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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Stymied By Secrecy

For thirteen months the University remained silent on the issue of a living wage, spurring the Progressive Student Labor Movement to action. Now administrators have announced their plans to aid workers. But students say it's not enough.

By Robert K. Silverman, Crimson Staff Writer

For 13 months, the University did nothing--or at least it appeared that way.

Members of the Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM) held a series of public rallies to agitate for a living wage, with speeches by Cambridge mayors Francis H. Duehay '55 and Anthony D. Galluccio, Fletcher University Professor Cornel R. West '74, actors Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, Class of 1992, and a host of other city, campus and labor leaders.

Students camped out in front of the Science Center, evaded police to stage teach-ins in Mass. Hall and Holyoke Center and occupied the admissions office at Byerly Hall at the height of pre-frosh weekend.

The University's only response was to point to an Ad Hoc Committee on Employment Policies, convened in April 1999, and refuse to comment further.

To members of PSLM, who launched a campaign almost 18 months ago to agitate for a living wage of at least $10.25 per hour--originally $10-- for all Harvard employees, the University's failure to act or even negotiate came as a slap in the face.

"It was frustrating that the administration could respond to anything by saying, 'We have a committee, we're looking into it, you have to wait,'" says Amy C. Offner '01, a member of PSLM. "They were just using this procedural device to stall and avoid the question. That was the purpose of the committee."

But last month, the ad hoc committee finally released its report--a 100-page document with 16 appendices--the culmination of 13 months devoted to data gathering, statistical analysis, policy debates and lengthy meetings.

"The feeling was that students didn't realize how much we had to learn," says committee member Sally H. Zeckhauser, vice president for administration. "It seemed like we weren't doing anything but in reality we were gathering and collecting data. It took a long time."

The report, which specifically credited students with inspiring a closer look at the University's contingent workforce, rejected the idea of implementing a living wage but did recommend offering near universal health care, expanding worker training, increasing benefits for casual employees and imposing stricter guidelines on contracting firms.

University President Neil L. Rudenstine says he will endorse the committee's recommendations.

The committee's report represented an unprecedented look at a university's contingent workforce--an information-gathering accomplishment largely unmatched by any other institution of higher learning.

But students say the University still has far to go. PSLM members maintain the recommendations are inadequate at best and harmful at worst. And they say the committee process should not have occurred behind closed doors and should not have been so lengthy.

They pledge to continue to fight for a living wage.

Tuesdays at 8

Rudenstine appointed the committee, composed of five professors and three administrators, in response to a student-organized rally of 350 held in March 1999.

Over the next year, the committee met 17 times, with each meeting lasting about two hours. Members gathered at the Faculty Club one Tuesday per month at 8 a.m.

Members soon realized that the task confronting them was a complex and unwieldy one. The committee's original mandate--"to review the University's current policies with respect to [its] contingent workforce and to make recommendations as necessary"--did not provide a detailed directive or a clear focus.

Very little knowledge existed regarding the University's contingent workforce of casual and contracted employees, committee members say.

"It became clearer and clearer that we would have to compile our own data and not rely on University systems," Zeckhauser says.

As a result, the committee devoted almost nine months to gathering information. They mailed surveys, conducted phone interviews, collected statistical data and labored to formulate a more complete picture of Harvard's workforce.

The committee never publicly announced a deadline, but members did not expect the process to last more than six to eight months.

Still, they did not finish gathering information until December 1999, much later than they initially anticipated. The committee pushed back their original internal deadline, from the fall of 1999 to New Year 2000 to the end of the academic year.

Committee member Frank E.A. Sander, Bussey professor of law and associate dean of the law school, compared the process to climbing a mountain.

"You think you reach the top and then look out and realize you have a whole other hill to climb," he says.

The committee worked frantically to meet this last deadline, exchanging drafts and making changes only days before the May 3 release date.

A Unique Effort

Committee members say their extensive analysis of Harvard's contingent workforce represented a nearly unprecedented effort for a university.

"It's unusual for corporations or universities to put this much effort into this kind of question," says Committee Chair D. Quinn Mills, Weatherhead professor of business administration.

Rudenstine calls the report "path-breaking."

"I think they were really strong and enlightened," he says. "It adds up to quite a powerful package."

Stanford University, Yale University and MIT spokespersons say their schools have not conducted similar studies and are not aware of any plans to do so in the future.

"I don't know anyone who knows their contingent workforce as well as we do now," Zeckhauser says.

Members express pride and satisfaction in recalling their duties on the committee.

"The process was good and the report was good," Sander says. "I really thought it was one of the best experiences of the kind that I went through...and I hope the results will prove it."

The committee process itself was not a new one. Like many University initiatives, the included both administrators and faculty members, with each group bringing different sets of skills to the policy debates.

Faculty members on the committee worked primarily to develop ideas and probe existing policy, while administrators provided empirical data and tested the feasibility of proposals.

"The administrators see the University differently from the faculty," Mills says. "Administrators see the University more as a whole, faculty members more in terms of their individual faculties."

But committee members say the division of work between faculty and administrators did not extend into policy debates.

"There were ideological divides between individual members, not on an administrator/faculty basis," Mills says.

"It was a very interactive process, a very collaborative effort," Sander says. "[Members'] views cut across their positions."

The administrators worked closely with the committee's support staff, which performed many of the day-to-day chores of the committee.

The administrative staff would often begin the meetings by presenting their findings from the data collection and analysis efforts of the past month. The faculty members would then question the staff, and any unanswered questions would become the subjects of research for the next meeting.

Two of Zeckhauser's assistants, Polly Price, associate vice president for human resources, and Kim A. Roberts '78, director of the office of labor and employee relations, served as experts on the University's labor policies, and bore the brunt of the committee's charge to gather as much data as possible about casual and contracted employees.

The pair coordinated the surveying process, which included formulating questions, designing the survey, collecting responses and analyzing results.

Price also helped set the agenda for the monthly meetings, working closely with Mills. She drafted much of the final report itself.

Both the surveying and editing processes involved a back and forth between the staff and committee--Price would present drafts of surveys and proposals to committee members, who would comment and suggest editing changes.

Price says she spent about 10 to 15 hours per week fulfilling her duties for the committee, in addition to "a lot of weekends."

"It's what we were expected to do," she says.

She says she believes the system of staffing works well and maximizes the productivity of the faculty.

"What it means in terms of people staffing is that you get the best work out of the faculty--they are able to come to the table and come up with their best thoughts, without having to say, 'Oh my God, I have to write this,'" Price says.

Credit Where Credit is Due

Committee members credit students with turning the attention of the University to the contingent workforce and issues of employment practices.

"Without students highlighting these problems, I don't think we would have done this," Zeckhauser says.

Former Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III says the committee's recommendations represent one of the most significant victories for student activism in recent memory. He compares PSLM's campaign with the anti-Vietnam War movement of the 1970s and the anti-apartheid divestment struggle of the 1980s.

"It's rare to have something this major in the extracurricular sphere," Epps says. "This effort is on par with earlier efforts."

But committee members credit students only so far. While they applaud students for identifying the problems of low-wage workers, they say the students' proposed solution of wage increases is neither desirable nor feasible.

"I thought we did the right thing not to focus just on the issue the students helpfully brought up," Sander says. "[Student action] was more of a nudge, a push to examine the overall working conditions at the University."

Committee members also say the living wage campaign's sustained program of rallies and demonstrations did not affect their work.

"We did what we were going to do regardless of the agitation," Mills says. "We didn't pay much attention to that. It had almost no impact."

For their part, students say they planned to demonstrate regardless of whether their actions influenced the committee.

"We did a lot of actions that were more aggressive and effective," Offner says. "PSLM's activities were somewhat divorced from the University's actions."

While PSLM members originally praised some of the committee's recommendations, they now attack the committee for failing to address their core concern--a living wage.

"They didn't want to bow to student pressure and adopt a living wage, but they wanted to co-opt the idealism of the campaign and appease us," says William W. Erickson '00-'01, a member of PSLM.

Behind Closed Doors

PSLM members also criticize the committee for failing to communicate openly with the campus.

Members of the public could not attend committee meetings and members did not provide updates to the University community.

Students met with individual members of the committee, including Mills, on a few occasions, but knew very little about the committee's data gathering efforts and proposals for increasing benefits.

"We didn't have much idea what they were up to," Erickson says. "We were surprised they'd met 17 times. We were also surprised we didn't hear more from them."

Benjamin L. McKean '02, a member of PSLM, says the committee should have published the minutes of their meeting in order to give the Harvard community a better sense of their actions.

"I have no doubt that greater transparency at every level of the University would inspire greater confidence and be helpful," says McKean, who is also a Crimson editor. "Even now it's not clear to me what took that long," he says.

But committee members say they could not make their deliberations public for fear of disclosing incomplete or inaccurate recommendations.

"The feeling was that you didn't want to dribble it out because each piece wouldn't look as robust," Zeckhauser says. "Up until the last meeting there was disagreement. We didn't want to put things out half-baked."

But McKean says 13 months represents far too long a time for a committee to study employment practices at Harvard.

"I don't think that it takes empirical research to see that people who work for Harvard need enough money to live," McKean says. "This isn't an issue that can wait 13 months--there are people living in poverty right now."

Two Thumbs Down

PSLM members offer pointed and often vociferous critiques of the report--setting themselves in opposition to the committee and the administration.

"I thought the report was completely inadequate to address the issue of poverty on campus," Offner says.

Students say the committee's greatest failing was to dismiss a wage boost outright.

Mills says members rejected an increase in wages because they did not want to interfere with the collective bargaining process of the unions, they did not want to alter the pay scales for workers across the University--a change that would be very hard to implement--and they did not want to establish a single base wage that could become obsolete over time.

Zeckhauser says she feels boosting benefits would improve workers' lives more than a pay raise.

She says discussion of wage increases only reached "preliminary" stages.

"The mindset of the committee was that we were better off teaching [workers]to fish--we can give them a fish today, but what next year and the year after that," Zeckhauser says. "We didn't see it as a wage problem, and we didn't think an extra $2 an hour would address it."

"The University was committed to solving the problem [but] we felt the way to do that was different than what students were advocating," she adds.

McKean calls the committee's reasoning "a smokescreen."

"It's entirely evasive," he says. "They rejected [a living wage] on the flimsiest of grounds."

PSLM members say worker training and increased benefits are not a substitute for higher paychecks.

"People in this University aren't poor because they aren't well-trained, they're poor because the University pays poverty wages," Erickson says.

"[Workers] can't pay their rent in dental visits or museum passes," Offner says.

PSLM members also attack the committee's efforts to lower eligibility requirements for benefits. They say lowering the minimum number of hours necessary for health benefits will result in employers' cutting hours, not in more workers receiving health care.

"It's a common practice at Harvard to give part-time workers the number of hours that just fall short of benefits," Offner says. "This actually threatens to hurt workers."

Mills says the committee recognized that employers could cut hours but concluded that this was not a strong possibility.

"We debated that and decided that to the best of our knowledge that wouldn't happen that often," he says. "It is a risk we are aware of."

Committee members say students should be pleased that the University has decided to act.

"In a way they won a lot," Zeckhauser says. "It's a progressive and very rich package of ideas. They should feel good for what has been achieved."

Another Rally, Another Meeting

PSLM has pledged to continue its program of direct action tactics to pressure the University to raise wages, despite the boost in benefits the report recommends.

"I have no doubt this issue will win," Offner says.

She says she does not anticipate that the University will spend another 13 months studying the issue.

"I don't expect them to put together another committee," she says. "This seemed to be a one-time effort."

But PSLM may now face a more difficult battle.

Because the University expended such a great deal of effort in convening and supporting the committee, administrators seem reluctant to commit to another lengthy review and deliberation process.

"Students should do whatever they think," Rudenstine says. "But I do think was have a report and if there was going to be anything else done, I don't see that the faculty is going to turn around on it."

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