Security and JAs: College ought to establish structures of authority more thoughtfully

Lately, there have been many complaints about College Security’s new policy of aggressive policing. Especially in freshman dorms, Security seems to be holding a lot of “snap inspections” in an attempt to catch someone in the midst of wrongdoing. Now, one can see how this seems logical in the minds of the administration. People under 21 are not legally allowed to drink alcohol, college students by and large always drink alcohol; therefore the administration feels it has every right to go around catching people in the act and reporting them for violation of a law – even if it is generally acknowledged that college students will drink and you can’t stop them.

However, the real issue here is not the legality of underage drinking, but rather the type of connection that students of the college (especially first-years) will have with their surroundings. One of the most central aspects to first-year living arrangements is the Junior Advisor system. JAs live in the dorms and are there to help incoming students become comfortable with Williams, integrate them into campus life and help them with problems that may arise. Most college campuses have Residential Advisors (RAs) instead of JAs. One of my good friends is an RA at another college, and I know some JAs here, so allow me to expound on the key difference between the two: RAs are there for the administration and JAs are there for the students.

The job of an RA is to keep watch over the students and make sure nothing bad happens. RAs are paid by the administration, and are thus beholden to them. RAs report people who act out of line, and this can create an adversarial relationship between the RAs and the students. RAs can be like the Hall Monitors in elementary school; the administration has given them power and their job is to tell on you, thus you can’t really trust them.

The beauty of the JA system is that JAs are there to work with the students, not against them. JAs are not paid at all, and in fact must be selected by a student committee each year in a process in which often fewer than one-third of the applicants end up as JAs. Since the JAs are there primarily to advise the students instead of to rat on them, most first-years trust their JAs and can even come to view them as friends.

By now, you may be asking what this has to do with Security. Well, aside from JAs, Campus Security is the other large group of quasi-authoritarian figures who will interact with first-years as they adapt to campus life. So the question becomes, will the role of Security be more like that of an adversary or a friend? Sure, one could argue that since Security is paid, they are under obligation to report any wrongdoing they see. But they don’t have to go out of their way to search for people to turn in.

Security in the past has generally had good relations with the students at Williams. Speaking personally, I have come to trust Security members; they open my door when I am stupid enough to lock myself out of my room, they run helpful things like bike registration; at parties and large entertainment events they are present to make sure that things don’t get too out of hand; they patrol campus on a regular basis preventing crime. And this is good. I was stopped by Security two years ago having just come from a party with a cup in my hand. They were concerned that I was breaking the open container law; I showed them that it was in fact a cup of water, and we both went on our merry ways.

Now, I have no objection to Security’s being around campus doing their job of keeping us safe and questioning people who seem to be breaking rules. This seems like a good thing for them to be doing; in fact I feel safer at night knowing that Security is cruising around to maintain the peace. But when they start going through dorms, opening room doors or generally looking to find an infraction in students’ private spaces since no harmful ones seem to be occurring anywhere in the open, their role becomes more questionable.

Basically, it comes down to this: Security is here on campus for our protection, but they will have to make a choice about how they enforce that protection. RAs and JAs are both in first-year dorms to watch over students, but students tend to trust JAs and feel they are working with them, while RAs can seem like someone watching over your shoulder.

Security will have to choose whether they will be seen by the students as friends or adversaries. Even when we know that the searches done by security are done with the best interests of the students in mind, nobody trusts a hall monitor. If Security persists in the more aggressive policing policies of late, in all likelihood students will come to view them as a Big Brother type presence to be feared and not trusted.

I for one, hope that this does not occur, for the same reason that I prefer JAs to RAs. Being a college student has enough problems, so it’s nice to have people around you whom you feel you can trust and are working with you and not against you. Security should indeed continue the fine job they do of keeping the campus safe, but perhaps consider the social consequences of looking for harmless infractions to report.