On Wednesday, April 10, from 8 am until 4:30 pm, students lined the entrance to Wesleyan’s Office of Admissions. They protested the working conditions of the custodial staff, who say that they are overworked. The student population has gone up, the custodial staff has gone down, and new buildings have been built. And though complaints have been made, and workers have publicly voiced their dissatisfaction with working conditions, nothing has changed. Consequently, USLAC launched a protest during WesFest.
Admissions protests aren’t new; I am a tour guide, and a couple of my tours have been stopped by protesters over the years. And I must admit something: admissions and the administration can spin this into positive PR. Even I’ve been guilty of this. I’ve told tours that every institution is unjust, but Wesleyan students are distinctly passionate and caring for calling out their own institution’s injustices. And I believe there’s a kernel of truth in this; students here are passionate and devoted to enacting their values. But this rhetoric is insidious and completely misses the point.
Wesleyan avoids confronting student concerns by commodifying protest as a novelty. The administration twists these actions into a cultivated aesthetic; Wesleyan University likes to bill itself as a progressive institution. Brochures may have you believe that everyone is a vegan who drives a Prius and wears Birkenstocks. The University is a business, and it’s selling this image to potential students (or rather, customers). If the administrative apparatus can contort student demonstrations into a marketing tool, it will. But this time is different.
WesFest is a massive PR campaign to persuade admitted students to come here. The USLAC-affiliated demonstration places pressure on the University administration by soiling the effectiveness of the PR. Walking between classes, I’ve heard the parents of pre-frosh grumbling about the protests. Some students have risked disciplinary action by disrupting multiple WesFest-related panels and events. Public Safety has scrambled all over campus to tame disruptions. Police officers parked outside Usdan on Thursday. A staff member threatened student activists with arrest.
This protest is not just quiet drum circles and white guys with dreadlocks. Constant, vocal disruption prevents the administration from effectively commodifying protest to advance the image of the University. Pre-frosh families and administrators cannot ignore these demonstrations and the issue of worker conditions because protesters will not allow them to ignore it.
But I get it—this type of action makes WesFest a bit annoying. Even if a visiting family agrees with the protest, they still encounter the incessant disruptions. Faculty members are required by their job to call Public Safety every time a panel disruption occurs, whether or not they want to do so. Here’s the thing, though: if pre-frosh and their families are annoyed, the protest is working.
Wesleyan runs like a business. In order to maintain itself and not collapse, the University must fundraise and solicit contributions. Additionally, students are not just students—they are commodities in which the University has invested. Many students, supported by the social capital of a Wesleyan degree, will find high-paying jobs. The University hopes that it will receive a return on its investment through its graduates, who donate massive amounts of money. It’s not as though this is a conspiracy; how do you think Joshua Boger ’73 and John Usdan ’80 got buildings named after themselves?
WesFest demonstrations threaten Wesleyan’s investments, which is why the University attempts to market student protests as positive reflections of the school. Constant disruption doesn’t lend itself well to marketing, however. The issue of Wesleyan’s mistreatment of custodians is unavoidable if you spend any time on campus during WesFest. The University’s inability to hold events without protest could discourage admitted students from attending, which may cost the University millions of dollars down the line. If potential students are frustrated, that only means the protest is effective.
USLAC has been advocating for hiring five workers, but they would be justified in asking for more. Since Service Management Group took over, the student population has increased while the custodial staff has decreased by 10. If anything, USLAC could ask for more than 10. It’s only fair that the administration hire at least half of the workers who are gone.
There’s one more crucial point to address: the University has the money to hire more workers. President Michael Roth makes close to a million dollars, meaning that he could pay 60,000 dollar salaries for five workers out of his own pocket. And if he did so, President Roth would still make more money than the 535,344 dollar salary he received when he first entered office. Even five workers would dramatically decrease workloads, and the money for that is not difficult to find, leaving the University with no justifiable reason not to hire them.
Connor Aberle is a member of the class of 2019 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.