The College’s Faculty Deans have a unique responsibility, setting a welcoming tone for students and staff in their residential Houses, while also serving as the chief administrators of their castles.
While the dual roles of community steward and bureaucratic manager rarely conflict, Wednesday’s strike of dining service workers has put Faculty Deans in an awkward position. Stuck between workers with whom they often have friendly relationships and their role as representatives of the College administration, Faculty Deans delicately walked the line in reassuring their students without alienating the workers they oversee.
Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, himself a Faculty Dean in Cabot House, sought to send a unifying message in an email to undergraduates Wednesday afternoon, encouraging students and dining hall workers to look out for one another.
“In this community – made up of students, administrative staff, faculty, residential staff, and our dining hall workers, how we treat each other in challenging times matters deeply,” Khurana wrote. “Caring for each other as individuals is ingrained in the very essence of Harvard’s culture.”
On Wednesday, Harvard’s dining hall workers took off their aprons and picked up loudspeakers to man picket lines during their first-ever strike during the academic year. Dining services workers left their posts Wednesday morning to protest ongoing contract negotiations with Harvard, after failing to reach a new contract despite a months-long negotiation process.
Multiple Faculty Deans echoed Khurana in expressing affinity and support for the striking workers, though they typically would be classified as on the side of management in a labor dispute.
“I think the first thing is that we really always support the HUDS workers,” Mather Faculty Dean Michael D. Rosengarten said. But when Rosengarten was asked if he could pick a side, he replied, “I just don’t see it that way.”
“I’m really very supportive of the HUDS workers, but I’m primarily responsible for the welfare of the students,” he said.
Rosengarten was not alone in expressing strong ties and support for dining services workers.
“The fact that dining hall workers walk with students at Commencement attests to what they mean for the community,” Tom C. Conley, Kirkland’s Faculty Dean, said. “From my standpoint as a Faculty Dean who works for the community of the House, we have to take very strong cognizance of what the dining hall workers are working for and getting at.”
But with that support, however strong it may be, comes the awkward position of having to straddle two roles while serving diligently in the College’s bureaucracy.
Conley, for example, said he would “certainly not” join public demonstrations for the strikers, despite emphasizing the importance of supporting the dining hall workers. He said he prefers to “not to think along a binary line.”
At the same time as they are administrators, Faculty Deans serve as the figureheads and leaders of Harvard’s upperclassman House system, which the Office of Student Life website describes as “the foundation for the undergraduate experience at Harvard College.” On Wednesday, many Faculty deans emailed their respective Houses with information on the labor dispute and their own message about how to navigate the complexities of the strike.
In an email to students, Eliot Faculty Dean Gail A. O'Keefe wrote that students should not let their personal allegiances sway their opinion on the strike.
“A stance on the strike is not a position for or against Grace, Rosie or anyone,” O'Keefe wrote, referring to two Eliot dining workers. “[No] one should be making assumptions on loyalty to our community members, since not even all HUDS workers are of the same opinion on the strike.”
The Leverett Faculty Deans distributed information from the Student Labor Action Movement, a campus advocacy group helping organize student support for the strike, to Leverett residents in an email. More generally, many Houses—Adams, Kirkland, Currier, Mather, and Pforzheimer, to name a few—hosted meetings to discuss the strike and accompanying questions.
When asked how he was balancing the tension of his twin roles during the first day of the strike, Adams Faculty Dean John G. “Sean” Palfrey ’67 said, “we’ve done it for 18 years now.”
“And if we support everybody, pretty much, then things go well and we maintain the sense of caring for the people who are in our community,” Palfrey added.