09/17/2012 12:43 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Campus Workers' Wages: A Disgrace to Academe

More than 700,000 employees at American colleges -- gardeners, security guards, cleaning crews, janitors, food-service personnel, etc. -- do not earn a living wage, the bare-bones amount sufficient to provide a minimally decent standard of living for their families. This is a disgrace to our system of higher education and a sad reflection on the moral leadership of our colleges.

For a wage earner with a family of four to meet the federal poverty line of just over $23,000 a year, he or she would have to net about $13 an hour, seven hours a day, five days a week, for all 52 weeks of the year. Such an income would normally not include health benefits, sick leave, or vacation pay. It would provide for few amenities that make up a decent life, not to mention the capacity to meet health crises and unforeseeable family problems.

Very few low-wage workers on American campuses even earn a poverty-level income, let alone receive health benefits. Many work only nine or 10 months a year and are often barred from receiving unemployment benefits during the few summer months they are unemployed. Yet their work is an essential ingredient of college life; without them, campuses couldn't function.

Why are they so poorly valued and treated? Why have they become the "untouchables" of our higher-education caste system? The answer is complex.

It is in part the result of our growing class divide, in which blue-collar and low-level service workers are granted little or no respect and are treated accordingly. The fact that so many of these workers are members of minority groups taps into lingering negative attitudes about immigrant workers and people of color. Moreover, many colleges have become big businesses, reflecting corporate values: management efficiency, top-down decision making, a wide divide between top salaries and those of the lowest-paid workers, and trustees who care little about academic matters but a great deal about finances and fund raising.

Like corporate executives who want to cut budgets and maximize profits, college administrators say there is no money in their budgets to raise the wages of their low-income employees. Yet they find plenty of money for athletics, new buildings, and additional highly paid administrators.

Over the past two decades, campus student groups and their faculty supporters have pressured college administrations to raise the pay of low-wage employees and, in some cases, to unionize those workers. The activists have conducted living-wage campaigns throughout the country, but, for the most part, their efforts have failed to produce more than a few victories. The opposition of college administrations in general has been surprisingly fierce, often led by chancellors and presidents otherwise known for their liberal perspectives and moderate views.

At a relatively few institutions, the student and union campaigns have forced colleges to change their positions, increase wages and benefits, and engage in dialogues with workers and students.

At Georgetown University, an undergraduate-led living-wage coalition won a victory over a recalcitrant university administration. At Harvard and the University of Miami, pressure from students and unions prompted the institutions to raise the wages of both their direct and contract employees, yet the negotiations were protracted and painful. During the struggles, students at Harvard pointed out that the university at the time had a $19-billion endowment. At Miami, President Donna Shalala enjoyed a $500,000-plus salary and a large university house.

The treatment of low-wage workers on campus is an issue that flies below the public radar, is ignored by public-policy officials and college trustees, and is dismissed by college administrators as little more than a nuisance. The insouciance and apathy of faculty members throughout academe has permitted administrators to avoid taking any action to remedy these inequities. Professional associations like the American Association of University Professors seem to have ignored the matter.

College chief executives and administrators are the primary culprits in denying living wages to low-wage employees. They say that in a time of fiscal austerity, their institutions don't have the money to grant additional funds to their blue-collar staff. Yet the cost of providing such increases is often a tiny percentage of the institutions' budgets. For example, Georgetown's cost of providing a living wage to its approximately 500 campus workers amounted to only a little over $2 million a year. Georgetown's annual budget in 2010 was more than $900 million.

In 2009, 36 private-college presidents each received more than $1 million in salaries, while provosts and other high-level administrators also received more than ample compensation packages. Public officials responsible for overseeing state colleges are clearly not doing their jobs in ensuring decent working conditions at their institutions. Trustees of private colleges seem to have washed their hands of their obligation to monitor and, where necessary, change the policies and practices of the institutions for which they are ultimately responsible.

The democratic values of our higher-education system have been turned upside down. Equity, fair play, and justice have given way to bureaucratic greed and unprincipled practices. The system has become increasingly dysfunctional; its poorest elements­ -- the low-wage workers and contingent faculty (who now constitute more than 75 percent of all higher-education faculty) -- are given short shrift, while top administrators reap the benefits. But the real losers are the students and their parents.

Can these campus conditions change? Increased student activism could successfully pressure college administrations to improve the working conditions of their low-wage workers. But until public officials, administrators, faculty members, students, and the general public are sufficiently aroused to demand major changes, it is unlikely that we will see a major transformation in the way colleges in this country are run.


Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

Pablo Eisenberg is a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute and a regular columnist for 'The Chronicle of Philanthropy.'