Student agency is one of Haverford’s crowning achievements. It is constantly touted in the college’s promotional materials and tours; so why has student agency become code for free labor? Working on the Special Plenary Committee and being a part of Customs has helped me understand what the forces are that keep the campus and student body afloat, but it just as quickly wore me out. The burnout that I experienced isn’t unique to me and is in fact one of the most universal things I hear when I talk to other students involved in the attempts to fix institutional problems with the college. I think one of the largest contributing factors to this burnout is the feeling that not much actually changes as a result of these contributions, and at the end of it all students are left feeling emotionally and financially short-changed.
Let’s take for example the very tour guides who often talk about student agency to prospective students. When I went on a tour during Spectrum weekend, the tour guide took great pride in the fact that tour guides weren’t paid. Since there were so many people interested in speaking about and for the school, the school didn’t even bother paying them. Even then it struck as me as strange, but this appears to be the case for the vast majority of student-led positions at the college. Even now that tour guides are paid, they are still required to do one unpaid tour every week so that they can keep their role as volunteers. Besides the fact that this seems ethically and legally ambiguous, it also represents the perversion inherent in Haverford’s compensation system. Implicit in this system is the belief that being paid for the work that you do makes it somehow less valuable. While it is easily understandable how the college benefits from this belief (free labor and a great marketing tool), it astounds me that it has become such an ingrained part of Haverford life that the same unpaid tour guides were proudly boasting about their unpaid labor to prospective students. Don’t get me wrong, the work that people do on this campus is seriously incredible, but I also know that if these essential positions were paid, it would likely be the same people taking part in them for exactly the same reason: to help their community. If administrators seriously feel that people would only participate in programs essential to the Haverford community for the paycheck, then that to me signifies a broader distrust of the student body that directly contradicts the main tenets of the Honor Code.
Customs people and UCAs are another group who don’t get compensated for the work they do, which by and large is an incredible amount of emotional labor, as detailed in Liz Royer’s article. It’s hard to even fathom how difficult it can be. In terms of compensation, CPs get a nebulous title to put on a resume and a lot of “gratitude” from the school. Further, there are substantive issues for off the hall folks, who are are expected to go to hall meals in the Dining Center, even if they are off the meal plan or only have a limited number of swipes. In comparable systems across the country, campuses pay their RA’s and, at a minimum, offer them free room and board. To do otherwise seems like a gross underappreciation of the work that they do. This goes without mentioning that Customs members at Haverford are expected to additionally contribute throughout the school year with sessions on difficult issues such as race, class, mental health, and so much more, something that most university residential programs do not include. So many of Haverford’s institutional achievements – from its renowned Customs program to its lack of hospital visitations due to drinking to the entire idea behind the community that the school proudly touts – fully relies on the work of Customs members. It is clear that these Customs members are doing an incredible job in so many different ways, yet the administration constantly undervalues the work they do.
One of the most common responses that people hear when talking to administrators about payment is about all the intangible benefits that CPs and other Customs members have access to. The ability to help shape the incoming class, the experience of reliving Customs, and a host of other perks are brought up immediately. While those things are true and certainly part of why I became a part of Customs, they also aren’t unique to Haverford. RA’s everywhere sign up for the job for those exact same reasons. Their being paid does not diminish those other benefits. Haverford has set up a unique and almost ingenious way of making people feel obligated to work for free knowing the huge amount of time it will take, simply because it seems like the right thing to do. Tacking on the largely increased obligation that people of color feel to support the incoming class of marginalized students, the lack of support systems for upperclassmen that drive many towards participating in Customs again, and the social obligation of participating in a program that nearly a third of your class is involved with and it all begins to feel hopeless. At the end of the day, it is a manipulative system, and I genuinely believe it is a large part of what drives a lot of burnout and apathy towards the Haverford community, both for those who were once incredibly active in the community and for those without the financial means to become involved in the first place.
Although payment for Customs members is an increasingly urgent demand, this problem does not end with them. Andrew Nguyen’s article about the Women*s Center’s lack of administrative leadership and struggles with payment for student workers highlights another example where critical campus leaders are expected to work without compensation. You might now be thinking, “If every position that helped keep this campus afloat was paid then the school would be bankrupt!” To that, I’d respond that there are measures that can be taken towards solving the issue without draining the school’s pockets.
Beyond paying Customs members fairly for the integral role they have in so many critical ways on campus, a practical step towards solving the other issues with Haverford’s compensation structures is raising the wage for on-campus jobs. If the school is so interested in maintaining its volunteer-based structure for keeping the campus functional, they can at least acknowledge that the work that we are getting paid for is only a fraction of the work that is actually invested into the institution. $9.00 an hour is the starting rate for most jobs and in comparison to other peer institutions (such as Bryn Mawr), it is laughable. It is also worth noting that one of the largest problems surrounding these conversations is a complete lack of information on behalf of administrators. In a room full of administrators on the Low-Income and First-in-Their-Family Assistance and Resources (LIFTFAR) advisory committee, no one could tell me when there last was a campus-wide raise. A lot of them did not even know how much student workers get paid. This disconnect is intolerable in a community that is supposed to be as close-knit as Haverford. Further, it serves to highlight how the relationship between student and administrator can often be one-sided.
Haverford strives to be a community, and a lot of people that come here want to be a part of that community and make it better. Haverford weaponizes good will when they take these good intentions and twist them to justify not paying people for the work they do. It’s weaponized when the positions needed to make sure that marginalized students feel safe and welcome on this campus are unpaid. Above all, it’s weaponized when the administration is blind to the fact that these issues are ongoing in the first place.