Talk of the university’s response to the pandemic has primarily focused on students and their families. Some of us have received partial refunds, and there’s a plan for pass-fail grades. Many of us are now worried about the football season.
This is to be expected within the bubble of an undergraduate Twittersphere or the margins of a campus newspaper, but the talk of the university’s response to the pandemic has focused on students and their families — on consumers, on the demand side of things. We have largely neglected to consider our moral obligation to provide for university employees.
One tenured professor I spoke to found some relief in knowing that he would be around in the fall, but said that the university has failed to address other anxieties. Would he be asked to teach more, and would he be compensated for additional teaching? Would research expectations be adjusted because he’s teaching more?
Other members of the faculty and instructional staff — namely those without tenure — seemed stuck at this anxiety, wondering if their jobs will exist next year.
It was easy to find faculty members to interview. I am, to some extent, made to interact with faculty members. It was harder to find staff members because I usually don’t interact with them. Beyond all this, there was the simple fact that the staff members on campus were few and far between when I went searching for them.
A facilities management employee told me the vast majority of his coworkers are on administrative leave and are being paid for forty hours a week while working zero. I asked him why he was working. He shrugged but made a good case: he can’t go in for his other full-time job; he is being paid for forty hours a week but is only working about twelve; he is trying to score good will to help with a promotion down the road; he is younger and probably healthier than most of his coworkers; and he likes this job.
He feels safe at work, and he said the university has given him personal protection equipment — although he wasn’t wearing any at the time.
I had trouble finding people in general, but I had no trouble getting those I did find to talk to me. The staff members I spoke to generally agreed with one another. At once, it seemed that everything had stayed the same and that everything had changed. They found the world to be strange, boring, lonely.
But — as I was reminded time and time again — don’t we all?
This was not what I had expected. I had hypothesized people would be worried, stressed or scared, but all I could find were people who felt more or less secure.
It wasn’t until the end of the day that I realized I was judging the wellbeing of the university’s entire labor force by only talking to those workers who were considered essential, who constituted a skeleton crew and covered the bare minimum, who represented the boundary between a campus and a patch of land.
For each worker I could find, how many others could I not find? For each worker who was deemed essential, how many others were deemed non-essential, frivolous and expendable? For each worker who was basically O.K., how many others were decidedly not O.K.? In concluding that things were more or less normal for workers, I had made the unfounded assumption that I was an authority on what constitutes “normal.”
For all the talk of the “Lafayette-Oxford-University community” or the “Ole Miss family” or whatever, the divisions were real. Here were the consumers; there were the workers.
Within this dynamic, there’s an outlier. There are many people who work at the university but who do not work for the university. These people work for companies, Aramark the largest among them, which provide services to the university on contract. As the university has cut its demand for Aramark’s services, Aramark has cut its demand for employee labor and laid off or cut hours for many of its employees across the country.
This has renewed focus in an old conversation as to what extent organizations including universities, baseball teams and prisons should be held responsible for the wellbeing of contracted-out employees. The contracting scheme might serve as a legal firewall between the university and many employees working on its campus, but it cannot serve as a moral firewall. The university should work with contractors (or leverage its buying power against them) to ensure that contracted-out employees are financially secure.
I am barely considered a student employee of the university — I get paid a bit to write this stuff — but some of my peers depend on campus jobs for their livelihood. According to the university itself, three thousand students no longer have on-campus jobs and more students have lost off-campus jobs as Oxford closed all nonessential businesses and schools.
One community assistant, who wished to remain anonymous, told me that Student Housing has been “really supportive” throughout the pandemic. They’re being paid for twenty hours a week through the end of the semester but are working much less than that. Like many students who lived on campus, they’re anxious to retrieve their belongings from the dorms. Student Housing has said that this will only be possible once Mississippi and Oxford stay-at-home orders are lifted. They are unsure what their position will look like in the fall — if it’s even there.
A graduate student working as a teaching assistant told me that she depends on her stipend to live, but her stipend, which is below the federal poverty guideline for a single-person household, is not enough to make ends meet. She explained that graduate students are discouraged from working a second part-time job, but many do, herself included. When her hours were cut at her part-time job, her income security became “perilous at best.”
If all this were merely a question of economics, the answer would be simple. If demand for labor is decreasing while supply is holding steady, then you sit back and watch the price drop and either pay people less or pay fewer people at all. But this isn’t merely a question about economics. This is a question about justice. This is a question about what we owe to one another.
In moments of crisis, there’s a devolution of language. It becomes either easier or more tempting to say something without saying anything at all. Sure, these are “unprecedented times.” I’ve heard it from Cadillac commercials, and I’ve heard it from the university press releases. But however things are, Cadillac is still selling cars and the university is still responsible for the wellbeing of its employees. Sure, the health and safety of the community is always the university’s “highest priority.” But what exactly is the university’s second highest priority?
I can’t expect the university to prophesize the state of the world economy. I can’t expect the university to divine the microbiology of a novel virus. The people I spoke to never faulted the university for its inability to predict the future or even to fully comprehend the present. Many of them, however, were understandably displeased to find their personal wellbeing hinging on the whim of the University of Mississippi’s capacity for wisdom, fairness and mercy.
We can’t expect Chancellor Glenn Boyce and Provost Noel Wilkin to answer every question, but I think we can expect them to directly and meaningfully answer these three: What are the university’s interests? What are the university’s values? What will happen when the two are in conflict, as they will often be in the coming weeks and months?
John Hydrisko is a junior English, philosophy and history triple major from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.