Harvard’s Shame

Harvard’s Shame

A sit-in at the university highlights the gulf between a great educational institution and the unconscionable working conditions many of its employees experience there.


Cambridge, Massachusetts

When fifty of us dashed into Massachusetts Hall on April 18, we had no idea what would follow. The students, faculty members and alumni who began the sit-in at the office of Harvard's president to demand a living wage for all Harvard employees thought we could be dragged off by police or ignored by the community. Instead, we've been amazed by the outpouring of support for our standoff with the oldest university in the country–and the oldest corporation in the Western Hemisphere.

This sit-in embodies the conflict between Harvard as community and Harvard as corporation. On the one hand, Harvard wants to foster "genuinely free and responsible discussion" (as the president wrote in one recent statement criticizing our action). On the other, Harvard pays more than 1,000 workers poverty wages while sitting atop an endowment of almost $20 billion. Janitors, security guards and dining hall workers earn as little as $6.75 an hour and work up to ninety hours a week. Our Living Wage Campaign demands that Harvard implement a minimum $10.25 per hour wage with benefits, the same standard enacted by the Cambridge City Council. Hundreds of Harvard employees work two and even three jobs and still struggle to support their families. As a custodian said, "Look, this is not a matter of working hard–people are already working hard. I've been wearing a custodial uniform now going on twenty years. I always say the only thing we don't have is a number across our backs. They figure they own me like a piece of equipment–like a barrel or a buffing machine."

Five of the six members of the Harvard Corporation, the University's highest governing board, are out-of-state millionaires who jet in for meetings. Robert Stone, chairman of the search committee that selected Lawrence Summers as Harvard's next president, is longtime commodore of the New York Yacht Club. Herbert Winokur is a director of Enron, a destructive global energy giant and George W. Bush's biggest corporate backer. D. Ronald Daniel is the director of McKinsey & Co. (and quite a golf fan, if the portraits of rich sportsmen in his plush office here are any guide). These people have final say over everything at Harvard, from the janitors to the endowment to tenure.

For three years the administration refused any meaningful dialogue or action about a living wage. In fact, since we began the campaign, Harvard has outsourced and cut wages and benefits for hundreds more workers. Because things were getting worse and the administration refused even to talk, a sit-in became necessary. And the community's enthusiasm has been enormous. Our rallies now attract 2,000 people. Almost 400 faculty members endorsed the sit-in in a full-page ad in the Boston Globe. Five US senators and four representatives have pledged their support. Ted Kennedy, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich and AFL-CIO president John Sweeney have all come to the steps of Massachusetts Hall to embrace our cause–that is, the cause of the thousands of workers, faculty, students, clergy and others who insist that Harvard change its attitude. More than a hundred camp outside the occupied building in tents each night in solidarity. To walk away from this building would be to walk away from all these supporters and from all the workers I know who receive poverty wages.

And so, as I write, we have occupied the offices of the president, provost and treasurer of Harvard for about 300 hours. We've been sleeping on their Persian rugs, sitting in their antique chairs and redecorating their walls with our posters (using university-approved poster tacks, of course). We still don't know how this will end, but we already know some of the things that have come of it. Here is what one professor wrote me: "In my ten years at Harvard, I've never seen the university like this–students, workers, faculty so united. Whatever else happens, you guys have accomplished what to me always seemed the impossible, which is to unite this campus across class and racial lines. It's amazing to me, and I'm so proud of you all."

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