April 30, 2001

Inside The Harvard Sit-In: A Daughter's Report - Students Act on Principle for Harvard's Lowest Paid Workers

By MADELEINE ELFENBEIN, at TomPaine.com

Editor's Note: This report is by a member of the Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM) at Harvard University, who is part of the sit-in that began on April 18th. Some 46 students now occupy part of Massachusetts Hall, the pre-Revolutionary building containing offices for Harvard's President Neil Rudenstine and other top administrators. This is the latest action in a three-year effort to overcome the university's resistance to increasing wages for its lowest-paid workers -- janitors, dining hall workers, and security guards.

April 18th saw the end of business as usual for Harvard University. At 1:23 p.m., I was among the forty-six students who entered Massachusetts Hall and refused to leave, effectively denying President Neil L. Rudenstine and his closest administrative cohorts the use of their offices.

Upon our entrance, the receptionist in the front room hit the button that alerted Rudenstine's secretary to lock his office door, which has since remained locked except to allow for his exit and the subsequent carrying out of several bags of thoroughly shredded documents by armed security professionals.

Unmoved by pleading, cajoling and thinly veiled threats of academic sanctions, we continue to occupy the first-floor hallway, two front rooms and private office of the Treasurer.

The Harvard police officers stationed inside with us on 24-hour watch haven't attempted to forcibly remove us. Food and necessary medicine are allowed in; fresh underwear and school materials are not. Our generally positive relationship with the police was damaged by a failed attempt to smuggle in Derrida's Speech and Perception by means of a box of Lucky Charms; all food items including pizza boxes are now subject to unprecedented levels of scrutiny before being admitted.

Packed into a building that once quartered troops of the American Revolution (the rooms are now littered with sleeping bags and jars of peanut butter) we continue to organize and build support for a living wage for Harvard's lowest-paid workers while struggling to avoid falling behind in our schoolwork.

The administration knew that denying us books would have a crippling effect. Recognizing that my grades will inevitably suffer, I expend a lot of energy persuading myself to view these grades as a memento of my greatest deed to date rather than as a reflection of inferior academic achievement.

This is a struggle, given that the year I have spent here at Harvard has conditioned me to value tokens of academic excellence above all else. That's clear from my conversations with students and faculty alike: I've been struck by the attitude that I am somehow betraying a fundamental human principle in allowing my grade point average to slide while working to end poverty on campus. While there is a general sense that the cause is important, many students fail to see that I am justified in missing class for it.

The primacy of intellectual pursuits is fitting at a place like Harvard, but it can have a paralyzing effect when serious issues facing our community are treated exclusively in the abstract. Many academics would prefer to talk things out and hope that a willingness to "work within the system" will effect change.

President Rudenstine's first public response to the sit-in was a statement in the campus newspaper calling for a renewed dialogue within the community about how to improve workers' lives. The community he refers to would necessarily seem to exclude the workers themselves; otherwise one wouldn't have to inquire very far before discovering that higher wages are the most direct way of meeting their needs. Calls for "increased dialogue" by the administration over the past two years have successfully deferred action by turning a matter of simple injustice into an academic debate.

The community as a whole realizes this and has come out to rallies in full force over the past weeks. On April 26, some 700 students and faculty marched determinedly (if awkwardly) in a circle around Massachusetts Hall, the expressions on their faces ranging from embarrassment to extreme sobriety to barely stifled glee. This sort of "illegitimate" protest is foreign to most of us, yet we realize that poverty is not merely an intellectual concern, but rather a reality for which we are all responsible.

President Rudenstine called an emergency full faculty meeting on Friday, April 27, where professor after professor spoke up on behalf of a living wage and the sit-in as evidence of "students educating the University." With that meeting a clear victory for Harvard workers, the Harvard Corporation has been hard at work, talking with unions and others in the community -- we hope with the goal of improving the lives of workers. Today (April 30) we expect our biggest rally yet (maybe more than 1000 people) when AFL-CIO President John Sweeney comes to Harvard Yard to speak in support of the student sit-in.

Harvard's workers have been denied their dignity and their due for too long. As privileged members of this highly respected institution, we students recognize our obligation to improve it by ending our collective hypocrisy. It is a hypocrisy that is endemic in today's corporate culture; to reject it in favor of a more humane principle of decent living standards for everyone entails a great risk for Harvard's leadership.

The students currently inside Massachusetts Hall have chosen to put themselves at personal risk to show it can be done.

President Rudenstine, now it's your turn.

Madeleine Elfenbein is a freshman at Harvard College, and a member of the Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM).