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Finding a Way Towards Customs Pay: Students’ Council Hosts Town Hall

By George Doehne and Alison Rosenman

On Monday, March 4, 2019, Students’ Council (SC) hosted a town hall discussion regarding recent student demands for Customs positions to be compensated. Student Workers’ Organizing League, or S.W.O.L., led the initiative to demand that all Customs participants be paid for their roles in helping orient first-year students to Haverford throughout an entire academic year. After calls from S.W.O.L. for applicants to next year’s Customs program to boycott Customs by rejecting all potential placements into the program as a Customs Person, Upperclassman Advisor, Peer Awareness Facilitator, Honor Code Orienteer, or Ambassador of Multicultural Awareness, SC convened S.W.O.L. members and leaders, a panel of administrators, and students for an open question-and-answer-style discussion.

Originally scheduled to take place in the Dining Center basement, the town hall relocated to Stokes Auditorium to accommodate the large student turn-out anticipated from a pre-event RSVP poll. The auditorium quickly filled to capacity by the time SC Co-Presidents Andrew Eaddy ‘19 and Maurice Rippel ‘19 kicked off the event promptly at 7:05 PM, a customary 5 minutes of Havertime past the scheduled start.

Administrator panelists for the event were Dean of the College Martha Denny, Dean of Student Life Michael Martinez, Dean of Student Engagement and Leadership Initiatives Michael Elias, Assistant Dean of the College and Director of Residential Life Nathan Diehl, Dean of First Year Students Katrina Glanzer ‘02, and Director of Student Engagement and Leadership and Assistant Dean of the College Michelle Leao.

As Rippel welcomed attendees to the auditorium, S.W.O.L. members began circulating flyers summarizing their aims and demands. S.W.O.L. leader Eyasu Shumie ‘21 started off the event by summarizing S.W.O.L.’s demands for the Customs program: $9,428, or the current Haverford housing cost, for Customs members who reside on first-year halls, and $3,930, the current price of Haverford’s most substantial partial meal plan, for Customs members whose positions do not entail living on the first-year hall they’re assigned to. “After careful examination of multiple forms of compensation at comparable colleges around the country,” S.W.O.L.’s flyer stated, “we’ve determined that these are the most reasonable and effective steps that the college should take towards addressing its legacy of undervaluing and underpaying student laborers.”

Though students at first were hesitant to begin addressing the panel with questions, the night’s discussion brought a wide variety of concerns about the Customs program to light. Students asked for clarification on rumors that Haverford alumni were upset at the possibility of Customs being paid, to which the panel responded by noting a surprised sentiment among alumni, particularly from the ‘80s and ‘90s, who tend to view Customs participation as something done to pay forward experiences to future classes of ‘Fords. Given various financial constraints of paying all Customs members, students and panelists each explored the possibility of restructuring Customs teams to include fewer people who would take on more responsibilities.

The administrator panelists were careful to note that the compensation measures that S.W.O.L. is currently asking for are unlikely, at least for the following school year, because Haverford’s budget for next year has already been submitted to the Board of Managers for approval. That budget allocates around $125,000 for Customs through the Student Life Office, roughly $100,000 of which will be used to feed Customs team members during pre-Customs training as well as to feed first-years during Customs Week.

Towards the end of the question-and-answer period, students also brought up concerns about the job descriptions—or lack thereof—for Customs members and the potential for confusion about Customs position definitions, especially in terms of time commitments, to place incredible amounts of work on on-the-hall team members. Whereas students tended to see the huge amount of responsibility as an “all-around support person” that comes with being a CP as an indication that the job and others like it should be paid, several of the administrator panelists discussed curtailing the responsibilities of Customs members and encouraged using channels of communication with the Student Life Office so that this burden could perhaps be reduced. During a students-only breakout discussion in the DC basement afterwards, Rippel suggested that Customs Committee was considering an itemized list of the specific responsibilities Customs team members have, so as to demarcate what they are and aren’t required to do for their first-years.

The breakout discussion consisted largely of reactions to the town hall, where many students expressed discomfort with what they described as a binary choice the administration had laid out for them between a Customs program of greater oversight and reduced size with compensation, or one of a similar nature without. Rippel ‘19 urged those present to consider what payment and requisite oversight would look like for the Customs-College relationship, including the possibilities that Customs team members would have new responsibilities to report alcohol on first-year halls and that administration might be present during Customs interviews. A member of Bryn Mawr College’s Customs team-equivalent—the Dorm Leadership Team—shared their experience with balancing some paid on-hall advisor positions with alcohol policy enforcement and uncertain immigration statuses impacting employability, which was another concern raised. The session ended with the idea that a campus-wide poll could be sent out to gather a broader student opinion of whether—and if so, how—the structure of customs could be changed next year and whether those changes should include compensation.

Following the town hall, Denny sent a follow-up email to all Haverford students. “Since we only had a short time to begin to explore some of the issues and time is of the essence if there are any changes to be made in the short term, I would like to propose that we work on this collectively, perhaps through the forum of a task force that includes interested students and those of us on staff who can be helpful in navigating the financial and budgetary landscape. As I alluded to last night, the construction of an annual budget is a long and complicated process, and the ability of Haverford to fundraise for specific programs is similarly complex, so the more specific and strategic we can be in our proposals, both short- and long-term, the better,” she wrote. She also invited students to indicate interest in forming a group to field further student inquiries about Customs and compensation, “so that the discussion can be comprehensive but move ahead relatively quickly.”

Earlier this academic year, Shumie contributed a piece to the Clerk, “How Haverford Weaponizes Good Will,” which asserts many of the conditions that S.W.O.L. was founded to address and which were brought up at the town hall. Town hall minutes released by Students’ Council Co-Secretaries are available here.

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