Around ten days after Princeton’s shift to remote learning due to coronavirus-related safety concerns, Tyler Cowen, a Professor of Economics at George Mason University, published “Universities Shouldn’t Spend Their Endowments on Coronavirus Relief.” The article stated that “The real contributions of Harvard, MIT and Stanford to the world are not the food-service workers they hire. They are the ideas and innovations produced by its researchers, plus the talented students they educate.” Cowen continued: these universities’ “moral obligation to extend charity to those workers is not very strong. Had such charity been prioritized in the past, the U.S. never would have developed and maintained top universities.” 


Cowen was intervening in the ongoing debate about a university’s purposes and obligations. As universities face pressure on their endowments, loss of revenue with students away from campus, and questions about whether they can promote their mission while protecting and supporting their faculty, staff, and students, Cowen’s comments exemplify why many should be concerned about the situation of university workers in the time of coronavirus. 


By describing universities paying their workers as “charity,” Cowen separated the workers of a university from the work of a university, university labor from ideas and education. 


At a time when Americans are reconsidering the nature of “essential labor,” Cowen’s view inverts what the coronavirus reality has belatedly laid bare that, like everywhere else, the work of a university depends on its workers. “Ideas and innovation,” research talent, and education in general don’t occur in a vacuum. As Kevin Kruse, a Princeton Professor of American History, tweeted in response to Cowen’s article, “Without the support of food-service workers, custodial staff, and everyone else who makes @Princeton run on a daily basis, the ‘real contributions’ of research and teaching here wouldn’t be possible.”


Curious about how Princeton is being “run on a daily basis” during the COVID-19 crisis, I began to look into how the university is treating its workers: who is being defined as essential? How are they being compensated? Is the austerity that we are being told is our future going to come at their expense? 


Since the campus closure in March, Princeton has issued several statements about its use of the endowment and treatment of staff members, as have graduate students and others. One statement, appearing in the Alumni Weekly on March 23 quoted Ben Chang, the University Spokesperson, saying that “all staff will be paid whether at work or not.”


To better understand this response, I reached out to Mr. Chang on April 6 looking for clarification about who is included in the category of “staff;” whether staff members will be paid at their full salaries; whether some Princeton employees are not considered “staff” because of their status as hourly or part-time workers; whether any workers were being let go; and lastly, whether he had any information about the employees of Princeton-affiliated organizations, including eating clubs.


Michael Hotchkiss, the Deputy University Spokesperson, responded to my email with an attachment of Provost Deborah Prentice’s April 8 email to Princeton’s faculty and staff that was also shared in a Campus Message to students. Mr. Hotchkiss acknowledged that the memo might not address all of my questions, but he thought that it would be helpful in understanding the University’s approach. The memo noted that even though Princeton has a strong endowment, the University is not immune to the challenges brought on by the pandemic and will still have to make “difficult reductions and tradeoffs.”


In particular, the Provost wrote that the administration is “asking managers to start planning now for a decreased dependence on these [temporary hourly, casual, and contracted] positions beginning June 2nd.” On April 16, an op-ed in The Star Ledger by Princeton graduate students, Maggie Tennis, Molly Brune, and Sujata Rajpurohit, criticized Princeton’s approach to its most vulnerable workers and, especially, Princeton’s use of its endowment. While advocating strongly for university workers, the op-ed sometimes conflated the roles of Princeton’s regular staff members with those of temporary workers, a distinction that can be difficult to track. 


Lianne Sullivan-Crowley, the Vice President of Human Resources, responded to the op-ed to clarify the “misimpressions about Provost Prentice’s April 8 email to faculty and staff.” In her letter to the editor of the Ledger, Ms. Sullivan-Crowley wrote that Princeton has not had to make the “the types of layoffs being instituted or contemplated by many of [its] peers” but that it would also “be irresponsible of us to say that there will be zero reductions in our workforce.” She continued, “[G]iven our strong financial situation we are able to greatly minimize the number and nature of any job losses, and we are currently able to protect our entire regular workforce.” This response left me with some of the same questions as the ones I started with and also raised more. I expanded my research to see what might be happening at other institutions.


From mid-March on, other institutions, including Stanford and Cornell, have also been grappling with budget shortfalls and considering layoffs or furloughs of university staff. On April 27, The Washington Post published a piece about dissatisfaction from Stanford students and union leaders with the University’s decision to “[renege] on a promise to help laid off janitors and dining staffers employed by independent contractors.” The article featured a Stanford custodian who, having been laid off, expressed frustration with the lack of communication from the University. In June, a “Resolution in Support of Continued Employment for Cornell Staff during the Covid-19 Crisis” was passed by Cornell’s Faculty Senate.


Back at Princeton, Princeton Graduate Students United published an op-ed in The Daily Princetonian on May 3 criticizing the administration’s use of its endowment during the COVID-19 crisis. The GSU wrote: “Given Princeton’s exceptionally privileged financial position, then, is it not reasonable to expect an exceptional response in protecting the university community during this pandemic?” 


In a Campus Message the next day, President Christopher Eisgruber devoted several paragraphs to explaining how Princeton’s endowment should be used during the crisis:


We believe that an average annual endowment spend rate slightly above 5 percent is in fact sustainable.  With this year’s decline in endowment value, however, we expect to be spending more than 6 percent of our endowment.  That rate is not sustainable.  We therefore need to reduce the University’s operating expenditures, especially because there is a substantial risk that greater economic distress may lie ahead.  That is why Provost Deborah Prentice has rightly called for salary freezes, tighter vacancy management, and reductions to non-essential expenditures.


To clarify exactly who might be subject to “tighter vacancy management, and reductions to non-essential expenditures,” I followed up with the Princeton administration. Reaching out once again to Mr. Hotchkiss, the Deputy University Spokesperson, I asked whether there were updates on the plans that Provost Prentice requested of managers to decrease dependence on “temporary hourly, casual, and contracted positions” beginning June 2nd; whether any cuts had been made in those positions (or others) already; whether workers in “regular staff roles” were being paid at their full salaries; and whether hourly employees were being paid at regular hourly wages at full hours. 


I also requested clarification about who is included in the category of staff and who is included in the categories of “temporary hourly, casual, and contracted positions,” and how much autonomy managers have in furloughing or laying off non-regular staff members. In response to President Eisgruber’s suggestion that around 6% was the maximum the University will use from the endowment this year, I asked whether the University would be willing to make a larger one-time use of the endowment in order to support its workers.


Here is Mr. Hotchkiss’s on-the-record response (CC-ed Mr. Chang and Ayana Gibbs, the University Media Relations Specialist):


Provost Deborah Prentice has outlined four key principles that will guide the University as we manage our way through the challenges presented by COVID-19 — ensuring the health and well-being of our students, faculty and staff; restoring our teaching and research activities to normal operations once it is safe to do so; sustaining our commitments to access and affordability; and retaining and supporting our talented workforce. 


Princeton is what it is because of its people, and we are working to support them during this crisis.  


All regular staff members continue to be paid at their regular rate, regardless of whether the staff members are needed to work their normal schedule. There have not been layoffs of regular staff members. The overwhelming majority of our employees, including those who work in dining services, maintenance, custodial services, and other campus services, are in such regular staff roles. 


Casual hourly staff members are hired by individual departments for work that has agreed upon start and end dates. Because of their temporary nature, some of these assignments will end at various times, while many others remain in place. The University has not made general layoffs in these positions but will be judicious in engaging such positions as we look ahead to the longer term. 


With this response from the Princeton administration in hand, I wanted to hear from staff members affected by the COVID-19 crisis and by the University’s approach to the crisis. As a member of Wilson College, I first spoke over Zoom with the Head of the College, AnneMarie Luijendijk, who recommended that I email Dianne Spatafore, the College Program Administrator, and Mohamed Flites, the Lead Janitor, both of whom I spoke with by phone in the last weeks of May.


Ms. Spatafore expressed her gratitude for the leadership from Princeton, its positive mission and acknowledgement of the workforce, and said that she found President Eisgruber’s message to be clear and comforting. She appreciated that Princeton is keeping, if not increasing, its health benefits for regular staff members and reinforcing the Teladoc program. She also appreciated Human Resources’ clarification of campus messages, its regular communications, and that there was a Staff Town Hall meeting relatively early on, which, she said, showed her that Princeton is a reliable employer and aware that staff members likely have many things to worry about at this time. 


In response to my question about whether there are temporary hourly, casual, and contracted workers employed by Wilson and if they are being paid regularly as well, Ms. Spatafore replied that there are several student and casual positions of this nature directly connected to Wilson and that they may be in question moving forward.


Mr. Flites, like Ms. Spatafore, spoke about how, in light of the pandemic, he at first felt worried for himself and the people he supervises. Like everyone else, he had no idea what would happen, but expressed confidence that Princeton staff members would look out for each other and for the students still on campus. 


Mr. Flites mentioned that around 620 students stayed on campus for the remainder of the Spring semester and that he was glad to be able to continue to care for them. Unlike Ms. Spatafore, Mr. Flites’ work did not turn completely remote. He was on campus two days a week to clean and at home the remaining three days. In his own words: “We were paid to stay home in order to follow the social distancing guidelines and flatten the curve. My staff and myself were ready to come back if there was a need for it. Then for the month of March, April and May, each Building Services supervisor would only have 1/3 of his custodial staff member to clean the buildings and disinfect the high-touch points.” The custodial team did two rounds of cleaning high-touch points, such as doorknobs, elevator buttons, bathroom vanities, and stair railings, every day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. A normal workday lasted eight hours, and any extra hours worked counted towards overtime, as did weekend work. Because of the pandemic, individual staff members were permitted to choose when they would work, the two options being to do the enhanced cleaning in two rounds or stay after for overtime. Following social distancing protocol, employees worked by rotation, with only fifteen workers at a time. As a supervisor, Mr. Flites attended Town Hall meetings over Zoom and then would relay information to other staff members as not all of the people he supervises are computer literate. 


Mr. Flites found the Princeton administration to be transparent with regular staff members in a “conversation [that] never ends.” He believes that one of the best things the University did right away was give all regular workers up to fourteen “COVID-19 days,” flexible time off. Many workers, especially on the custodial team, were understandably worried about entering dorms. Still, morale among his team has been high and that they have been able to get their jobs done, he said, without feeling too at-risk. Mr. Flites also mentioned that he has appreciated the guidance from Princeton’s occupational health services about best practices for himself and the people he supervises.


These two responses may not tell the whole story, but they suggest that Princeton has done a good job of communicating with its regular staff members and making sure that the Princeton workers feel and are well taken care of. 


I realized, though, that I was still missing the voices of Princeton’s temporary hourly, casual, or contracted workers, those who were likely to be the most vulnerable in the time of COVID-19. So, I reached out to Debbie Reichard, the director of the Wilson College Ceramics Studio who has worked at Princeton steadily for more than a decade. We spoke by phone on June 3rd. Ms. Reichard explained to me that as a contractor at Princeton, she is not a direct employee. Instead, she is self-employed, on her own insurance, and sends invoices to the University to be paid. 


When I asked about Princeton communications, Ms. Reichard told me that she has not heard anything since the first week of the crisis when her direct supervisor told her that the Ceramics Studio would close. To my question about Princeton’s support of contracted workers like her who may not have the opportunity to work for a while, she reiterated that she has heard nothing and wondered whether the absence of communication – she received neither the campus-wide messages nor outreach materials to staff members – might be due to the fact that she does not have a Princeton University ID. She expressed frustration that she has not received any compensation under the CARES Act or from unemployment. But she does not think the University could have done things differently. She wishes that she will be able to return to campus and hopes that her role will be the same once campus reopens.


My conversation with Ms. Reichard returned me to the concerns raised by the graduate students in The Star Ledger. The substantial differences between her experience as a contracted worker at Princeton and the experiences of Ms. Spatafore and Mr. Flites as regular staff who are continuing to work underscored for me that it is Princeton’s temporary hourly, casual, and contracted workers who are currently most vulnerable and in facing most extreme hardship given the loss of their wages. I would like to know more about who comprises the category of “regular staff members” and who comprises the categories of “temporary hourly, casual, and contracted positions,” and into which of these categories, if either, the support staff of Princeton-affiliated organizations, like eating clubs fall. All of these workers deserve to resume their roles when campus reopens and Princeton should use its endowment toward the ongoing and future support of all of these members of our community.


The contrast between Ms. Reichard’s experience and the experiences of Ms. Spatafore and Mr. Flites also highlights the immense difference it makes to have a PUID. Mine seems to give me access to more information about the insecurity of temporary hourly, casual, and contracted positions at Princeton than these workers have themselves. Non-PUID holding workers would greatly benefit from more transparent communication from the Princeton administration. They deserve to be in the loop about their current and future employment, including compensation plans and health benefits. 


As Professor Kruse correctly notes, supporting a university workforce is not a matter of “charity.” Princeton’s community includes all of its workers. Supporting all of them at all times, including in times of crisis, is a matter of equity and justice.