step of the transition process had been plagued by a gross misunderstanding of our needs and status as low-income students, as well as a callous disregard for how these changes would affect us — indeed, in 377 pages of documents, there is not a single demonstration of concern for how this would affect us as student employees.
One statement, in particular, stands out: in an email, Executive Vice President of Student Affairs Gay Perez states “Currently, there are way too many student staff performing the same function. As our report points too, we can eliminate the need for many of the positions, eliminate the existing deficit and create a substantial pool of resources for actual student engagement opportunities… Student employment IS NOT Student engagement… Self-Governance, in my experience, does not mean you have to pay students in order for [sic] them to be involved/engaged.”
To anyone who has worked in our role, it is incredibly clear that we do not perform the same function as other departments within this transition. But furthermore, Mr. President, Student employment IS Student engagement — and it’s the only form of student engagement that many of us can participate in. Should we not have had this job, each and every one of us would be looking for employment elsewhere — if student employment were not available, we would be attempting to find employment off-grounds, disconnecting us from the University and its community. When your financial resources are limited, one often simply cannot afford to participate in traditional engagement, whether it be a CIO, or a club, or Self-Governance — this is the closest thing that many of us have.
The transition’s failure to recognize this, as well as its failure to consider, again, in any way, how this transition would negatively impact its student employees, is indicative of failings in the University’s education of its employees, as well as its policies and processes. Furthermore, the University’s policies and processes have failed to sufficiently safeguard us against the abuses which we have experienced. Therefore, in order both to correct the abuses we currently suffer, and in order to improve this University so that no abuses like them will happen to student employees ever again, now or in the future, we present the following list of demands:
- End the hiring and promotion freeze. Our workload has not decreased in the slightest, and has indeed increased, so our staffing levels should not decrease either.
- Compensate those whose responsibilities have been unjustly increased in the wake of understaffing. We entered this academic year with an established system of wage according to position and duties performed. Those who perform the same duties should be paid equally, and those who are not being paid in accordance with their greater responsibilities should see pay increases.
- Retain all current student employees who wish to return to their jobs after the transition is completed. We should not be forced to seek other jobs in an oversaturated market for on-Grounds employment in order to pay our bills.
- Increase transparency by requiring at least one student representative present in each meeting relating to the transition process. This would allow for more informed decisions on part of the transition team, as well as allow for direct student input in the transition process and greater clarity for student workers.
- Implement a University-wide policy which requires that, whenever a decision is made which significantly negatively impacts student employees, that the decision is communicated to them during a certain period — we recommend two weeks — before it takes effect, and that this communication occurs in a clear and efficient manner. This would include but is not limited to topics of wage, hours, and workload. From the beginning of this transition, communication from the transition team has been poor and sparse, and this has proved to be detrimental to our ability to perform our duties on a daily basis.
- Implement a University-wide policy which requires that, should a student employee position’s workload increase significantly for a significant period of time, their wages increase proportionally. This policy and the policy mentioned in (5) could take the form of a Human Resources Management policy, similar to those found on the UVA Policy website (e.g. https://uvapolicy.virginia.edu/policy/HRM-021), or a document on Student Employee rights, similar to the “Students Rights and Responsibilities” document (https://vpsa.virginia.edu/policies/rights) hosted on the website of the Vice President & Chief Student Affairs Officer.
- Implement a University-wide process which allows students to easily petition for redress, should the policies mentioned in (5) and (6) be violated.
- Reevaluate the budget and identify other possible routes to fix the deficit besides disrupting student employment. The deficit predated this academic year and could not have been caused singularly by student employment as these emails and documents suggest.
With your inauguration, the University has entered a new era, one in which issues including hourly wage of full-time employees and financial aid for low-income students have become a priority. As one of the largest and most diverse groups of student workers on Grounds, we feel neglected in the midst of this rhetoric intended to support students like us. The experiences that we and many earlier generations of UVA students have had at Newcomb have been vital to our personal and professional development, as well as a connection to the University and its community, and we seek to preserve some form of this institution that has been so important to us for the benefit of future students.
It is in this spirit we respectfully ask for your time and attention to discuss these matters, hear our concerns, and respond effectively. Please respond at your earliest convenience with your availability, as we would like to address this issue as soon as possible.
The Newcomb Hall Operations Team
Kojo N. Tabiri