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Labor, Pandemic, and the Corporate University

By Sungmin Oh
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

COVID-19 has forced people around the world to reconsider some of the fundamental assumptions and structures of their lives. President Donald Trump signed the largest stimulus package in United States history, which sends money directly to adult Americans, delays student loan payments, and extends unemployment insurance to include freelance and gig workers.

Harvard has not been immune from this dynamic. In particular, the University has been forced to reckon with the fine line it walks between community and corporation, especially in regards to labor relations. After all, like many employers, Harvard has had to decide who is essential and how, if at all, to support and compensate those who are not.

On at least one of these questions, the University has flip-flopped. While it initially said all employees who could not work remotely would receive only 30 days of compensation and benefits, it has since extended that guarantee through May after student advocates at Harvard Law School garnered more than 7,000 signatures for a petition advocating for the extension.

Over the past year or so, Harvard, like many universities, has been pushed toward owning its role as a corporate employer. Graduate student unionization has forced the University to consider its obligations to many students not in terms of intellectual patronage but in terms of employment. Simultaneously, Division I NCAA athletes have gained the right to profit from sales of their names, images, and likenesses. And while these might be the two most obvious cases, as we pointed out a year ago, they have brought Harvard’s tenure practices, benefits, housing, and harassment allegation procedures to light as well.

But do we really want the University to act like any old American employer? If it did, we might see very little support for employees — as evidenced by record-high unemployment figures. If Harvard is to be an employer, it cannot be so in the strictest, most corporate sense. Some compassion must prevail.

Harvard employees — including full-time, part-time or contingent, and contracted workers — are not just laborers in the University factory, but members of our community with whom we are privileged to build personal relationships. In that sense, the University, uniquely positioned between corporation and community, has the opportunity to lead broader corporate thinking.

Still, some big questions remain. Who counts as an “essential” employee and what does that term mean at a university? Is the necessity to support employees indicative of a failure on the part of the government or is this role justly left to employers? Should the crisis’ end mark the limit of Harvard’s commitment to more-than-typical generosity? Should time caps on non-tenure track appointments be extended, as has been done for many tenure-track faculty? And what is the scope of the broader community for which Harvard should accept responsibility — should others who depend on the University through more tenuous affiliations also receive assistance?

As the University balances its private interests and obligation to society, Harvard’s workers are canaries in the institution’s labor mine. Under pandemic conditions, these individuals are uniquely vulnerable because of their extensive exposure to student spaces makes their university employment a primary source of danger to their health and productivity. Harvard’s decision to extend pay and benefits to all employees, including many subcontractors, is the first step toward acknowledging our concern that workers may be neglected because of their employment status. These workers are valued members of our community, and we hope to see them safe and secure when we return to campus.

These rapid changes in compensation adjustments challenges other academic institutions to define their fundamental responsibilities toward staff. We laud Harvard’s decision to provide more complete support during the pandemic, and we encourage other institutions with the financial means to do the same for as long as is necessary.

Furthermore, we encourage the University to utilize the vast resources at its disposal to assist in addressing the disparate health burdens borne by the broader local community. In light of skyrocketing unemployment and a terrifying dearth of hospital space, the University should follow in the footsteps of universities like Quinnipiac University, where dorms have been set aside to house those impacted by the coronavirus, particularly hospital workers self-quarantining.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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