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Harvard is Sweeping Dorm Crew Under the Rug

By Ryan J. Golemme, Contributing Opinion Writer
Ryan J. Golemme ’23, a Dorm Crew member, is an Economics concentrator in Leverett House.

Harvard has used the Covid-19 pandemic to quietly cancel many longstanding University traditions. While shopping week was one of the more obvious cases, Harvard is now doing the same thing to Dorm Crew by eliminating the Fall Clean Up and the term-time job of cleaning bathrooms. Even worse, Harvard has not committed to bring them back for future semesters, leaving the program’s existence in doubt. Dorm Crew’s work is an important opportunity for students to work, learn, and earn, and Harvard should not try to sweep it under the rug.

Dorm Crew started in 1951 as a student employment and federal work study program for helping with various maintenance and housekeeping tasks around the Harvard campus, with the cleaning of student bathrooms among the largest of its operations. The program has continued for nearly 70 years, with many students signing up and taking advantage of the great $16.25 hourly pay and flexible scheduling that allows them to work without class or school work conflicts, all while learning good maintenance skills.

However, while the service was understandably suspended when Covid-19 sent everyone packing in March 2020, the University suspended Dorm Crew’s Fall Clean Up, bathroom cleanings, and all other maintenance work in the fall semester. Dorm crew leaders report that they were not consulted about the semester-changing decision. Spring Clean Up remains in doubt as well, with little direct communication from the administration.

Fall Clean Up and other maintenance has fallen on top of the regular duties for Yard and House staff. Students across the Houses have been given their own, less robust cleaning supplies to clean their bathrooms for the semester. Harvard left almost all of Dorm Crew’s employees without work, leaving little time to scramble and find new jobs for the semester.

While some of Harvard’s decision could be justified as Covid-19 precautions, it makes little sense when the University has a vaccination rate of 95 percent and has now shifted to thrice-a-week testing. Even then, hoping all the University’s students will be motivated enough to regularly clean their bathrooms with less effective equipment seems like a backwards way of trying to ensure Covid-19 cleanliness. Requiring Dorm Crew members to test at least one day before a shift would mitigate their risk of spreading the virus and would be well worth any sacrificed flexibility.

Suspending Fall Clean Up and leaving Spring Clean Up uncertain is imprudent for the same reasons, and both were also the largest operations of Dorm Crew. They were even more pivotal to the department’s existence than its term-time bathroom work due to the operation’s large scale and its importance to the University's semester changeover. The clean ups were a crucial juncture where some members were trained to become captains for the next semester, learning skills in managing crews of people and monitoring tasks.

Through all of its work opportunities, Dorm Crew not only provided well-paying jobs, but also cultivated a strong community and taught many leadership skills through hands-on experience. However, Harvard decided to ignore the needs of its student workers and push ahead with these shortsighted changes.

If this were simply a matter of fiscal austerity, it would still be frustrating but at least more understandable. However, it is hard to separate this decision from the shadow of prior, unfair controversies surrounding Dorm Crew. In 2019, a Temple University professor tweeted “Low-income students at HARVARD working 20 hours a week in their first year of college cleaning goddamn dorms??” without any attribution or proof of its accuracy. It was then followed up by an article and a magazine feature in The Crimson that used anecdotes that cast doubt on the program, even though many Dorm Crew members pointed out how the tweet was a gross mischaracterization.

Waging a war of anecdotes is unhelpful, but the concern points to a problem not with the program but with the travails low-income students face at the University. If there are people who feel forced into taking on extra work, then that speaks more to Harvard’s failure to accommodate and assist low-income students than it does to anything about Dorm Crew. Canceling the service will only rob students of one of the best-paying and most flexible campus jobs, worsen the underlying problems for low-income students, and ignore disparities that Harvard could do a lot more to fix.

Dorm Crew provided a much-needed avenue for students to work on their own time and earn money without interrupting their school schedules — a rare opportunity on campus. To quietly cancel it without enough consultation from the students involved is shortsighted and duplicitous. Regardless of whether the decision stemmed from fiscal convenience, Covid-19 precautions, a misinformed view of student conditions, or even a desperate attempt to save face, the University should not end or suspend a helpful, decades-old tradition with so little remorse and consideration for its student workers.

Ryan J. Golemme ’23, a Dorm Crew member, is an Economics concentrator in Leverett House.

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