Statement from the Inside

30 second version

Rudenstine addressed the sit-in at 10:30 am and reiterated that he would not discuss substantive issues. We recognize his commitment to a fair process; however, we cannot move forward if Rudenstine continues to refuse to ensure that working conditions for Harvard employees improve. We are confident that the faculty and larger community wants more than a study and will support immediate, substantive discussions to address the crisis of poverty on campus.


President Rudenstine, representing the Harvard Corporation, has said that it is reluctant to pursue negotiations under the present conditions because doing so would teach the wrong lessons to our community and institutions of higher education throughout the country. He fears that the community will receive the message that the proper way to achieve its goals is through "coercion" rather than "genuinely free discussion." As a community that is committed to genuinely free discussion, we believe that this concern is of the utmost gravity.

We do, however, have a very different view of whether the discussions that took place prior to the past nine days or those that might take place after our present action is complete would in fact be "genuinely free discussions" as that phrase is properly defined. Although there have always been opportunities for some members of the community to voice opinions, there has never been the ability to participate in genuinely free discussions (workers themselves continue to have legitimate reasons to fear reprisals for speaking up). When one person says to another, "yes, you may tell me your thoughts on the matter before I make my decision," it is not genuinely free discussion. When that person then says "you may tell me your thoughts on the matter, but I have already decided," that is not genuinely free discussion. And when the matter being discussed is the dire poverty of more than 1,500 workers whose opinions are not rooted in decision-making power, that lack of genuinely free discussion is unjust.

We urge the administration to do something very difficult. We urge it to admit that Harvard was not, and is not, perfect, but that it could aspire to improve itself. Harvard's imperfection is that it has never, or rarely, employed genuinely free discussion in dealing with issues like the living wage that are of the greatest community concern.

It is because of this failure of earlier process that we now find ourselves in the present situation. While many of the recommendations of the Ad Hoc Committee Report were positive steps and should be implemented, the design of the committee was flawed. The lack of community involvement and response over which the administration has expressed concern was not because of any lack of interest in the issues, but because the community sensed that having "its opinions heard" was not the same as participating in genuinely free discussion. People do not waste their breath when they understand their arguments weight are based not on their rationale and moral strength, but on the discretion of those who hold power over them. Perhaps this explains our reluctance to return this question to a similar committee and end this action. Harvard's workers are finally raising their voices because, for once, they realize that Rudenstine and the Corporation will really listen. It is because there is finally something the Corporation wants that their representatives might be sent to the table in good faith. We have made great gains in community knowledge of this issue that will outlast our present circumstances, but without an incentive for the Corporation to engage in genuinely free discussion, people may start feeling they are again wasting their breath.

We recognize and appreciate President Rudenstine's sincere commitment to a fair process. However, we cannot move forward if President Rudenstine continues to refuse to ensure that working conditions for Harvard employees improve. We are beyond the time when a process is needed to evaluate whether or not working conditions require improvement; we have all concluded that improvements are necessary, as soon as possible. Because the Harvard community has already arrived at the consensus that conditions must improve immediately, substantive discussions must be about how those conditions can be improved. Poverty wages constitute a campus crisis, heretofore invisible, that must be addressed immediately - just as any crisis would call for resolution, not a year long study. At heart, this is not about people sitting in at a building; this is about Harvard workers being denied a decent standard of living. We cannot lose sight of the immediate, continuing, and omnipresent impact Harvard's poverty wages have upon workers. Their concerns and suffering cannot be held in abeyance while Harvard undertakes a study.

With all this in mind, perhaps it will be possible for the administration to identify a different set of lessons that can be learned from this enterprise. We have identified a problem with the underlying structure of discourse at Harvard that can be addressed so that all committed individuals will never feel that they need to stage protests to a gain a real seat at the table. Seen in this light, the decision to work with those individuals to come up with creative policy solutions to poverty at Harvard would not be an endorsement of all sit-ins, but a needed acknowledgment of the flaws in the present process that made this protest necessary. Responding to the need for a living wage with this understanding would avoid setting a precedent that would encourage less justifiable sit-ins. After the current demand for a living wage is met in recognition of the overwhelming community support, Harvard could correct the process in order to achieve a state in which this kind of protest would indeed be an unnecessary disturbance rather than a necessary means to correcting injustice. A prerequisite for any full and fair discussion is decent working and living conditions for all members of the Harvard community. Only then will they have their full capacity to participate in genuinely free discussion.