Enron University: Harvard pays $8 an hour, Arkadi Gerny writes, and the real world sees us as a bunch of arrogant jerks

BY ARKADI GERNEY

A Living Wage now

In order to avoid being confused for Stephen E. Ambrose, I want to acknowledge from the outset that I am plagiarizing myself in this piece. My words here are substantially similar to those contained in a letter I transmitted Larry Summers on January 9. It’s a good thing, though, for me to rehash, as Larry has been so busy putting his foot in his mouth regarding Cornel West that he might have missed reading my thoughts the first time around.

On December 19, 2001, the Harvard Committee on Employment and Contracting Policies (HCECP) submitted its recommendations to President Summers. Among the most important of these recommendations are: (1) an immediate increase in the wage floor for all Harvard workers and (2) wage parity between in-house Harvard employees and contracted employees. At the time of writing, President Summers had not yet decided whether to institute the HCECP recommendations, but my sources tell me that he either will do so today, did so yesterday or, in any case, will do so in the next few days. The institutionalization of these recommendations is a big step forward. It never would have happened without the dogged advocacy of all the students, workers and others involved in the Living Wage Campaign. The HCECP recommendations are a good start, but we can do more. The HCECP wage floor should be annually adjusted to account for increases in the cost of living, and we should all be vigilant and attentive in the future to ensure that all Harvard workers get a fair shake. As we celebrate the seeming successes and as we prepare to continue the fight for Harvard’s working families in the future, it is worth reviewing the fundamental reasons why Harvard must pay a Living Wage.

There is no question that state and federal laws create no requirement for Harvard to pay such wages. There is also no question that Harvard, by instituting a Living Wage, would be forgoing a market opportunity — an ultra-cheap labor force for certain jobs — that other businesses and non-profits are not forgoing. Likewise, there is no question that Harvard does many good things such as core research and financial aid, and that the less it spends on heating, toilet paper and janitorial wages, the more good things it can do. So why, you might ask, should Harvard forgo a market opportunity, when a business like McDonald’s that does not create similar public goods is not forgoing this market opportunity? The simple answer is that the failure to pay a Living Wage is inconsistent with the core values of University and its basic educational mission.

In the 1990s, Harvard divested its holdings in tobacco companies. It did so not because the law required such action, but because it came to see that such an investment opportunity violated the core values of the University. Harvard understood that it could not tell the truth about tobacco in the classrooms at the Medical School and the School of Public Health while at the same time profiting from Big Tobacco’s big lie. Likewise, this University, with its deep commitments to equality of opportunity, to diversity, to individual self-improvement, simply cannot continue to pay wages that offer workers and their families no real chance to live a decent life. The absence of a Living Wage corrupts the basic educational mission of the University. Harvard students are being taught to peacefully coexist with poverty. There must be some commitment to a baseline level of equality for all members of the Harvard community. The failure to pay a decent wage to every worker in the community promotes a sense of smugness, arrogance, self-importance and entitlement among the students and faculty here. It is this sense that, despite Harvard’s great strengths, remains a core weakness of the University and its members. When we blind ourselves to the real world, the real world sees us — not incorrectly — as a bunch of arrogant jerks with our heads in the clouds. It was the simple disjunction between a $19 billion endowment and $8 an hour that made Harvard’s resistance to paying a Living Wage look so ridiculous to outside observers. We must be something more than the Enron of education.

Harvard’s mission must not end north of the Hark or just outside the iron bars of Johnston Gate. It is a private university, but one with substantial public responsibilities. Harvard cannot adopt the labor policies of McDonald’s, because it is not McDonald’s. Harvard is not some values-neutral actor in American life: It stands for something. That something may be as shapeless as the words “learning,” “diversity,” “research,” “understanding” and “equality of opportunity,” but it is not so shapeless to allow paying poverty wages without corrupting Harvard’s core values.

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