April 24, 2001

Harvard Protestors Ask Moral Questions

By TOM JEHN, in The Boston Globe

Members of the Harvard Living Wage Campaign engaged in a sit-in do Harvard proud. Harvard's administrators, on the other hand, should be ashamed of them selves as they refuse to implement a living wage of $10.25 an hour for as many as 2,000 of its employees - the hard-working men and women who each day clean up after, cook for, and protect, the students, faculty, and staff fortunate to call Harvard their home and workplace.

Harvard's bean-counters have failed to offer any cogent rationale for keeping these workers at poverty-level wages. They've argued that Harvard's health benefits - available only to those who are allowed to work 16 hours a week - and perquisites like access to museums and tuition assistance in effect place employees at a living wage, a calculus that executives would find laughable if they found it in their contracts.

More disturbingly, the argument suggests an administration made cynical or foggy by the $19 billion endowment it oversees. Maybe it's difficult to do math when the numbers are so much smaller: If you're earning $6.50 or $7 or $8.50 an hour, how do you afford to house your family in Cambridge or Boston, where the average two-bedroom apartment goes for $1,200 a month?

Dental benefits, while crucial, don't actually help pay the rent. And how many parents who have to work two and three part-time manual jobs around the city each day - upwards of 16 hour days - have the time to take a couple of night classes to receive a dubious "upgrade" of skills? Advancing one's education can, of course, advance one's career. But imagine the more sensible and generous mission of uplift Harvard could undertake if it paid its workers enough so they could work two jobs or - might we dream? - one job, see their kids for more than a few exhausted hours at night, and find time and energy to enroll in a degree program.

Maybe those at the top of our society are out of touch? I surmise that Harvard's administrators likely spend much more time shaking the hands and sharing the confidences of the rich and powerful than they do finding out the names, fears, dreams, and wisdom of the janitors, cooks, and guards who, in that long-lived tradition of master-servant relations, labor invisibly each day.

The elite aren't constitutionally incapable of feeling the pain of the working poor. After all, our movers and shakers seem anxious to avoid as much of their own pain, and to seek as much comfort, as they can. But they can only do so because a phalanx of servants - assistants, housekeepers, nannies, personal shoppers, chefs, trainers, and life coaches - work to ensure that very important people have plenty of time to get in touch with themselves, improve their swing, look good, and feel good.

But will they be good? Will Harvard's leaders show the moral vision that the son of one of the school's early presidents preached to his Puritan congregation? In 1710, Cotton Mather, a Harvard College alum and not one for profligate living, feared that his flock was losing its way in a world increasingly marked by, among other secular developments, a preoccupation with things commercial. His essay "Bonifacius" - literally, "On doing good" - doesn't make for light reading; it is stern and learned as it urges congregants to "prove" themselves "really good . . . relatively good."

Mather didn't mean "relative" goodness in the way we might use it today in an age of diminished expectations and compromised ideals. His term denoted an absolute good in the service of those with whom we are related - family members, friends, neighbors. He urged us to "provide for those of our own house."

Those working in Harvard's house deserve a wage of $10.25 an hour - the equivalent of one-half of 1 percent of the annual interest on Harvard's endowment.