Making a Fair Harvard

Six weeks ago, I had the privilege to speak at a public forum sponsored by the Harvard Committee on Employment and Contracting Policies (HCECP), the group formed after last spring’s student sit-in in Massachusetts Hall to advise University President Lawrence H. Summers on a set of significant labor questions. I was asked on that occasion to articulate the “center left” view on the living wage issue, a position that I believe I share with many undergraduates and a position that leads me respectfully to call upon the University to implement a living wage floor for all Harvard employees.

I am not a member of the Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM), but I have admittedly been influenced by the long tradition of the Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA) of solidarity with Harvard employees, which includes after-school and summer programs begun specifically to serve their children. But one need not be overly involved in public service to appreciate the community that employees help create in this era of the randomized Harvard. It has meant a great deal to my college experience to have known as individuals the men and women around me who work so that I can learn: Dining hall workers who have worked for Harvard since immigrating 20 years ago, the handful of security guards who have survived the outsourcing impulse and House staff and shuttle drivers who hold other jobs to make ends meet. The employees I have known feel a pride in us students and this University, and that pride is not always shown in return. They invest in Harvard, and I agree with the hundreds of faculty, administrators and students who think it’s time for Harvard to invest more in them.

There is, despite the worldwide attention drawn to Harvard’s employment practices, a sizable minority of students who claim to have no opinion about a living wage. But if you ask a group of average students whether they are in favor of paying their dining hall workers, or that security guard they know, or the workers they see keeping their House clean—paying them a wage that has been deemed the minimum necessary to live at the poverty line in this area—then I believe the vast majority would say, “of course.” Lamentably, PSLM’s tactics have seemed to come under closer scrutiny than the cause they serve, and discussion on the propriety of last spring’s sit-in has taken much-needed attention away from the far more pertinent dialogue on the appropriateness of Harvard’s employment practices.

Yet the sit-in, say what you will about it, compelled the University to reconsider an issue that deserved reconsideration. Too often, I think, the University relies on the passage of time and the inevitable turnover of students to avoid addressing potentially embarrassing issues, and that seemed to be the tack taken by the administration all last year, when it ignored the efforts of students, faculty and workers to engage in dialogue about its employment practices. In the same vein, what best characterized last spring’s ordeal for me was not the protest activity but the University’s continuing, indifferent response to the situation, the administration seeming as unwilling to examine its position as to defend it. It shouldn’t require 45 people risking arrest, academic failure and their health to make the University respond to substantive questions in a thoughtful and meaningful manner. As it was, the administration missed an ideal opportunity to steer Harvard to the moral high ground on an important issue, to articulate a commitment to its employees, to make a statement to the rest of the world about the values of this University. Instead, the world received a far different message, couched in a tone of ambivalence that I and others were hard-pressed to defend to our friends and families, even as we wanted to be proud of our University (and it is our University).

I continue to admire the depth of feeling of those who took part in the sit-in and other students who care enough about improving this wonderful institution by holding it to the highest standards and who fervently believe in the potential of this community as a whole.

Trevor S. Cox ’01-’02 is a history and literature concentrator in Pforzheimer House. He is president of the Phillips Brooks House Association.