Dartmouth employees are systematically losing their health care. They have been fired without representation in budget meetings, and an increasing number of jobs are being subcontracted to private corporations. According to SEIU local 560 President Earl Sweet—leading custodian of Dartmouth Hall and a Dartmouth employee for over thirty years—“Campus is being torn apart.” And yet the plight of workers has gone largely unnoticed by students. Instead of examining questions of community responsibility, we focus on the narrow concerns of our social lives and our GPA’s. We spend our time drinking at fraternities and applying for internships. We fundraise for Haiti relief and donate to local charities—certainly worthy pursuits—yet we fail to address the major moral problems of our immediate community.
At a February 2 panel discussion organized by Dartmouth Students Stand with Staff, these questions of responsibility—of justice, equality, and democracy—were addressed by panelists Phoebe Gardener ’11, Robert Polanco ’11, and Earl Sweet. Through the discussion, panelists and audience members articulated a broad critique of the corporate values that largely govern Dartmouth life and the world beyond. According to moderator and Assistant Professor of History Russell Rickford, “Dartmouth is at the center of the rottenness of the system.”
Union President Earl Sweet began his remarks by emphasizing the attachment that he and other employees feel to the college and its students. “Everyone I represent says their job is serving the students,” he said. Commenting on his long relationship with the school, he added, “You can’t walk away from here… [after] all these years… and not have a feeling for Dartmouth.” This attachment has made the administration’s recent attacks on employees especially bitter.
The first round of layoffs began in 2009, when sixty employees were terminated. Another forty were laid off in 2010. Additionally, numerous employees were pressured into early retirement, while others experienced significant cuts in their hours (and thus their salaries). This January, the administration went one step further by drastically cutting health care benefits for all staff members. According to Sweet, many employees now pay an additional four thousand dollars on health care per year—an amount previously paid by the college. For working class families, the effects of these cuts have been catastrophic. Many employees are now struggling to pay for the doctor’s visits and medications needed to keep them healthy. Indeed, some employees can’t even afford to have their children treated at the hospital.
In light of present and future major expenditures—such as the new Center for Health Care Delivery Science and upcoming Thompson Arena and Baker library renovations—Mr. Sweet said, “I have to question, how much of this is needed? We had no say in it.”
Students Stand with Staff (SSwS) leader Phoebe Gardener ’11 used her introductory remarks in part to discuss the general goals of her organization. It was founded in 2009 amidst Dartmouth’s $100 million deficit, and operated in response to the administration’s top down approach to budget cuts. In opposition to this approach, it advocated for the representation and involvement of staff in the budget cut process. Additionally, SSwS opposed the subcontracting of positions to private corporations. And yet, according to Gardner, “It was and continues to be about something much bigger… We were [and are] fighting against a specific set of values.” These values include the primacy of cost-saving and efficiency in administrative processes, and the “values of placing money over people.”
According to Gardener, these values shape not only our community, but the entire world.
These corporate values, reflected in the assault on workers, are also visible in student life. We have inculcated them to the point where resumes and GPA’s become a necessary means to a lucrative end. We, too, have accepted the primacy of efficiency and profit. We study so we can ace an exam and get that crucial recommendation. We pull all-nighters so we can get the A’s that will get us into law school. With these goals and values, according to Gardener, “Our work becomes a task to be done.” Genuine intellectual exploration is sacrificed on the altar of “the transcript.” Course selection is often predicated on median grades statistics. As we submerge ourselves in this world, we become blind to the existence of other community members. This blindness, in turn, allows the causes of this suffering to remain unchallenged. “I, as a student at Dartmouth… am implicated in workers’ rights on campus,” said Gardner. Indeed, by allowing this injustice to continue, we all are culpable.
Robert Polanco ’11 emphasized Dartmouth’s influence in national policy-making. When students from elite colleges, trained in efficiency and profit, gain positions of influence, corporate values dictate how they view the world. These corporate values, in turn, make possible some of the U.S.’s more barbarous policies. Polanco specifically cited the U.S.’s bloody role in 1980’s Nicaragua. He additionally referenced working conditions in the anti-union south—where multitudes of citizens earn starvation wages. Regarding Dartmouth, Polanco said, “When people suffer here, no one ever talks about it.” This conspiracy of silence—this habit of ignoring—then follows graduates to the halls of power, where habit becomes law.
At the start of the discussion, Professor Rickford asked, “How can we create a more equitable working world at our campus and beyond?” Surely, a place to begin is with events like this. Apathy on campus partially derives from ignorance. How many students are aware of the most recent benefit cuts? How many know that some Dartmouth employees can’t afford to take their children to the hospital?
Thus, discussions like this educate; they inform us of the suffering within our community. And yet, if we hope to create a better world, we must also examine ourselves. For surely, ignorance alone is not the source of the world’s troubles. Rather, we all experience fundamental consumerist, individualistic, and narcissistic tendencies which isolate us from our fellow human beings. We are taught from a young age that little matters beyond personal advancement. Our corporate and consumer society provides us with no moral education, but rather images of the beautiful, successful people we can become—if only we work hard in school, or buy that pair of jeans. We are trained to care only about ourselves. Consequently, the assault on workers continues, largely unchallenged.
Now, more than ever, we must ask ourselves what it means to be members of the Dartmouth community. At this elite institution—at this pinnacle of education and privilege—employees are unable to take their children to the hospital. At this bastion of enlightenment, ideals of justice and democracy are trampled beneath the imperative of efficiency. We must question these trends. We must challenge corporatism and individualism. And we must work to reassert our humanity and to establish justice at Dartmouth and beyond.