If I had to pick one thing I hate about Harvard, it would be the profound class consciousness that develops among its students. This being Harvard, it’s a bourgeois class consciousness, built around the interests of rich kids and aspiring rich kids, around the needs of wannabe financiers and management consultants. Of course, choosing to use the privilege of a Harvard education not to make the world a better place but to personally enrich oneself is despicable, and students who do so should be ashamed of themselves and their life choices. But the fact remains that much of Harvard culture is built around defending the interests of greedy people, which can make this an incredibly frustrating place to go to school.
A good case study of this class consciousness at work is the debate on layoffs at Harvard. For the normal people reading this, allow me to explain the situation. Harvard has tens of billions of dollars. How many tens of billions they won’t say, but it’s in that ballpark. However, because they’re slightly less obscenely wealthy than they were before the economy went to hell, the Harvard administration has started laying people off without cause. Some students, like the Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM) and its supporters (like me and Perspective), think that this is uncalled for. We think that Harvard should be more forthcoming about its financial situation, so that students and other members of the community can evaluate whether we really need to lay off workers to weather the recession. And until Harvard releases the information that would allow such a debate to take place, it should stop cutting jobs and find other ways to make up the shortfall. After all, if they’re going to cut the jobs of valued members of our community, we have a right to know why that’s happening, and how necessary or unnecessary that is. I, for one, kind of doubt that a university that can pay for massive concerts/carnivals can’t cough up the cash necessary to pay its workers.
Others, like my ever administration-friendly colleagues at the Crimson editorial page, think that, given that Harvard’s mission is primarily educational, it should have no qualms about screwing over its workers. “We’re a school, not a welfare agency,” the saying goes. I always found that argument a little funny; by that logic, we really ought to cancel this whole financial aid thing. If Harvard is just another business providing just another service, what on Earth is it doing subsidizing its customers?
And therein lies the rub. No, Harvard isn’t a welfare agency, but it isn’t a for-profit firm either. It’s a nonprofit institution, and an incredibly wealthy one at that. And the purpose of nonprofit institutions, and the reason our government doesn’t tax them, is that they supposedly serve a higher purpose, one that benefits society as a whole. I don’t think it serves a higher good to subordinate the interests of blue-collar workers to those of the massively privileged student body of Harvard College. In fact, I think that’s incredibly perverse, and a choice only capable of being made by actors who’ve lost their moral compass.
To a distressing degree, my classmates object. Because they identify with each other, and not the people who sweep their floors and cook their meals. They want a university that doesn’t serve its community, but greedy bastards like themselves. I try not to be fatalistic, and the fact that this petition has as many signatures as it does is immensely encouraging. But the pursuit of Wall Street jobs has meant too much to this school and its students for too long for a mentality that stretches beyond greed to take hold. Class consciousness is a powerful thing.
But as David Simon once reminded us in a Yglesias comment thread long ago, “Camus rightly argues that to commit to a just cause against overwhelming odds is absurd. He further argues that not to commit is equally absurd. Only one choice, however, offers the slightest chance for dignity. And dignity matters.” And fighting for workers like Bedardo Sola, and for people like Bedardo Sola’s daughter is a just cause. The odds are fairly overwhelming, but that hardly matters.
No layoffs. Not because it’s easy, but because it’s right.