The Limits of Liberalism at Harvard

One of the claims you hear a lot these days is that the new progressive coalition of the liberal left will consist of women, people of color, and urban professionals of the sorts you find at universities or in the media or Google or places like that. This coalition was first mooted by the McGovern campaign, and a lot of breathless commentary now sees the Democratic Party, particularly in its Clintonite wing, as the fruition of that vision. On any given night on Twitter, you’re sure to find some liberal journalist or academic braying about his happy association with this constellation of forces.

But the recent, successful strike of Harvard’s dining hall workers, many of whom are women and people of color, is a useful demonstration of the limits of that vision. While Harvard’s liberal scholars get $10 million grants to study poverty, Harvard workers like Rosa Ines Rivera are forced to manage realities like this:

I can’t live on what Harvard pays me. I take home between $430 and $480 a week, and this August, I fell behind on my $1,150 rent and lost my apartment. Now my two kids and I are staying with my mother in public housing, with all four of us sharing a single bedroom. I grew up in the projects and on welfare. I want my 8-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son to climb out of the cycle of poverty. But for most of my time at Harvard it’s been hard.

As Rivera explains, the strike brought out into the open all the issues that are so dear to the contemporary liberal imagination: spiraling health care costs, stagnating wages, and the invisibility and disrespect generally shown toward the poor, immigrants, and people of color. (The problem, it should be noted, isn’t limited to Harvard: a recent survey of the University of California found that 70% of its workers struggle to put a decent meal on the table, and nearly half sometimes go hungry.)

The dining hall strike seems like a natural cause for the liberal Harvard professor, no?

While the union and its supporters did a heroic job of mobilizing support on the Harvard campus and its surroundings, the fact remains that only 130 to 150 of Harvard’s instructional staff even signed a petition in support of the strike. And of those, many seem to be instructors, lecturers, visiting faculty, and the like. According to one count, Harvard has nearly 1000 tenure-track or tenured faculty, of whom only  65 signed. Less than 10%, in other words. I can think, off the top of my head, of a lot of big names on the Harvard faculty who are prominently associated with contemporary liberalism, who think Trump and all that he represents is a shanda, who love the multicultural coalition that is the Democratic Party, and who are nowhere to be seen on that petition.

I suspect, though I can’t be sure, that some portion of the faculty who didn’t sign don’t necessarily oppose the cause of the workers. But neither could they be bothered to do much of anything to support them.

William F. Buckley loved to say, “I would rather be governed by the first two thousand people in the Boston telephone directory than by the two thousand people on the faculty of Harvard University.” But when it comes to the working class lives of women, immigrants, and people of color, perhaps Buckley, were he alive today, wouldn’t mind living under a government of the Harvard faculty.



  1. realthog October 26, 2016 at 8:38 pm | #

    That’s actually shocking. The Harvard faculty should be ashamed of itself.

  2. xenon2 October 26, 2016 at 9:20 pm | #

    Everything I’ve heard about Harvard has been like this.
    I’m not surprised.

  3. RickM October 26, 2016 at 9:41 pm | #

    Yeah, but liberals mean well, which is what really matters. To them.

  4. John Maher October 26, 2016 at 9:42 pm | #

    I recall passive aggressive dining hall workers at Harvard who did not exemplify the proletariat. Perhaps I would be passive aggressive as well if I made $430 per week. A European system where workers are paid a living wage and perform competent service would be ideal and would probably require fewer workers.The only thing worse than the food service workers were the entitled students stuffing their faces in the freshman commons.

  5. relstprof October 26, 2016 at 10:34 pm | #

    “And of those, many seem to be instructors, lecturers, visiting faculty, and the like.”

    I’d put money on it. The only time I’ve seen tenured profs agitate was when a former president proposed policies that would have slowly but surely gutted tenure. They voted no confidence. But support for unionization of adjuncts? Support for staff?

    Students see this, though. They aren’t stupid. Increasingly, society at large is waking to it as well.

    And academics wonder where their cultural authority has gone.

  6. Hangaku Gozen October 26, 2016 at 11:32 pm | #

    As a former UC non-faculty employee, I can attest to the low wages made even more meager by the high rents and cost of living in the Bay Area. (My auto insurance premiums alone forced me to give up my car and take public transportation, which in car-dependent California often left me, a single female, stranded late at night in areas poorly served by bus and light rail.) While I worked there however, the salaries of the chancellors of five UC campuses—already in the midrange six digits—were raised 20%. Those of us at the bottom of the staff roster were promised graduated raises over a period of two years, but in the meantime, the tech bubble in San Francisco and Silicon Valley was inflating rents and real estate prices to the point where even two-salary professional families couldn’t afford to buy a home near the campus where I worked. Interestingly, there was very little outcry from the tenured faculty: it was mostly the students, adjuncts, and non-faculty staff who protested against the raises for administrators. Even at Berkeley, home of the free speech movement and supposed standard bearer of left wing academia, there was scarcely a peep heard from the professors, maybe, it was suggested sarcastically, because the news came out at the beginning of the fall quarter when they were too busy with class prep.

  7. Bill Michtom October 27, 2016 at 1:19 am | #

    The idea that the Clintonite wing of the Dems is, in any way, progressive is utterly ludicrous. It is, as you make clear, exactly what we all think Clinton is about: elites for elites.

  8. wetcasements October 27, 2016 at 2:07 am | #

    This jibes with my experience as a grad student at a fairly VERY PRESTIGIOUS PUBLIC UNIVERSITY back in the late 90’s / early naughties. We formed a student union to try and get health care paid for, or at least subsidized, and while a few tenured profs were very vocal and pro-student most of them couldn’t be bothered.

    My theory is that part of grad school and Ph.D. culture really has to do with making you so miserable for five to ten years of your life that by the time you emerge from the tunnel you’re just happy if you’re one of the lucky few who actually lands a tenure-track position.

    It’s really not all that different from, say, the Taco Bell worker who’s too underpaid and overworked to really understand the unfairness of her position.

    Of course, the Taco Bell worker has an excuse for apathy. Tenured Harvard profs not so much.

  9. medgeek October 27, 2016 at 1:26 pm | #

    I’m ashamed of my alma mater for this and other matters. Another example is the university’s position on divestment of fossil fuel company stock, still in effect as far as I know.

    • InWonder October 28, 2016 at 2:27 am | #

      You and me, both. I used to be very fond of Harvard, although I thought I had a clear-eyed understanding of its negative side.

      Now it seems like nothing but negative, if you have morals or intellectual standards.

  10. LFC October 27, 2016 at 5:02 pm | #

    A glance at the news coverage shows that the Harvard admin. met the workers’ main demands and the union approved the resulting agreement by a vote of 583 to 1.

    So why did the university administration stonewall initially, pushing the union to go on strike, and then concede the demands in fairly short order? All the admin got out of it was bad publicity. Makes little sense, not just from a moral, but also from a PR standpoint.

    P.s. Not sure exactly what explains the relatively small number of faculty signatures on that petition, including several glaring absences of professors who almost certainly supported the dining hall workers.

  11. Maureen Miller October 28, 2016 at 11:13 am | #

    What upsets me is that you’re not exactly seeing marquee Harvard medicine and School of Public Health faculty on this after that op-ed, though from personal experience I imagine most are implicit supporters with center-left sympathies on papers and other stuff to do. Like, I don’t see Atul Gawande, who I have seen hanging out in the public health cafeteria where this op-ed writer works many times, out there writing this strike. If he were to be working on something, it’d be an interesting direction. I assume Paul Farmer, who has an enormous cross-coverage following, is on board but he has a lot of fish frying right now with the Haiti aftermath — but should I have to assume? (Maybe I just haven’t read the right things.)

    From the student activists, you get a junior consultant vibe, but at least they’re trying and pushing the strike coalition in a broader direction:

    The author of the great medical training protest novel The House of God, Steve Bergman, often says that a campus strike during his time at Harvard Medical School pushed him to write that book.

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