Baxter Fellows build housing communities

First-years at the College have the unique opportunity to live in residential dorms with JAs, juniors who dedicate their year to facilitating community interaction and resolving conflicts within their entries. Outside of Frosh Quad and Mission, Baxter Fellows are meant to fill a similar role for upperclassmen. While they are not as heavily involved in the lives of their fellow residents, Baxter Fellows are meant to serve as community builders for upperclassmen much like JAs do for first-years. In contrast to the volunteer role of a JA, Baxter Fellows are compensated for their services by the Office of Student Life.

In the official job description, Baxter Fellows are described as “student leaders whose primary role is to foster a sense of community within their house; they also assist with programmatic support within their Neighborhood.” The position has not always existed in this form, however, and has gone through several significant changes during the course of its continuing evolution.


Refocusing residential leadership


In the early 2000s, the only existing upperclassman residential leadership on campus came in the form of quasi-elected house presidents. Before the neighborhood system was developed, these positions were more closely linked with College Council (CC) and house governance as opposed to community building within the house. The house president role was remodeled in 2002 to reflect a more direct leadership role, and the position was renamed House Coordinator.  According to a Record article on the subject, “The new role … [added] increased responsibility and commitment to a beleaguered leadership position on campus” (“Presidents propose major redefinition of role,” Feb. 19, 2002). According to Vice President for Campus Life Steve Klass and Deputy to the Vice President for Campus Life Aaron Gordon, upperclassmen residential leaders have been compensated by the Office of Campus Life, now the Office of Student Life, since as early as the 1990s.

In 2005, the College initiated several staffing and organizational changes to the residential life system. Klass was hired at this time to oversee the College’s new cluster housing system, a program that was slated to begin the following fall. He also played an important part in implementing changes that categorized and defined the College’s residential life system over the course of the next few years (“Three staffers join campus life,” Sept. 20, 2005).

Later in the fall of 2005, the Committee on Undergraduate Life formed the House Governance Subcommittee, which proposed to replace the position of House Coordinator with two new positions: a Residential Life Coordinator (RLC) and a House Life Coordinator (HLC). CC also suggested that the HLC position be combined with the preexisting community liason. The purpose of the merger would be to make the HLC responsible for community-related issues such as noise complaints, and also to make them more qualified to deal with social tensions through conflict resolution training provided by the Minority Coalition.

Gordon explained that while the changes resulting from these proposals were essentially superficial, they also represented steps in the gradual evolution of the residential housing leadership role that eventually yielded the current structure.  In the spring of 2007, Doug Schiazza, director of the Office of Student Life (then Campus Life) approved the Baxter Fellow program to begin the next fall.


Creation of the Baxter Fellow program


In 2007, 52 applicants applied for approximately 30 Baxter Fellow positions within the four clusters, which are now known as the four neighborhoods. Each Neighborhood Governance Board (NGB) had a good deal of freedom in terms of shaping the new positions to suit its needs. Baxter Fellows were required to do the work previously delegated to the HLC, which ranged from providing dorm décor and house snacks to reserving common spaces for student events within the house.

Additionally, Baxter Fellows took on a new responsibility in working  with the neighborhoods to plan events that fit into one of four categories: community engagement and service, diversity and multiculturalism, social interaction and wellness (“Clusters, Campus Life prepares for Baxter Fellows,” April 11, 2007).

“Community building is the core function,” Gordon said of the Baxter Fellow program. He explained that the position was created with the intent that one of the Baxter Fellows’ core functions would be to ask, “‘How can I make such-and-such-a-building a good place to live?’”

This community-based initiative was similar to the program that exists today, barring a few recent organizational modifications. The first major change came with the economic downturn of 2008-09, which forced major budget cuts for the then-Office of Campus Life. During the 2008-09 academic year, the office consolidated its four Campus Life Coordinator (CLC) positions into one Student Activities Coordinator (SAC) position and one Residential Life Coordinator (RLC) position (“Larger than Campus Life,” April 29, 2009). The CLCs had overseen the Baxter Fellow program until those positions were eliminated, and the RLC position was also cut later in 2009, leaving just one administrative coordinator with the responsibility of managing upperclassman residential housing.

It was after these cuts that other problems in the management of the Baxter Fellow program became visible. “There were conversations with students where we found that the ratio of students to Baxter Fellows was too high; it wasn’t a manageable number,” Gordon said.

Accountability of the individual Baxter Fellows proved to be another issue, Gordon explained, which he attributed at least in part to the reduced supervision of the program.  “There has always been a spectrum of performance,” Gordon said. “It’s like a bell curve; there’s the middle who do only the required amount, there’s those who don’t do quite as much and there’s those who go above and beyond.”

The need for an improved Baxter Fellow program led to changes in the 2010-11 academic year, which are still questioned and sometimes contested today.


 Recent changes 


In May 2010, a report from the Neighborhood Review Committee (NRC) prompted changes to the program that doubled the number of Baxter Fellows, placing at least one Baxter Fellow on each floor of larger houses. Two new positions, Quiet Housing Baxter Fellow and Head Baxter Fellow, were also created, the former to enforce quiet housing rules and the latter to assist Gordon in managing the new influx of personnel (“Campus Life alters Baxter Fellows program,” May 4, 2010).

The stipend for Baxter Fellows was also altered to suit the graduated degrees of responsibility. It was remodeled with three levels of pay that still exist in today’s program. A Level ‘A’ Baxter Fellow makes $600 for typical responsibilities; a Level ‘B’ Baxter Fellow makes $850 for having the additional responsibility of assisting students in reserving common spaces; and the Head and Quiet Housing Baxter Fellows earn a $1000 stipend in addition to earning either Level ‘A’ or ‘B’ Baxter Fellow pay, depending on their specific responsibilities.

Currently, Head Baxter Fellows also serve on their respective NGBs, creating a link between each residential area and its neighborhood as well as between the neighborhood and CC, as a member of each NGB also serves on CC.

Gordon explained that students were generally pleased with the changes that ensued following the NRC report, and he cited as an indicator the increased number of applicants for Baxter Fellow positions in the spring of 2010. Last spring 54 Baxter Fellows – including four Head Baxter Fellows – were chosen for the positions.


Current state of the program 


The Baxter Fellow program has evolved to fill a specific niche within the campus community. “They are not an RA, but they act as the point person in a house or dorm, one who can create community and make sure that people are living together peaceably,” CC co-president Krista Pickett ’13 said of the position. “It seems that it’s an appropriate middle step from having a JA to being by yourself.”

The Baxter Fellow position involves a certain amount of training in the fall before a selected candidate takes up the responsibility of the position. Unfortunately, training this year was compromised due to Tropical Storm Irene.

While this year was obviously an exception, administrators still recognize that Baxter Fellow training requires improvement. “As we continue to look for ways of building an effective community across campus, and as we work to articulate and establish shared institutional values and more carefully define layers of social meaning, we will continue to hold residential life more responsible as critical venues where this central work takes place,” Klass said.

After years of structural changes, community building remains the central pillar of the Baxter Fellows program. “If Baxter Fellows are more outgoing they can increase that community feeling from freshman year,” said Eric Liao ’14, Head Baxter Fellow of Currier Neighborhood. “Increasing the visibility of the Baxter Fellow is a good way to show that they do more than just make name signs.”

As Assistant Director for Upper Class Residential Programs Patricia Leahey-Hays explained, the defined role and expectations for the position are notable on paper, but implementation is often another story. As it stands now, the Head Baxter Fellow position does not bring with it enough authority to hold all of the Baxter Fellows accountable for completing their responsibilities, which is why  Student Life plans to address this issue in next year’s programming.


Future challenges


“What’s in the Baxter Fellows’ contract is good,” Leahey-Hays said. “We want to create a little bit more structure for accountability, utilizing the Head Baxter Fellows to work on the application process and training for the Baxter Fellows in the fall.”

Leahey-Hays explained that Student Life hopes to organize a student focus group to solicit feedback on the Baxter Fellow program prior to implementing further changes. “We’re not looking to revamp the whole program, just create systems of organization and accountability,” she said.

“Once it becomes more fully-dimensioned and better defined programmatically over time, it will provide significant student leadership opportunities,” Klass said of the program. “I’ve seen at other institutions how roles like this can function within a broad-based residential program as fulfilling, challenging and rewarding work with the potential to add substantial value to the quality of life in the residence halls.”

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