Harvard, do the right thing

Harvard University's administrators know the value of a dollar, especially the $19 billion in its endowment. The leaders of the world's second-richest nonprofit also say they know the value of a moral education. But the students sitting-in at Massachusetts Hall to demand a living wage for the university's 1,000-plus lowest-paid employees know something Harvard's leaders have apparently forgotten: Justice for those who clean, guard, and cook for the campus every day is priceless.

Justice could come relatively cheaply. A living wage of $10.25 an hour for its lowest tier of workers - who, making as little as $6.50 an hour, must work two or three jobs just to meet basic daily needs like rent and food - would cost Harvard $10 million a year. That's equivalent to less than one-half of 1 percent of the annual interest on its endowment.

Any concern that raising the floor on wages would destabilize the local labor market and cool investment is unfounded. Since 1999, Harvard's hometown, Cambridge, has abided by a living wage ordinance guaranteeing $10 an hour for all employees working for the city and for firms with major city contracts. The sky hasn't fallen there, or in other municipalities across the country with living-wage policies.

What then prevents Harvard's leaders from doing what's right? Perhaps indifference to the idealism they have publicly championed before.

In 1998, Harvard conferred an honorary degree on Nobel Peace Laureate Nelson Mandela. Harvard President Neil Rudenstine hailed the man who had struggled against apartheid in South Africa for inspiring "the betters angels of our nature."

That day, the robed ranks of Harvard's best joined with 25,000 spectators to celebrate a moral vision. Mr. Rudenstine honored Mr. Mandela's devotion to a just cause and his reconciliation with those who had hurt him. Mandela graciously accepted his degree and said nothing of Harvard's long resistance to divesting from South African companies.

Instead, he appealed to our better angels, exhorting us to match deed to word. While Mandela addressed the obligations of rich nations to poor ones, his message spoke to Americans' aspirations for democracy: "We constantly need to remind ourselves that the freedoms which democracy brings will remain empty shells if they are not accompanied by real and tangible improvements in the material lives of ... millions of ordinary citizens."

Where the daily degradations of poverty persist, Mandela stressed, "talk of democracy and freedom that does not recognize these material aspects, can ring hollow and erode confidence in exactly those values we seek to promote."

Harvard's leaders can afford to pay their workers a living wage. They cannot, however, afford the rhetoric of equality if they cannot grant employees the dignity they deserve. As one campus guard said, "It's not what you do to the most powerful person. It is how you treat the least powerful people that determines whether you have honor."

Tom Jehn teaches expository writing at Harvard University.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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