Slamming SLAM

“No Layoffs” campaign is deeply flawed

Last week, members of the Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM) invaded Eliot House during University President Drew Faust’s lunch, rudely interrupting her and the group of students she was speaking with to deliver a message: “Greed is the new Crimson.” After effectively mocking Faust’s own “green” initiative, SLAM unconditionally demanded that Faust meet with them within the next two weeks and rescind all layoffs of university employees since October 2008. This hyperbole, rudeness, and radicalism runs contrary to the spirit of academic debate, and Harvard’s students and administration should reject both SLAM’s tactics and its untenable message.

SLAM’s campaign, called “No Layoffs,” rests on the faulty assumption that Harvard in some way “owes” work and high wages to its employees. A SLAM flyer asserts that, “Harvard enjoys the financial benefits of a nonprofit, without the responsibility. If Harvard is to receive so much from tax-payers, it must provide secure jobs that support the economy.” But Harvard does have an enormous responsibility—that of educating around 20,000 individuals a year. The university is tasked with producing knowledge and research that ranges from cures for diseases to models for understanding modernity. Harvard exists as a center of teaching and scholarship, and it is these activities that the government and taxpayers have deemed valuable enough to afford it tax-exempt status.

Like any institution, Harvard provides low-level jobs, but they arise as a secondary benefit to individuals and the community. To argue that exemption from taxes implies some obligation to provide “secure” jobs would be to argue that other institutions, such as churches, must also hire a certain number of people. This claim is ridiculous, just as is SLAM’s belief that Harvard has a responsibility to create low-level employment opportunities.

The No Layoffs Campaign blog argues that, “Workers—every worker, including the lowest paid janitor or library technician—are vital to the ‘core mission’ of educating and intellectual research.” It is certainly true that every worker contributes to our current quality of life here at Harvard, and they are to be thanked for this. But not every job, and therefore not every worker, is “vital.” Part of the discussion regarding layoffs has involved reducing the amount of work that must be done, such as cleaning public spaces less often. Certain “quality of life” elements are luxuries; entryway staircases do not need to be mopped every week, and students could clean their own bathrooms as they do at other universities. By reconsidering what kind of work is considered essential, Harvard could easily eliminate the necessity for some workers.

Further, Harvard is currently slowing down construction in Allston, freezing budgets, and slowing the hiring of new faculty. Some academic programs have had to cut the number of students they admit. If Harvard does not even have enough money for these activities central to a research and teaching institution, then luxuries should certainly be dispensed with, even if this means less work for janitors and other staff.

In any case, SLAM’s expectations are contradictory. The group argues, on the one hand, that Harvard does not need to fire workers. It claims that Harvard could do more and that the university could be more creative in dealing with the crisis. At the same time, it demands that Harvard release more information regarding its finances. It is unreasonable to condemn Harvard’s decisions while simultaneously admitting ignorance of the university’s financial situation and current efforts. This lack of reason only disincentivizes Harvard from providing more information—in SLAM’s view, Harvard’s guilt and nefarious motives are a foregone conclusion, and releasing additional data will not change that.

To viscerally and hyperbolically condemn Harvard’s actions and motives while demanding that administrators sacrifice time and energy to their complaints, however, is only too typical of SLAM’s general approach. SLAM’s interruption of Faust’s lunch is only one example of their bully tactics. Slogans in past campaigns have included such gems as “Harvard you’ve got cash, why do you pay your workers trash?” and “What’s outrageous? Harvard’s wages.” And SLAM’s continued references to Harvard’s “greed” in considering laying off workers following an institutional loss of around $16 billion this year stretches the bounds of credibility.

In fact, on the issue of worker layoffs, Harvard has been far from “greedy.” Instead of simply firing workers, it has offered them lucrative early retirement plans and has limited layoffs at a time when many institutions are cutting hundreds or even thousands of workers. While the Harvard community rightly values workers on campus, in the end Harvard’s primary mission as a teaching and research institution must come before protecting unnecessary jobs. SLAM defies that primary goal by stifling academic debate through their coercive approach, and creating a divisive, charged environment inconducive to the cooperation our university needs to productively address the crisis it faces.

Shai D. Bronshtein ’09, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House.