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More letters from alumni about Low wage workers at Princeton

August 24, 2001

I have just come across on the Internet the response of Erin Christensen ’97 to my April letter in PAW (the print version) on the subject of outsourcing certain non-core service functions currently performed by University employees (food service, janitorial, landscaping, etc.)

Ms. Christensen says that my letter contained the "assertion that the staggering cost of a Princeton education was significantly affected by the wages paid to janitorial and food service staff."

It is puzzling to me that you would publish such a response without at least checking to see if the letter to which it responds does indeed contain the assertion ascribed to it. In this case, it does not.

My point was, and continues to be, that there is nothing immoral or unethical about Princeton outsourcing services that can be provided more efficiently and cost-effectively by firms that specialize in those services. To do so would undoubtedly produce savings, and these savings could perhaps serve to mitigate the staggering (even Ms. Christensen seems to agree with this word) increases in the cost of a Princeton education.

At least Professor Singer has the intellectual integrity to address the point at issue. He believes that using contract workers is immoral. We respectfully agree to disagree on this issue. The impressive array of young do-gooders who responded to my letter did not even address this core issue, let alone successfully refute it on the merits. This is not surprising, as none of them yet inhabits the real world where costs have consequences and actually have to be borne by someone.

Houghton B. Hutcheson ’68
Bellaire, Tex.

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Re: Students protesting on behalf of low-wage workers (Notebook, May 16). As the son of a Princeton janitor (Philip H. Diggdon - janitor at 1879 Hall from 1940-50, grounds and buildings office lackey from 1950-75, then mailman and general flunky until he retired at age 68 in 1974, the year I attended my 20th reunion), I feel qualified to offer these protesting students some advice. 1) Spend your time and energy studying. 2) Spend your time and energy learning. 3) Spend your time and energy making us proud of scholastic achievements.

In 1940, janitors had no union ( My dad helped organize the first P.U. union and was the secretary-treasurer as he was one of the few that could read, write, and do math. Janitors had no health or pension benefits. In order not to starve, my dad spent his weekends and late evenings doing the yard work at the large Snowden estate owned by Bernard Kilgore of the Wall Street Journal, and at the Norman and Marian Mackey estate out by the Hun School. The three jobs consumed 12 hours a day seven days a week.

Princeton University allowed us to rent a house on Charleton St. behind Colonial Club. The area is now a parking lot for the engineering school. My clothes were castoffs from the inhabitants of 1879 Hall. A janitor's son got to attend Princeton University tuition free. On June 15, 1954, the day of my graduation, my dad was a guard making time and a half.

You do-gooders need to let the university set wages in accordance with the employee's skill.

I made it through Northwestern Medical School (Columbia said I did not fit there when the interviewer saw my dad's yearly income.), Cook County internship, and Johns Hopkins and Tulane urological surgical training.

Princeton's award to my Dad for 34 years of low-pay devotion to the university was a large photograph of Nassau Hall autographed by then President William Bowen. Dad took "early retirement" because one month earlier he had found out that his three months of accumulated pay vacation had been cancelled with no notice when he had turned 65.

The Harvard "do-gooders" need also heed my advice.

Philip D. Diggdon '54
Tulsa, Okla.

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In reading Houghton Hutcheson's letter to the editor in the April 4 PAW, I was surprised by his assertion that the staggering cost of a Princeton education was significantly affected by the wages paid to janitorial and food service staff. I myself would be quite surprised if that is where the $4,000 increase in tuition and fees between my graduation in 1997 and the current price tag of $33,000 actually came from. I suspect that the tuition and fee increase has a great deal more to do with improved technology on campus, increased student academic programs, or improved buildings. Given that the wages of the workers in question have reportedly not kept pace with inflation while tuition increases out paced inflation it seems that the additional money gathered in fees and tuition must be going elsewhere. The rise in university costs is shocking, but I find it hard to believe that the cost cycle is significantly driven by the labor costs in the service sector of the university.

Furthermore, I am in agreement with the other two letters from that same issue by Liadan O'Callaghan and Chris Shepherd. More than money is at stake in this campaign. I am tremendously proud of my alma mater in many ways, but this particular issue touches an area where I am ashamed of the great institution of learning that shaped and formed me. It was my observation that service workers were often treated with marked disrespect by a small but visible minority of students and that such behavior was accepted by the larger community. It was most obvious to me in the area of dorm life, where concern for the person who had to clean up after one's activities was absolutely absent on too many occasions to count.

I am currently in my first year at another institution of higher learning and the difference in campus culture with respect to service workers is notable. While I am certain that our janitor and food service staff are not paid at the same rate our dean and president, they are treated with dignity and respect by all members of the community. No one would dream of leaving the kinds of messes behind that people routinely left at Princeton and students regularly express gratitude for the work they do to make it possible for us to concentrate on studying.

I would hope that the campaign run by the Workers Rights Organizing Committee has an effect on more than just the administration. I would hope that it provokes some thought on the part of students about the tremendous gift that has been given to them in being able to study full time at a four year university like Princeton and how they might be called to treat those who make it possible for them to exercise that gift.

Erin Christensen '97
Berkeley, Calif.

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Having worked many hours in the dining halls as an undergraduate, I clearly recall so many of the employees who were low-income minorities occupying a marginalized relationship to the university as a whole, and yet whose contribution was essential to our day-to-day life.

These employees should receive sufficient cost-of-living increases, a transportation subsidy if they travel from some distance, and comprehensive health care coverage for themselves and their families. The university should not attempt to minimize its financial expenditure by hiring on a part-time or casual basis.

I believe the future of our world depends on us becoming morally and ethically responsible to each other. Princeton has an important opportunity here to set a standard by exemplifying real humanism.

Jessica Roemischer ’82
Lenox, Mass.

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Having just finished reading Peter Singer’s Rethinking Life and Death, I feel the need to defend Singer’s name and badly maligned views. If my fellow alumni could take the time to read some of his work, they would find that the “controversial bioethics professor” is extremely intelligent and caring and puts forth thoughtful arguments for reviewing our traditional ethics. As our medical technology has changed, the reality of life and death has also drastically changed, demanding a careful re-examination of ethical precepts created in a time before life support.

“I am glad to see he [Singer] didn’t suggest simply putting the underpaid workers out of their misery” writes O’Callaghan (Letters, April 4) in response to Singer’s essay on improving the pay and benefits of the university’s lowest paid workers (Notebook, February 21). Such attempts at humor only perpetuate the misconceptions of Singer’s work as set forth by his opponents and demonstrate a terrible lack of respect for this rigorous thinker. Mr. Hutcheson, in his letter of the same issue, tries to use Singer’s name to discredit the movement to give the lowest paid workers a living wage.

Everyone seems to agree that attending Princeton is an incredible privilege — I’m not sure that receiving a living wage for full-time work can be seen in the same light.

Abby Austin Weeman ‘89
Gloucester, Mass.

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I would like to be proud of my alma mater. I have left Princeton to devote my life to promoting philanthropy and engagement among the affluent. I am dismayed that the Princeton administration can not act more on the behalf of the poorly paid staff. If Princeton has not been ready to step forward as a role model to make wise use of its human resources as well as its great affluence, then all of the Princeton community must not stand idly by, but must speak up and ask that something be done.

I ask that Princeton workers get good pay and good benefits, and plan to spread the word to other alumni that I know until this issue is fully addressed.

Christopher Mogil '78
Arlington, Mass.

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As a progressive Princeton alumnus, I would like to seriously reconsider supporting the university financially until the workers' benefits and wages are improved. There is no excuse for a wealthy university like Princeton to underpay its valuable employees.

Gene Bruskin '68
Silver Spring, Md.

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I want to express my support for the Workers' Rights Organizing Committee and the cause they advocate for all the reasons so clearly articulated by the committee.

John H. Fish '55
Chicago, Ill.

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February 21, 2001

Just when I thought I was finally holding in my hands an edition of PAW containing no mention whatsoever of the controversial bioethics professor Peter Singer, I came upon his Faculty Opinion column (February 21) excoriating the university for outsourcing support functions such as janitorial and food service. Prof. Singer avers that Princeton should bring these workers into full membership in the "ethical community" that is a great university (presumably by offering them higher salaries and better benefits than those provided by the contractors who currently employ them.)

This commentary stands in odd juxtaposition to the news in the same issue that tuition, fees, room and board have increased this year to the staggering total of $33,613. I have five sons and have long ago succumbed to the numbing realization that none will attend Princeton, though all are fully qualified for admission. A Princeton undergraduate education is now simply beyond the reach of all but the very rich and those at the other end of the spectrum who qualify for substantial financial aid.

Perhaps if Princeton were to outsource more non-core support functions to contractors under a competitive bidding process that rewards efficiency, the savings could be passed along to middle class families whose sons and daughters can only dream of attending in the current circumstances. Alas, one of my boys may yet partake of the Princeton experience. I have suggested that they apply for employment on the custodial staff. Perhaps they will be assigned to clean Professor Singer’s office.

Houghton B. Hutcheson ’68
Bellaire, Tex.

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