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The Exploitation of Caring

The Harvard College House system can count its successes in the friendships forged and community fostered. Its success can also be measured in the number of lives saved and the many students who otherwise have few other spaces to belong to at Harvard. As an Asian American woman who transferred to Harvard College in 2008, I have seen the difference that the House staff—in particular resident tutors, deans, and other support staff—make both in diversity and inclusion and in mental health support by being present among and working with the undergraduates in the House community.

Today, I’m in my fifth year as a Ph.D. student. I am paid a stipend by Harvard to conduct research in the climate sciences and agriculture. The majority of resident tutor positions at Harvard are staffed by graduate students like me: compensated by housing and meals in the dining hall and tasked with interacting with students as emotional, social, and academic resources.

As a resident tutor in Mather House over the last three years, I dealt directly with several cases of potential self-harm among undergraduates. More than once, I was designated the first-responder. I left my position last July because I realized that I was not professionally trained to find a dead body behind a dorm room door or to console a distressed, let alone psychotic, student. Not only were we unprepared for these situations, but we were often completely unsupported in their aftermath.

Despite our lack of training, we were unable to say no to the responsibilities we are tasked with. This system works in part by exploiting our conviction that it is a moral obligation to mentor and help our undergraduates, one that may feel especially strong for those of us from underrepresented backgrounds. And Harvard pays us in kind, with food and housing—compensation that is far below the cost of hiring professionals who are trained to deal with psychiatric emergencies, to ghostwrite recommendation letters, or to counsel students on distress associated with inclusion and belonging.

This is how Harvard works.

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Instead of matching clearly delineated responsibilities with both appropriate compensation and an employee who is trained for the position, Harvard instead relies on the untrained compassion of its graduate students. It depends on the tension that the graduate stipend is meager enough for graduate students to see housing and food to be a boon, worth any cost to our own mental health, time, and the research activities that are our primary occupation. One does not need to look far at Harvard to see severely under compensated labor, marketed as a resume-building or “social justice” position.

I recently inquired about the details for the newly-announced Diversity Fellow position specified for graduate students in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. I was told that for an expected commitment for 10 to 15 hours per week, the compensation would be $3,000 for the full year in addition to weekly meals at Dudley House. Over the eight months of the school year, this stipend would amount to below Massachusetts minimum wage, even without considering the occasional 20-hour weeks cited by the ad. That only GSAS graduate students are targeted warrants scrutiny: Why would Harvard seek out full-time graduate employees for additional work that is clearly anywhere between quarter to full-time, without adequate compensation?

A university is first and foremost a research institution with a teaching mission. Recognizing the diversity-related problems that stand in the way of this mission, Harvard has also committed to mitigating the socioeconomic, racial, and gender-based inequalities that are endemic to American society and rarefied within the academy. But the critical hard work of fulfilling this commitment rides on the goodwill of certain students spending valuable time away from their research. Graduate students staffing these types of positions, often from underrepresented groups in our community, are the ones who may not only need the additional money most but may also feel the strongest moral obligation to inform institutional change toward ameliorating inequalities—all at the expense of their research and teaching careers.

With inadequate compensation for these diversity and inclusion support positions, Harvard perpetuates and exacerbates the very problems it set out to solve by creating these positions.

The Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging wrings its hands over what it means to belong, and indeed, defining these feelings is difficult. But the starting point of these problems—why so many of us have a hard time belonging on this campus—can be traced to the University’s treatment of its labor on campus.

If not graduate students as resident tutors or Diversity Fellows, then who would fill these very necessary positions? Our undergraduate students would be better served if a psychiatric medic were on-call within the Houses and the first responder in cases of possible self-harm. They would be better served by professional preventative mental health resources and therapists equipped to work with students from underrepresented backgrounds. They would be better served if those working across our campus were professionally trained with compensation and benefits befitting the number of hours worked and skills required.

Our graduate students would be better served if the University administration respected the critical teaching and research work we do and adequately compensated us for the additional work that they recognize needs to be done. The Harvard community deserves better than these administrative and performative stopgap solutions to some of the most difficult issues facing academia today.

Marena Lin is a fifth-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

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