April 26, 2001

Harvard's brightest minds put spotlight on hypocrisy

By PETER GELZINIS, The Boston Herald

For Lara Girmanus, commandeering the foyer outside Neil Rudenstine's office with 39 fellow students has come to represent the very essence of all her Harvard education is supposed to be about.

As she leaned halfway out of a first-floor window in Massachusetts Hall yesterday afternoon, Girmanus recalled a headline she once saw above a story in the New York Times.

It read "Harvard Teaches Social Justice."

As far as Lisa Girmanus was concerned, there was simply no other way to demonstrate the truth of those words than by forcing her school to live up to them.

Surely, the departing Mr. Rudenstine had to know it would come to this. "Some of the brightest students at this university have been sitting inside that building for the last week," said senior Amy Offner, an architect of the Living Wage Campaign.

"They are readers of social theory, they are students of history, they've done a great deal of thinking and writing around issues of social justice. Everything they've absorbed from their time here has prepared them to be right where they are."

How do you curb the curiosity of a finely tuned mind? How do you send out one of the most coveted acceptance letters in all of the collegiate universe and then expect such gifted students not to notice one of the most glaring examples of town-and-gown hypocrisy?

Simply put, you don't.

"A basic element of being here," said Laure DeVulpillieres, a senior from France, "is that idea of creating a Harvard family. That's what the houses we live in are supposed to represent . . . family.

"Well, why shouldn't the people who clean our rooms and serve our food and get rid of our trash, be part of that family, too?"

"For me," said Matt Daniels, who shared space on the other side of the open window with his fellow senior, "it's important I get to know these people. It's important that I see them.

"This is a place of very focused, highly motivated, goal-oriented people who go about their daily routine oblivious to the janitors and service workers around them.

"As far as the administration is concerned, that's precisely the way it's supposed to be. Well, we've decided to challenge the status quo. And though we've tried for well over a year to articulate our concerns to administration, taking over this space proved to be the only way to get their attention.

"For me, personally," Daniels said, "this is my last chance (as a Harvard student) to show how deeply I feel about paying these workers a living wage."

In the time since 40 students parked themselves outside Rudenstine's office, faculty support for this protest has swelled to near 300, high-profile alums, former cabinet secretaries, Ted Kennedy and alike have all stopped by to pump up the rallies and offer their support.

Meanwhile, the bow-tied, pin-striped custodians of Harvard's $ 20 billion endowment continue in the arrogant refusal to pay their blue collar janitors $ 10.25 an hour.

Instead, they contend their offer of free night classes is far more valuable in the long run, than upping a janitor's salary so that he or she might be better able to pay their rent . . . now.

Why such an ensemble of supposedly brilliant folks fail to grasp the obvious may baffle the grittier world outside this ivy palace. But it's crystal clear to those very smart kids holed up in the venerable old brick building where Gen. George Washington blessed his troops for battle all those years ago.

"Bottom line," Daniels said, "Harvard is a corporation."

"I suppose you don't last for 400 years," added DeVulpillieres, "by not paying attention to the bottom line. But this . . . this is clearly ridiculous."

"Harvard likes to present itself to the world as a moral leader," Daniels said. "Well, at the moment it's being shown to be a liar. This is a chance for the school to be that shining example on the hill. If Harvard does what it must, if it does the right thing by those who serve it, it will set an example for the rest of the country."

If Harvard had a conscience and a moral compass, it was to be found among the very best and brightest who had barricaded themselves outside the office of a man who once welcomed them here.