On Wednesday, April 6, posts containing a link to a document titled “Letter to Administration Addressing CA Meal Plan Compensation” began circulating throughout the Brandeis community on social media. The document was initially posted by Community Advisors, who asked fellow students to sign and share the petition. As of Monday afternoon, less than a week later, the petition had accumulated 555 non-CA student signatures. In addition, the document contained signatures from 80 current and incoming CAs; over 50 faculty, staff, and alumni; and over three dozen parents. 

The petition was made in response to the renegotiation of the University's dining contract that is currently ongoing. The demands of the petition — which are directed at University President Ron Liebowitz and seven named members of the administration — include full compensation of meal plans for CAs, adequate food on campus during academic breaks, and an additional stipend for CAs to compensate for them “having risked their health over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic in maintaining the safety of residents in Brandeis residential buildings.” The final demand in the petition is for a meeting between CA representatives, Liebowitz, and other administration members “to discuss further issues relevant to the CA position.”

CAs are responsible for providing assistance and support, enforcing rules, and planning events for the students of the residence halls to which they are assigned to live. At Brandeis, CAs are compensated in the form of a single-bedroom residence space and a $625 stipend for meal plan expenses. CAs are required to purchase a meal plan.

“For many years,” states the letter included in the document, “Community Advisors have advocated for full room and board compensation, on par with similar institutions, including full meal plan compensation and a stipend. These demands have not been met, despite consistent acknowledgment from administration.” The letter goes on to mention Clark University and the University of Massachusetts Boston as two examples of schools that include a meal plan as part of the compensation for students employed in positions comparable to the CA role at Brandeis. Boston University, Boston College, and Wellesley College are also among the schools in the Boston area that compensate students in these positions with a meal plan or a stipend of equal or greater value. 

The letter to administration members states that during the COVID-19 pandemic, CAs have been forced to take the responsibility of “upholding critical functions of the University” and have experienced a lack of forewarning of changes to COVID-19 policies, inadequate personal protective equipment, and little support from the University. “The last two years have seen an undue burden placed on CA workload with no additional compensation — for this reason, it has become even more imperative that CAs at Brandeis be fairly compensated,” the document states.

The letter quotes Brandeis’ Mission and Diversity Statements and points out that the CA staff at Brandeis is largely made up of students who are BIPOC, low-income, or the first in their families to attend college. “In order to recognize ‘the ways in which social, cultural and economic inequalities affect power and privilege in the larger society and at Brandeis itself,’” the petition letter states, quoting the Mission and Diversity Statements, “the administration must recognize the hardships that CAs face as a part of their position … this continued lack of recognition fails to meet the commitments made by the University to support its marginalized students.”

Alaysia Penso ’23, who is in her second year as a CA, agrees with this statement. “Many CAs are marginalized students or simply cannot afford to live on campus, so they enter these positions in order to finance their education despite the fact that it is exploitative of the University to use these students to fill these roles without adequate compensation,” Penso said in an April 10 email to the Justice.

Raymond Lu-Ming Ou, vice president of student affairs, could not be reached for comment regarding the petition’s demands. Dan Kim, the University’s senior vice president of communications, marketing, and external relations, responded to the Justice’s request for comment in Ou’s place in an April 9 email. “If we were to increase the contribution to CA meal plans, as with all financial decisions at the University, we would need to consider the cost of a larger benefit vs. spending on other priorities in student services, academics and other areas,” Kim wrote. 

He explained that the decision to cover more or all of the cost of meal plans for CAs is not dependent on the dining vendor selection or contract. He went on to say that because of the “complexity” of the Request for Proposals process through which Brandeis will select a dining vendor and sign a new contract with the selected company, “Brandeis does not plan any major changes to the dining plan structure for the fall semester, so a free or reduced-cost plan specifically for CAs is something Brandeis would have to consider in future years.”

Penso said that she feels this response from the administration is inadequate and criticized the University’s lack of action towards increasing financial compensation for CAs as a part of a wider pattern of taking advantage of students and a failure to act to address issues that impact students. “The University should be committed to not exploiting its students,” Penso said, adding, “this University prides itself on standing for social justice and activism, but on too many occasions falls short and the activism remains performative.”

Last April, a letter signed by CAs was sent to Liebowitz and other members of the University administration in which these student-workers voiced frustrations about the increased responsibilities and risks placed on CAs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, examples of which were listed in the letter. These included enforcing COVID-19 policies and being required to facilitate a significantly longer and more challenging student move-in process. 

“We have been challenged to walk a fine line between community builders and policy enforcers – more so this year than ever before,” stated the spring 2021 letter. “We are required to enter student spaces when we see violations, support students in distress, engage with large groups of students that are out of compliance etc., all of which places an added COVID-19 risk onto us.”

The main demand of this letter, like that of the recent petition, was for Brandeis to compensate its CAs with full room and board coverage, which would include a meal plan. Molly Cady ’21, who at the time was one of the Head CAs for the Massell and Rosenthal quads, sent the Justice the document containing the letter to the various administration members to which it was addressed. 

In an April 11 email interview a year after she sent this email on behalf of the CA staff, Cady told the Justice, “The response [from the administration] was honestly disappointing.” Although she and other CAs did meet with administration regarding the demands during the summer, she is not aware of any final agreements having been made. 

While she said that her not hearing back from the administration at all after a certain point in the summer may have been due to her having graduated that spring, the creation of the new petition suggests to her that no significant changes were made to CA compensation: “I feel like the fact that CAs are yet AGAIN having to reach out to administration in this way means nothing truly happened.”

Cady voiced her support for the petition but expressed disappointment that the changes demanded in it have not already been made. “The CAs are SUCH an asset to life on campus and truly a great deal of what goes on behind the scenes is a result of the work put in by CAs and Head CAs … It shouldn’t have to take letter after letter to administration to see action.” She encouraged Brandeis students to support the new petition, explaining, “At this point, [student support] is what it’s going to take for administration to be held accountable,” and implored the University to give its CAs “fair” and “full” compensation.

As a current CA, Penso believes that Brandeis needs to do more to support its CAs. “We are students tasked with the well-being of many of the other students and have to give up many of our weekends and weeknights to be available to residents. We mediate conflict and, according to the training in the fall, are often first ‘responder’ on scene if something goes wrong,” she said, asserting that, “the least the University can do is absorb the meal plans for us.”

—Editors note, Editor Cameron Cushing '23 is a Community Advisor. He did not contribute to or edit this article.