Office of the President
Kevin P. Reilly, President, University of Wisconsin System
December 13, 2005
412 East, State Capitol
Good morning, Mr. Chair and committee members. I am here today to talk about the role of an important group of our employees, referred to as resident assistants, otherwise known as RAs or house fellows. I’ll be brief so that there will be time to respond to questions committee members may have.
One of our goals as a university is to provide rich, fulfilling educational programs for students who choose to live in housing on our campuses. RAs play a critical role in delivering these residence life programs to our students on campus. They live and work in residence halls so they can be available to students whenever they need help. They are state employees who receive compensation which covers their room and board expenses, and includes a per-semester stipend.
As a university, we encourage inquiry into all disciplines and ideas, including religious studies. In this area, and in others, we encourage students to develop and grow in their own way. There is a difference, however, between inquiry and recruitment.
Recently, concerns have been raised about the constitutionality of university policies or practices that restrict RAs from leading, organizing or recruiting students for certain activities in their rooms or residence halls in which they work. Every one of our campuses expects its resident assistants to be approachable by all residents any time the RA is in his or her hall.
While current concerns focus specifically on religious activities that RAs might lead, policies in this area have implications for the full range of constitutionally protected speech, including political activities.
These are complex and sensitive questions that go to the heart of our values as a democracy. They also, of course, directly affect our educational goals for residence life programs. It is important that our policies in such serious matters are in line with constitutional requirements, and are consistent throughout the UW System.
To that end, I have asked UW Chancellors to nominate residence life and student affairs professionals to serve on an advisory group that will examine the role of RAs in residence life programs. These professionals will look at the relationship of RA activities to the wide educational experiences we offer our students, and the expectations of RAs as university employees and as mentors for students.
This advisory group will make recommendations to me by January 9th on the appropriate level of involvement of RAs in leading and organizing activities for students who live in the residence halls. We will consider these recommendations – and information from this hearing and from anyone else who wants to weigh in – as we develop a systemwide written policy on these issues.
A lawsuit has now been filed challenging UW-Eau Claire’s prior practices with regard to the activities of RAs. While this litigation is pending, it would be inappropriate for me or other UW System employees to comment further on the specifics of the UW-Eau Claire case.
So, I am not here to discuss UW-Eau Claire’s practice in this regard, which as you know has now been suspended. There is no System policy in this regard. That’s why I have directed UW campuses to enforce their policies and practices in this area only if complaints are received about specific conduct by RAs, and those complaints are found to be valid.
Nevertheless, I do want to say that I believe we can come up with a policy that protects individual employee rights to personal activities, while assuring a living environment that is free of undue pressure to participate in any activity whether it be religious, political, or social. If you too believe we can do that, if you too believe we should do that, I’d like to get your best advice on how we do that.
That concludes my remarks, Mr. Chairman. I’d be happy to respond to your questions and suggestions.