May 7, 2001

Harvard students showing compassion

By The Atlanta Journal and Constitution

Next time you find yourself complaining about how young people these days think only of themselves, remember those kids at Harvard.

Yep, that's right, the presumably pampered students at the nation's richest, most elite university. A few dozen of them have let exam preparations, social outings and even hot showers slide for the last two weeks in order to pressure the administration to pay its lowliest workers a "living wage."

Some of the students have occupied portions of an administration building, others are camping in tents outside to call attention to Harvard's 1,000 staff and contract employees who make essentially poverty wages for the Boston area. This at an institution with a nearly $20 billion endowment. They are asking their school to establish a minimum hourly wage of $10.25, or $21,000 a year, for anyone who works on campus, whether janitor, cook or security guard.

The campaign began two years ago, when some students asked themselves a seemingly naive question, one that too few privileged Americans think to ask: How can it be fair for a grown person to work 40 hours a week or more and still not be able to support a family? Particularly when that person works for one of the richest universities/corporations/institutions in the world?

At first the adults in the administration patted the kids on the head and lectured them about labor markets, cost-benefit ratios and bottom lines. But Harvard students, no dummies they, were able to translate the doublespeak into plain English: "Other employers get away with it, so why shouldn't we?"

The students were incensed. They would not accept Harvard's implication that certain classes of people were put on Earth to be exploited so that elites may live comfortable lives.

"I don't feel right going home at night knowing that the people cleaning up after us and preparing our food aren't getting paid enough to take care of their families," student Jenny Foster told The New York Times.

So far the administration is unmoved, but sooner or later Harvard's stewards will have to feel some embarrassment, if not shame, over the university's regressiveness. They have to cringe when a spokesman is forced to say, as one did two weeks ago, that, "We will not be adopting a living wage."

Not exactly the moral high ground. Not the best example for the kids. Fortunately, in this instance, the young folks are setting an example for the rest of us.