UGA Training: Behind Closed Doors

The East Wheelock residential cluster at Dartmouth

The East Wheelock residential cluster at Dartmouth

Dartmouth’s residential system is one of the least transparent student-oriented facets of the College. Considering the ubiquity of opaque bureaucracy in Hanover, that is truly a feat. Despite The Dartmouth Review’s countless investigative efforts, we have been unable to ascertain what community directors actually do, aside from getting students in trouble. Each one of our queries sent to community directors over the years has been met with a refusal to comment and a referral to the College’s Office of Communications, a generally unhelpful entity. (For a more detailed exposition of our gripes with the College’s approach to public relations, see “Stonewalled: Parkhurst and the Press” in Volume 35, Issue 2.)

To find out more about the residential system, we had to take an indirect route. We decided to speak to numerous UGAs about the training and support that they are provided in order to do their jobs. We thought that this would illuminate not only the role of community directors, but also of the overall management of the residential system.

It was a challenge to find UGAs who were willing to speak critically of the system in formal interviews, even with the promise of anonymity. Invariably, we were told that the probability of retaliation against those who spoke to us was very real—they could lose their jobs. Several UGAs with whom we spoke were critical of the training process, but they were unwilling to contribute to this report for fear of being identified, citing the relatively small size of the UGA community. One UGA in particular was critical of this process but backed out at the last moment for these exact reasons. As a result, all UGAs mentioned in this article are cited under pseudonyms and their identifying personal characteristics have been changed.

Three UGAs were willing to speak to us about the training process in full-length interviews. Two of them, Taylor and Reagan, held strongly negative opinions on the ideology promoted by Residential Education and the Office of Pluralism and Leadership (OPAL) during UGA training. The third UGA did not express any negative or positive viewpoints about the training process but corroborated the factual accuracy of the other UGAs.

Reagan described UGA training as a lengthy and tedious weeklong process that UGAs are expected to attend every year, regardless of any past experience or training. During training, the day begins at 8 or 9 A.M., and it does not end until late at night. She found the process to be mostly unnecessary, with approximately only 5 percent of the information being helpful. Indeed, she missed the entirety of training her sophomore year because she was notified of her selection as a UGA too late for her to make alternative travel arrangements. Despite this lack of formal training, she performed her job admirably, without any issues, and was thus allowed to continue being a UGA in subsequent years.

Despite the length of training, Reagan felt that important topics were not adequately discussed, while a significant amount of time was wasted on pointless activities and sessions. Considering that the most important role of the UGA is to ensure the health and safety of residents, Reagan expected a greater emphasis on these topics. Training regarding mental health and suicide prevention and awareness was minimal, and all the UGAs learned were common sense responses and how to refer residents to various resources, many of which are highly bureaucratic and ineffective.

Two sessions of three hours each provided UGAs instruction on responding to various situations, such as roommate disputes, situations involving drugs and alcohol, and situations involving suicidal or depressed individuals. These sessions, known as “behind closed doors” training, involved groups of seven or eight UGAs working with community directors to act out various scenes. Both Reagan and Taylor found these sessions mostly useless, providing only superficial exposure to the scenarios depicted rather than real skills such as conflict resolution.

As with many things relating to the College, bureaucracy reared its ugly head during UGA training. A large portion of training was focused on filling out paperwork regarding policy violations. Certainly, knowing how to fill out paperwork is an essential part of a UGA’s repertoire, but the training was described as repetitive, overemphasized, and even confusing. The time spent on intricacies of alcohol policy, the Good Sam policy, and Title IX policy apparently did not make these policies any clearer, according to Reagan. And another time consuming and generally useless aspect of UGA training was the emphasis on staff bonding. Approximately one-third of the time in training is spent on various games and activites to promote bonding among UGAs. Given that the role of the UGA is not particularly team-driven and does not involve much coordination, this aspect of training was as useless and any other.

While training was generally unnecessary and ineffective, one part of training stood out as especially egregious and inappropriate to the UGAs we spoke to. During training, UGAs embark on a two day trip to Camp Akeela, a campsite in Vermont that does not have Internet access. A fair amount of time there is spent on bonding activities, but Taylor described the overall Camp Akeela experience as “learning how to be politically correct.” The trip was expensive and pointless in general, yet one three hour session with two staff members of OPAL was particularly concerning. Reagan described how the session with OPAL trivialized serious issues such as mental illness and dealt with the ideas of personality identity and diversity in an extremely superficial way.

Community directors wore shirts that said, “Got privilege?” UGAs were repeatedly reminded to check their “privilege,” and discussion after discussion focused on addressing the issue of privilege. OPAL emphasized how people of different races, genders, and sexual orientations faced many issues at Dartmouth that privileged white, heterosexual, cisgender people did not face. (We were unable to confirm whether the lack of gender neutral bathrooms was cited as one of these problems.) The lecturers focused on Residential Education’s ideology of “radical hospitality,” which means that UGAs must learn to be extremely accepting of people who are of different genders or who do not have as much privilege as others. In other words, UGAs are supposed to religiously avoid microaggressions and deploy mechanisms such as trigger warnings so that no one could possibly hurt his feelings.

The “issues” of gender identity and sexual orientation were discussed ad nauseam. Taylor said that while queer and genderqueer people are only a small minority, an inordinate amount of time was spent dealing with issues related to these demographics. He also mentioned the fact that the training taught UGAs to promote a culture of victimhood and create a cloistered environment to protect these oppressed minority groups. In particular, he found the ideology promoted to be extremely disempowering, considering that these “special snowflake” minority groups were treated as victims who needed to be protected by people with more privilege.

Even more concerning is the fact that UGAs were expected to impart this radical ideology on their residents. UGAs were supposed to force residents “from backgrounds not exposed to privilege conversations” to ascribe to OPAL’s beliefs. In particular, OPAL instructed UGAs to emphasize to white male residents the importance of checking their privilege and the fact that their life is so much better because their white male privilege. Moreover, UGAs were supposed to instill in their residents an approach to diversity that emphasized these superficial aspects of identity; diversity of thought was not discussed at all. There is no way around the truth: OPAL was asking UGAs to indoctrinate their residents.

Taylor was so frustrated with this session that he stated, “Privilege is a word that should be erased from our vocabulary.” Reagan agreed and thought that it was inappropriate to indoctrinate residents in any ideology, opinion, or mindset. She also noted that many UGAs that she knows, including African American and Hispanic UGAs, also found this aspect of training inappropriate.

Time in UGA training spent on these issues of identity politics could have been better spent on addressing issues of broader applicability and concern. UGAs in training were not provided concrete examples of how to be good UGAs. Very little time was spent on the bread and butter of a UGA’s job, hosting floor meetings and coffee talks, although UGAs do learn a somewhat useful skill known as motivational interviewing. The fact that checking privilege had more weight than mental health in UGA training truly demonstrates the misplaced priorities in Dartmouth’s residential system.

UGAs were given opportunities to provide feedback on the training they received. However, the responses were not anonymized, so UGAs could not express the full extent of their displeasure at the training they were provided. Reagan stated that many UGAs feared that they would lose their jobs or would make enemies of the administration if they spoke up in response to the absurdity of the OPAL session. Nevertheless, most UGAs that she knows provided generally negative feedback. Despite this negative feedback, nothing has changed. UGA training is still as long and arduous as ever.

Rather than provide the tools to help UGAs be more effective, training seems to handicap UGAs. UGAs truly care about the health and wellbeing of their residents, and they do not want to have to deal with the administration’s political correctness and bureaucratic protocols. As a result, many UGAs cut corners with protocol whenever they can, disregarding the impractical and radical ideas imparted during training. However, some UGAs have apparently taken them to heart. Citing the “ethos of promoting radical inclusivity in our residence halls,” one UGA threw out issues of The Review placed in the French common room. Apparently, inclusivity has been redefined to include intolerance of viewpoints that disagree with the orthodoxy of social justice. OPAL would be proud.

Taylor described community directors as the “UGAs of the UGAs.” Community directors keep their job by inflating the importance of the UGAs and, by extension, their own role. The resource- and time-intensive but ultimately flawed UGA training process is just one manifestation how community directors validate their existence, never mind the fact that most students deride their role in the residential system as pointless. Community directors also aggrandize their own importance by inventing problems that do not exist, such as the mass prevalence of bias incidents against queer people.

The residential system has already implicitly admitted that much of UGA training is unnecessary by allowing some UGAs to miss training if they are notified of their assignment late enough to be unable to rearrange their travel plans. Despite missing this supposedly essential training, these UGAs do not need to attend any makeup sessions. Meanwhile, community directors have made decisions regarding training that materially harmed the ability of UGAs to do their job. Taylor described how a friend needed time off because of a family emergency. Despite this, her community director prevented her from missing any training sessions, even the introductory ones that are of little substance. Certainly, preventing a UGA from tending to her own emotional wellbeing cannot be productive in promoting the health and wellbeing of residents.

As the College moves toward a costly house system, it becomes increasingly clear that more community directors and paid staff in the residential system are not needed; they are just more examples of wasteful spending. While the decrepit Choates and River Clusters continue to fall apart, community directors draw plush salaries and free housing. UGAs do require some degree of training, but the current paradigm is clearly unproductive. While the typical administrative response to problems has always been to add additional layers of bureaucracy, it is time to clean house.

  • William Buckley

    This article will undoubtedly prove to be a masterpiece in American journalism. Not only did the author so righteously point out the scourge of liberal indoctrination plaguing Dartmouth’s housing system, but he did so using no fewer than seventeen transition words (despite, invariably, while, etc.) and one italicized Latin phrase. Bravo.

  • Sir Regibald Rothschild IV

    During the course of this abeyance from my assiduous lucubration, I must convey my salutations for this garrulously gabby and loquaciously lethargic tour de force, in which one, in a manner of speaking, parries the pathetic and pitiable paltry plague that is liberalism! Well done! Good day sir!