University administrators are responding to public criticism from an anonymous group of Campus Living paraprofessionals calling themselves “enFOCUS,” who disparaged UB for its treatment of its resident advisors, community assistants and academic assistants.
enFOCUS made its debut last Thursday, when the organization sent a letter, signed only by “UB Paraprofessionals” and “enFOCUS,” to university administrators, including UB President Satish Tripathi, Vice President for Student Life Brian Hamluk, newly appointed Dean of Students Tomás Aguirre, and Residential Life Director Brian Haggerty, among others. The letter was also published in The Spectrum and posted to Reddit.
The letter criticized administrators for putting paraprofessionals’ “lives at risk” during last December’s blizzard, cutting their meal plans, providing “unjust” pay that they calculated to be $3.61 per hour, prematurely moving students into South Campus dorm buildings following renovations, and not providing paraprofessionals with narcan.
“Parapros are more than willing to help a resident in need, wherever, whenever and however we can,” the letter reads in part. “However, we’ve had enough. For years, Residential Life has relied on the unpaid and relentless labor of our paraprofessionals. For years, we have allowed Professional Staff Members & Leadership Staff to inject fear and terror into our paraprofessionals — the majority of them being minorities.”
That letter was followed six hours later by an email to paraprofessionals. The second message, which was obtained by The Spectrum, contained a screenshot of replies to enFOCUS’ Reddit post and criticized Campus Life staff for not responding to the initial letter.
“We are constantly told to act and think as if we are in a fishbowl, all eyes on us,” the second letter read. “The fishbowl has turned itself inside out... all eyes on you.”
In the days since enFOCUS’ letter, paper signs reading “Where is our contract Campus Living?” have been put up across campus, including outside the Ellicott Complex and Flint Village. Photos of the Student Union bull painted to read “Parapros have had enough!!!” and signed by enFOCUS were anonymously submitted to The Spectrum.
SUNY has not been contacted by any UB paraprofessionals about forming or joining a union, according to SUNY spokesperson Holly Liapis.
Assistant Vice President for Student Engagement and Success Trung Nguyen, a recipient of enFOCUS’ initial letter, responded with an email to paraprofessionals on Friday, writing that Student Life had “started to engage with students to begin discussing and addressing concerns” and would continue to do so.
“We greatly value, admire and appreciate paraprofessionals’ ability to balance their own college responsibilities with their vital role as mentors to residential students,” Nguyen wrote. “We are proud of and grateful for their service as community-builders and problem-solvers who enrich the student experience here at UB.”
Nguyen and Dean of Students Tomás Aguirre said in another email Tuesday that they had “engaged with some paraprofessionals” and would hold a “dialogue” open to all paraprofessionals on Thursday night in Greiner Hall.
Executive Director of Campus Dining and Shops Eric Blackledge announced on Wednesday that paraprofessionals could eat for free at C3, Governors and Goodyear on Thursday evening. That announcement, which came one day after Nguyen and Aguirre’s, made no explicit mention of enFOCUS or paraprofessionals’ concerns, but the university has not offered free meals to paraprofessionals during prior semesters.
Paraprofessionals are students employed by Campus Living. They include resident advisors (RAs), who oversee students in residence halls; community assistants (CAs), who oversee students living in on-campus apartments; and academic assistants, who provide academic support in residence halls.
RAs and CAs are expected to be readily available to residents for 10 hours during the week, work duty shifts (which may be overnight), create programming for other students, complete administrative tasks and be the first point of contact for their residents.
As compensation, paraprofessionals receive discounted meal plans — although enFOCUS’ letter said that the meal plans have been “cut in half each year for the past three years” — and a free one-person dorm room or a free bedroom in an on-campus apartment, according to the “paraprofessional contractual agreement.” During the 2022-23 school year, CAs received $560 stipends each semester (up from $500 in 2019), and third-year paraprofessionals received $600 semesterly stipends, which didn’t exist in 2019.
But those stipends are not guaranteed. According to the agreement, “a recommendation can be made to the assistant director for apartments to withhold your stipend.”
The paraprofessional contractual agreement also says that paraprofessionals “will not be expected to respond to media inquiries” and should refer media requests to adult Campus Living staff. A previous version of that agreement from 2019 stated that paraprofessionals “will not make any comments to the media such as [The] Spectrum.”
Resident advisor unions have been gaining traction across the nation in recent years. RAs joined unions at Wesleyan University and Grinnell College, filed for union recognition with the National Labor Relations Board at Mount Holyoke College, and voted by a 90-point margin to unionize at Barnard College, according to Inside Higher Ed.
Editor's note: This story has been update to include information from SUNY spokesperson Holly Liapis.
Sol Hauser contributed to this reporting.
Grant Ashley is the editor in chief and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Grant Ashley is the editor in chief of The Spectrum. He's also reported for NPR, WBFO, WIVB and The Buffalo News. He enjoys taking long bike rides, baking with his parents’ ingredients and recreating Bob Ross paintings in crayon. He can be found on the platform formerly known as Twitter at @Grantrashley.