A Tale of Two Campaigns

Harvard is the one of the richest non-profit institutions on the planet. Second only to the Vatican, its endowment, which, after an energetic five-year Capital Campaign, recently exceeded $14 billion, far outweighs the financial resources of any other university in the world.

With this tremendous wealth comes a lot of opportunity--and a lot of power. Harvard can attract the best students, from every imaginable background, and admit them without regard to need or circumstance. It can entice the most promising and accomplished faculty with impressive salaries and a host of other benefits. It can maintain the nation's finest library system and still afford to keep its laboratories, dormitories, classrooms, and athletic and dining facilities in top condition. Taken together, these privileges--and make no mistake, they are privileges--allow Harvard to wield tremendous power.

But we know all this. Every glossy brochure from Admissions and Financial Aid, every issue of the Harvard Gazette, every press release from the Office of Government and Community Affairs supports the image that Harvard is a truly benevolent and worthy ruler, a force for good in the world.

Indeed, this weekend, the Harvard College Fund Assembly and the Harvard Alumni Association will host thousands of alumni in Cambridge for a series of committee meetings, faculty lectures, and fancy dinners to celebrate the very best in their alma mater--especially the $2.325 billion raised in the recent Capital Campaign. But even as this weekend's events symbolize Harvard's enormous wealth and power, a more disturbing relationship between wealth and poverty lurks beneath this seemingly pristine landscape of alumni satisfaction.

At this moment, there are at least 2,000 people working at Harvard who do not earn a living wage. Last spring, after much debate, the Cambridge City Council passed a $10 minimum wage provision so that city employees would have a better chance to live healthy, decent lives and raise their families in this community.

As it currently stands, Harvard routinely violates this basic standard. According to figures released from the administration in March 1999, 358 full-time and approximately 650 part-time or "casual" employees were paid less than $10 per hour for their work. Dining hall workers at Harvard Law School currently earn as little as six dollars per hour. Janitors are also among the lowest paid employees of the university, receiving $8.15 to $9.05 per hour. This amounts to $16,300 to $18,100 per year, which is hardly enough to support one person, never mind a family, living in Cambridge. Most of these men and women have to work two or three other jobs simply to put food on the table and pay their bills.

As if this were not enough, Harvard increasingly employs subcontracted labor, including guards from Security Systems Incorporated and janitors from UNICCO Service Company. These workers, many of whom were hired after union buyouts over the summer, do not have local union representation or access to health and other benefits. Without the guarantee of a $10 living wage, subcontracted laborers are among the lowest paid members of the university community. Although Harvard has not released figures, estimates suggest that subcontracted workers comprise the largest number of underpaid employees, perhaps as many as 1,000 people. The Living Wage Campaign--a coalition of students, workers, and faculty who are working to eliminate the problem of low-wage labor on campus--has demanded "that anyone who works at Harvard, whether directed employed or subcontracted to an outside company, must be paid a living wage of at least $10 per hour, adjustable for inflation." Not an end in itself, this is where any conversation about economic justice at Harvard should begin.

That Harvard does not currently pay its employees enough to live in the community where they work--where many, indeed, were born and raised--reveals its blatant disregard for the people of Cambridge. We would do well to remember that, given its status as a non-profit institution, Harvard is not required by law to pay taxes.

One has to wonder how different life in Cambridge would be--how much better, for instance, the public school and housing systems would be--if Harvard had to pay annual taxes commensurate with its vast financial and property holdings. Most disturbing, however, is the fact that a solid majority of the lowest paid workers at Harvard are people of color, immigrants and parents. These men and women are struggling to make ends meet in a society that continues to dismantle basic guarantees of justice and decency even as the rich and the poor grow increasingly unrecognizable to each other. At Harvard, where words like "diversity," "equality" and "civility" are tossed around as effortlessly as major gift contributions, why do class distinctions so often harden along lines of color and language?

Two centuries ago, Adam Smith, the founding father of capitalism, reminded us that the wealth of any nation could be measured by the number of people who live in poverty. The same can be said of Harvard. At a time when university administrators and alumni donors are busy celebrating the accumulation of great wealth, we would do well to remember that several thousand workers in our midst share neither the wealth nor the self-indulgence it so easily inspires.

And we should remember that the price of fixing our neglect--of paying every worker at Harvard a living wage of at least $10--is about ten million dollars a year, hardly an insurmountable hurdle for our well-oiled fund raising machine. For many of us, this means the difference between salmon and chicken, open bar and cash bar, at alumni appreciation dinners. For workers, however, it might very well mean the difference between poverty and lives of genuine decency. Alumni ought to be mindful of this while celebrating our successes this weekend. More than that, however, we should seize this opportunity to make sure that the university does the right thing with all the money it has raised by devoting some of it to a living wage guarantee for all Harvard workers. As we decide whether we will be part of the problem or part of the solution, we might also think about who will be left with our mess after the celebration has ended.

Timothy Patrick McCarthy '93 is a tutor in history and literature. He also serves on the Board of Directors of the Harvard Alumni Association.