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The Administration of Silence

Campus | October 12, 2015

When I visited Tufts for Jumbo Days, I remember an overwhelming feeling of excitement, intensified by the fact that I would be able to witness a historic campus event: the Jumbo statue unveiling . What I did not expect was dozens of students silently protesting this seemingly superfluous donation. It is up for debate whether or not the donated money could have been used to save the jobs of the janitors targeted for cuts by the administration. Nonetheless, it was somewhat sobering to see a million dollar statue unveiled with janitors and members of the community pleading to save their five-figure jobs in the background.

However, I was less shocked by the protests than I was by the administration’s reaction, which was, by and large, nothing. The big day went on as planned. There was not a mention of the protest unfolding in front of the statute by any of the speakers or the administration—not a word. While I wasn’t sure what I expected—maybe campus security hauling away the protesters in handcuffs like the dramatic climax of a movie—the lack of a response was certainly not it.

The administration’s reaction at the unveiling was not an anomaly in their treatment of this disruption, but the norm. In the winter of last year, Tufts University threatened the jobs of 35 janitors, a 17 percent cut to staff. The cuts set off a passionate reaction in some students, especially Tufts Labor Coalition (TLC), a group with a history of responding to labor crises on campus. Utilizing hunger strikes, protests, sit-ins, and negotiations, TLC worked for months to demand change, or at the very least, an open dialogue. Yet, throughout the year, no matter how much TLC and others mobilized, the administration responded largely by not acknowledging the group and remaining silent.

This silence, when examined more closely, seems to be the administration’s tactic of choice in maintaining order on campus, no matter how illusory this order is. The original plan was to fire the janitors quietly and without public announcement. While TLC’s actions did temporarily disrupt the fabricated calm, it is important to acknowledge the administration’s desire to quietly resettle campus this semester and project its control. This desire was fulfilled—students have stopped talking about the movement, TLC is relatively quiet (as they reorganize), and the administration seems satisfied. An eerie silence on the subject has fallen over campus. However, the struggle between students and administration for agency is ongoing, as is the threat of more  restructuring or staff cuts. To keep this movement alive,Tufts needs to keep talking about it.

Most Tufts students feel afraid to talk about the cuts for fear of speaking out against the administration or sheer lack of knowledge. There are, however, a growing number of informative resources pertaining to the conflict. The movement remains a taboo subject on campus, preventing voices from being heard and important conversations from continuing. “I don’t know enough about the movement, but I always thought it was really important,” said Suze Kaufman, a junior who is not a part of TLC. “I think the movement revealed that a bridge does exist, but often goes unacknowledged, between the students and the support staff (janitors, food service employees, etc).”

To some students, TLC is a fringe organization, causing many to steer away from looking deeper into the janitorial issue. While I was at Jumbo Days in April, a student offered me a paper explaining the protest. I remember the upperclassman I was with shooting me a look, indicating that she thought the action was misplaced. The  hesitancy of some students to invest time in a group perceived as radical, coupled with the fact that the administration’s conversations happened behind closed doors, contributed to hostile sentiments from parts of the student body.

While the administration maintained an illusion of control and order, they complied with at least some of TLC’s demands. Only six janitorial positions were terminated, leaving almost 30 jobs saved . “I don’t think that the administration was responsive in terms of listening to people’s voices, janitors’ voices, and the large community support, but I also know that they wanted to cut 35 janitors and that hasn’t happened. So, in some ways, I know all of the organizing that happened was powerful,” said Nicole Joseph, a sophomore and member of TLC.
TLC’s goal to lessen or eradicate the janitorial cuts was morally founded, one does have to wonder what motivated the administration’s decision. It is likely the decision was more pragmatic—read: financial. With an expanded campus, but fewer workers and fewer hours, a 20 percent cut to staff simply doesn’t make sense. Nonetheless, the motivation for the reduction of layoffs, whether practical or moral, does not devalue the success of the protests.

However, this is not to say that the administration was in any way responsive to the demands of TLC. As many members of the group would be quick to point out, the lack of cuts solves a short-term problem but definitely does not eradicate the power dynamic that exists between Tufts and DTZ , the outsourced company that recruits and employs the university janitors. Since the decision to outsource the jobs in 1994, a complex relationship has formed between the staff and the administration, as the janitors are no longer technically Tufts employees and are not treated as such (janitors do not receive the same benefits as other staff members). In many ways, DTZ had to assume the role of scapegoat , appearing responsible for the employment of these janitors when it was Tufts making the cuts.

Moreover, communication with the administration was difficult. “They said that we misunderstood things [like the budget] and couldn’t understand because we were students,” says Joseph. “And we say [okay, then] can you explain it to us… [But] they never followed through. Clearly we don’t understand the entire budget because it is hidden somewhere, but we did present them with facts that they published. [T]hey still didn’t do anything about it. It is a lot of talking in circles around them.”

The Tufts administration often evaded facts and open exchanges, which seems to be a large part of their attempt to diffuse the backlash.“[The administration] has been talking about this study that claims that Tufts cleans less efficiently than other campuses but they have never published the study; you can’t find it. They can basically just make up evidence like that and push through whatever plans they want ,” said Joseph. All of this seems to simply be coded language for what the administration is really prioritizing with this transition—the bottom line. “[The administration] says that their priority is the cleaning services being rendered most efficiently and effectively on this campus. But, at times they would admit that that meant money and not how people did the work, not how it affected janitors,” said Joseph. But none of this was verbalized publically.

In some sense, the Tufts administration is the backbone of the university, and it makes sense that one of its priorities is to maintain a sense of decorum on campus. It cannot be seen as giving into any demands, no matter how convincing the moral argument. It must be a foundation of order, which can be ruffled occasionally, but not dismantled. As a result, feelings of powerlessness fuel most students’ disillusionment about protests and other organizations. If students knew that they could get the administration to change their  stance, how much would petitions and protests increase?

In the end, the administration gets to keep their sense of order, or at the very least, the illusion of it. Due to their secrecy about the whole process, many people do not know of the successes TLC achieved.
As for what happens next? TLC seeks to challenge the uneven power dynamic between administration and janitorial staff. They were happy to have some of their demands met, but the overlying  problem of the administration’s power over the community and janitors’ jobs still remains. “The biggest takeaway is that the Tufts administration didn’t listen to the needs of the Tufts community. There were layoffs and hour changes that are very detrimental to the workers and to our campus,” said Lior Appel-Kraut, the president of TLC. And the administration continues to dodge the bullet. In their first released statement of the new year, on September 29th, the administration detailed their plan to continue with the janitorial “restructuring.” However, as if  in an attempt to maintain consistency, they coated the email with favorable language and half-truths, saying, “the number of needed layoffs was reduced in the end to four,” while ignoring the two fired at the end of last year. The email is the perfect display of order—no mention of the protests or hunger strikes—only neat and tidy statements that look good in print.