Harvard can afford to save jobs, share sacrifices

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This past February, President Drew Gilpin Faust told Harvard: “We are a community of distinguished scholars, talented students, and dedicated staff-teachers and learners defined by our ideas and discoveries, not by our financial resources.” That same month, Harvard announced its first cuts to cleaning and custodial staff at Harvard Medical School, and budget cuts resulting in custodial staff layoffs at Harvard Real Estate Properties and Peabody Terrace.

While Harvard has not released comprehensive information about current or planned job cuts, reports have surfaced of dispersed layoffs among clerical and technical workers, mass buyouts, and decreased hours among janitors and dining services staff. Workers are bracing themselves for layoffs across all departments and schools. The cutbacks will not only cost people their jobs, but will substantially increase the amount of work for the already overextended employees who remain.

Many of those whose jobs have been targeted are among the most vulnerable in our community-the lowest paid, the immigrants, the marginalized. Even in a strong economy, they have had to sacrifice so that their loved ones could live better lives. They depend on their jobs not only to feed and house their families, but to access health care and educational opportunities. If Harvard abandons these workers now-during one of the worst economic downturns in decades-workers and their families will face a world of suffering.

Harvard insists the cuts are justified as part of a university-wide response to an estimated thirty percent drop in the value of its endowment this year.However, the administration has failed to disclose the details of its financial situation and budgeting process or to adequately explain why job losses are unavoidable. But while Harvard may prefer to hide the math, it cannot hide one simple fact: Harvard remains the wealthiest university and one of the wealthiest non-profits in the world.President Faust declared that, “for Harvard, as for many other colleges and universities, our challenge is to confront the new economic realities and intelligently adapt ourselves to them.” We agree. An institution as wealthy as Harvard can and should find more creative and equitable ways to make up the deficit than by laying off its lowest-paid workers. Members of the Harvard community should stand in solidarity with the workers who keep this university working. We should speak out against policies that will have disastrous effects on the lives of workers and their families.

Harvard’s peers are exploring ways to prioritize jobs through shared sacrifice. The president and top administrators of Stanford have taken a voluntary 10% pay cut for the next two academic years.University of Tennessee Acting President Jan Simek and his executive staff will take a voluntary pay cut of 5%, while Mark S. Wrighton, chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis, will take a 10% pay cut for the next academic year.

In the Boston area, Brandeis faculty members have been asked to support a 1% pay cut to help retain employees who work in non-teaching positions at the school, while executives at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center recently took a salary cut to preserve several hundred positions. In contrast, Harvard has targeted the lowest-paid members of its community to bear a disproportionate burden of the cutbacks.

By targeting the livelihoods of its workers, Harvard also shirks its responsibility to its neighbors. As one of the largest employers in Massachusetts, Harvard’s fiscal policies have the potential to dramatically affect surrounding communities. In recognition of Harvard’s role as an engine for the local economy and as an important provider of education services, the community subsidizes Harvard through substantial tax breaks. By enacting spending cuts that target the livelihoods of workers, Harvard would undermine the very communities that support it, as the costs of growing unemployment shift to surrounding cities and taxpayers.

President Faust declares it “our collective obligation” to confront the challenges facing Harvard today. Yet, from the start, the administration’s financial and budgetary decision-making processes have lacked transparency, accountability, and democratic participation by all stakeholders. Harvard should improve public access to information regarding the university’s financial and budgetary situation, and provide opportunities for meaningful participation by all members of the Harvard community-including workers and students.

Harvard Law School has long shown a commitment to serving the public interest. Each day, its students, faculty, staff, and administrators try to improve the lives of people in the local community and around the world through their work in the law school’s clinics, student groups, legal services organizations, and scholarly work. HLS has shown an institutional commitment to the public interest by requiring its students to complete pro bono hours prior to graduation. The members of the law school community have a special obligation to live out the values of public service and social justice that have become so fundamental to the school’s educational mission.

We call on the HLS community to join us in the following demands: Harvard University should suspend layoffs and recall all workers, full-time and temporary, who lost their livelihoods due to budget cuts since October 2008; the President, the Corporation, and relevant administrators should meet with students and staff to discuss alternative solutions to layoffs; Harvard should ensure that its workers receive a living wage by not reducing their hours; Harvard should not ask its workers to assume an unsafe amount of additional work due to hiring freezes or layoffs. We demand that Harvard treat its workers with dignity and respect.

Over one hundred graduate students and hundreds of other members of the Harvard community have signed an online petition to express their concern with Harvard’s response to the economic crisis. Please join us in solidarity with those who contribute so much to our education. Please tell Harvard that the most vulnerable are not the most expendable: http://www.hcs.harvard.edu/slam/petition5.

This opinion piece was submitted by the members of Unbound: Harvard Journal of the Legal Left, HLS Advocates for Human Rights. Harvard Tenant Advocacy Project, Prison Legal Assistance Project, Labor and Employment Action Project, and HLS Peace.

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