SAN JOSE -- One of the 18 resident advisers fired last month by San Jose State University calls the move a "shameful" public relations stunt meant to mute criticism from a task force looking into the school's troubling racial climate.
Adam Remelman, a senior engineering major and a resident adviser since his sophomore year, is the only former RA who has spoken out about the controversial firings, which school officials called a private "personnel matter" resulting from "underage drinking" in a residence hall.
But Remelman, 22, says the harsh discipline was more about the school "covering its back side" as the campus was still seething with anger over hate crime charges against four white freshmen for racially bullying a black student who lived in their dorm suite. That case triggered the creation of a special task force in February to look into the campus' racial climate and resulted in a $5 million claim against the school by the 18-year-old and his parents.
Task force members had wondered how an RA ignored the Confederate flag in the suite and the victim complaining about a bike lock being snapped around his neck by his suitemates.
"When the hate crime happened last fall, the RAs were unfairly targeted by the media, the task force and the president of the university," Remelman said of the employees, who must often walk a fine line because they're both students and managers.
He charged that when the school three months later fired the RAs, it was simply a way to show the task force how tough it can be with the student employees, who live among other students in exchange for free room, meals and a modest salary.
Remelman, who lived in the same dorm where the racial incident occurred but was not responsible for monitoring the suite in question, said the "underage drinking" charges amounted to a ruse. And he accused the school of performing a shallow investigation and meting out unreasonably harsh punishments.
When this newspaper questioned university officials about Remelman's accusations about the quality of the school's probe, they said they would only reply in writing.
"The incident in question was thoughtfully investigated," wrote Victor Culatta, director of University Housing Services, "and actions taken were based solely on the results of that investigation. ... The actions were unrelated to the alleged hate crime or the task force review."
According to Remelman, the troubles began early in the spring term when an anonymous letter to the administration alleged that the RAs held a "huge raver" that involved "tons of underage drinking." Remelman said the school then looked into the accusations using standards that fell far short of what RAs learn during their training.
"We are taught to ask probing questions and then to write detailed reports of our findings," Remelman said. He contends the university did none of that but, instead, was in a rush to dish out punishment.
Remelman said two advisers were fired outright, but the others were given a choice by Stephanie Hubbard, associate director of residential life, to "resign" or be "fired." He chose to be fired, adding that losing the RA jobs was a hardship for all 18 students because they had to move out of the dorms immediately. He said the remaining RAs told him that staff shortages led to overwhelming problems with dorm discipline.
"It was ludicrous," Remelman said, "to fire that many RAs at once."
Culatta's response: "Residence halls remained staffed" because new RAs hired to start next fall were immediately put to work.
After the hate crimes became public and the task force was formed, members of the panel were quickly critical of RAs, questioning how none of them spotted obvious signs of racial trouble in the freshman suite. Remelman said the university was humiliated by all the publicity and thus overreached when it came to rumors about a dorm party.
"The idea was for the RAs still left on campus to have some time together before heading home for the holidays," Remelman said of the party, held just before Christmas break. He said the suite of a graduating RA was set up according to accepted rules about drinking: A bedroom was designated "the over 21 room," and everyone understood the prevailing codes of conduct.
"It was a party and there were people there under 21, but not in the alcohol room," Remelman said of the hour and 45-minute gathering. "And nothing bad happened."
But three months later, word came that all RAs needed to immediately set up meetings with Natina Gurley, a campus housing officer. "That felt ominous," Remelman said. And as the interviews proceeded, he added, "clusters of information and misinformation" confirmed the RAs' initial suspicions that the university was engaged in a witch hunt.
Remelman said his interviewer seemed so uninterested in what he had to say that he concluded that "they had already decided who they were going to fire." And something else bothered him: Many RAs who had attended the party were not fired.
That fact made Remelman theorize that during the private, one-on-one interviews, some RAs, desperate to keep their jobs, "were in there lying, trying not to get into trouble, trying to cover their asses and feeling guilty about whatever names they mentioned."
Responded Culatta: "While we can't discuss specific personnel actions, the incident in question was thoughtfully investigated; actions taken were based solely on the results of that investigation and in consultation with the university's Office of Human Resources."