December 18, 2001

Harvard has opportunity to close big gap

By PETER GELZINIS, The Boston Herald

Was it just a nostalgic piece of guerrilla activism, circa 1969?

Or did those Harvard students who commandeered the foyer of the president's office for three weeks during final exams last year actually shame the world's richest university into parting with a couple of extra bucks an hour for its janitors?

Tomorrow, the Harvard Committee on Employment and Contracting Policies is scheduled to release its official report.

But yesterday it was ambushed by an unofficial report, hustled out to the media over the weekend, by the Harvard Alumni for a Living Wage.

By 6 a.m., after we were told Osama bin Laden was somewhere between Tora Bora and East Boston, we learned MIT, Boston University and Wellesley all pay their starting custodians more than Harvard. Although he managed to plant a story on a dreary Monday morning as shrewdly as any high-octane media flack, what Ian Simmons actually did was frame the bitter gulf he feels is certain to separate two reports and two conflicting views of reality.

The recent Harvard grad prefers to think of it as redistributing back from the "haves" to the "have nots."

"For the alumni I've spoken to - and we've managed to get the word out to thousands of people," Simmons said, "Harvard's treatment of its nonprofessional work force is perhaps the biggest issue in the past 10 years, since the divestment in South Africa."

Obviously, Ian Simmons holds out little hope his storied alma mater will offer to pay its starting custodians the $ 14.39 an hour that MIT does, or the $ 14.97 per that BU's janitors get. No way does he think tomorrow's official report will suggest Harvard move from its $ 9.65 an hour all the way up to meet Wellesley College's whopping $ 15.26 an hour.

"When it comes to adequately compensating its nonprofessional workers," Simmons said, "there is a disconcerting tendency at Harvard to go halfway. Yes, I'm sure there will be an attempt to bump up the hourly wage a bit. After the sit-in last spring, the school made some important first steps toward becoming a better employer.

"But a first step is by no means an ideal step," he added. "Token reforms are no substitute for a long-term policy. Bumping up the wage a bit is a far cry from committing to a policy that ensures Harvard sets the standard for how it treats its nonprofessional workers."

The call of those students who occupied the president's office last spring was for Harvard to at least match the living wage of $ 10.25 offered to those employed by the host city of Cambridge. The school countered by saying what it offered its janitors in, say, night courses, was of far greater value than boosting the hourly wage.

Ian Simmons believes the simplest, most direct way for Harvard to show its concern for workers who barely hover above the poverty line is to pay them a wage that gives them some extra time with their children. An MIT wage, a Wellesley wage.

After all, where is a $ 9.25-an-hour janitor supposed to find the time to take an extension course at night, when most of their nights are already taken up by a second job they need just to make ends meet?

"Most students who come to Harvard have no idea of the kind of trade-offs made by workers who clean their rooms or their dormitory halls," Simmons said.

"In a very real way, Harvard is undermining its own mission as an educational institution. What about all those children of workers who are hard-pressed to adequately provide for them? What are their chances of making their way to Harvard one day? I would imagine they might improve considerably if their lives were made a bit more stable. If their parents were not forced to work two, three or four jobs."

It is the quintessential town-and-gown tale. It would be encouraging to think the gap between the haves and the have nots, those who rub elbows each day at Harvard, would be closed somewhat with the release of another report tomorrow.

With a school that has more money than God, how much would it cost to buy its custodians some respect?