The Wesleyan University administration has done nothing wrong ever. At least, that’s the impression you’d get from the email Chief Administrative Officer Andy Tanaka sent on April 24 which detailed the University’s reasoning for inaction regarding demands to hire five more custodians. The email states outright that Wesleyan acted immediately to address the working conditions.
To be clear, the email is full of inaccuracies and distortions—too many to go through line by line (USLAC has already done that). There are a couple of points, however, that deserve a response because they are emblematic of the administration’s incredible mental gymnastics.
The email claims that the square footage of the campus hasn’t changed since 2004. It’s not clear how square footage is measured, but it’s entirely irrelevant. According to Wesleyan’s own website: Bennett Hall opened in 2005, Freeman Athletic Center greatly expanded in 2005, Usdan University Center opened in 2007, and several buildings, including Albritton and Boger Hall, were renovated after 2004. And, several wood-frame houses, which custodians do not clean, have been converted into program houses, which custodians do clean. Perhaps the square footage (whatever that means) hasn’t changed, but the spaces on campus that require cleaning has increased.
The email is filled with statements that can be picked apart like this, but there’s one statement that makes me feel more ill than the others. And this distortion comes in the first few sentences of Tanaka’s email.
“A number of students have expressed concern about the workload of custodians on campus,” Tanaka writes.
On its own, this sentence is correct, but the email never mentions that these concerns did not originate with students. In fact, the email says quite the opposite.
“Students have suggested that this issue is not just about the data but about the stories they are hearing from custodians,” he continues. “We have not been notified of any existing concerns by the custodians or their union, but we are taking additional steps to seek input.”
This phrasing insinuates that students, rather than the workers themselves, have been driving this cause. Though students have organized this particular series of protests, the underlying concerns about working conditions originated from custodians. It’s wholly untruthful even to suggest that custodians haven’t complained; six years ago, 35 custodians held multiple demonstrations in front of South College and the President’s House on High Street. They specifically protested the Service Management Group plan to reduce the custodial staff from 60 workers to 50. The staffing cuts happened anyway. Sometimes a spade must be called a spade, and to claim that custodians haven’t raised this issue would be an outright lie.
The final oddity in the update email opens a broader existential question for this institution. The email emphasizes that they compared the workloads of the janitorial staff to the workloads of custodians of peer institutions. Apparently, the administration never considered the idea that workers at other schools might also be overworked. I’d like to know, however, why this point even matters. Why should we strive to be just comparable with our peer schools?
Wesleyan bills itself as exceptional. I can attest that many extremely formative moments of my life occurred because of the environment that Wesleyan facilitates. I’m not sure I would be as healthy of a person today without this school. Yet when it comes to its working conditions, the University is content just to fit in with every other liberal arts college. Shouldn’t this institution do everything reasonably possible to improve the lives of the laborers that support Wesleyan? I think hiring a few more custodians is well within reason, especially considering the history of protest against the current workload.
The reliance on this comparison to peer institutions troubles me because it demonstrates the administration’s distrust of its most vulnerable laborers. Unfair working conditions have been an important issue for a long time—a couple of minutes of searching on the internet is all that is necessary to recognize this. Does it matter how Wesleyan compares to peer schools when its workers themselves have complained about workloads for years? It seems as if the University believes the custodians are lying. Why else would they ignore the complaints and focus on peers instead? It seems as if “peer schools” is a pretext for making no significant changes.
My personhood has been molded by Wesleyan University. Though there are many valid critiques of elite higher education, I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t acknowledge how it advantages me. In all honesty, Wesleyan has completely changed how I view myself and others, and I’m incredibly thankful for that. This is why (pun intended) this school deserves criticism. This place can be life changing, and thus we should think about what constitutes the responsibilities of such a powerful institution. As such, the University could, at the very least, respect the wishes of their laborers—wishes that custodians made clear several years ago. It’s very simple: just hire more workers.
Connor Aberle is a member of the class of 2019 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.