Workers’ rights, race at forefront of town hall
Students, administrators, faculty and members of housekeeping and dining staff gathered for a Board of Trustees town hall in the McDowell Formal Lounge Thursday night.
Participants voiced concerns on workers’ rights, campus racism and mental health to a panel of senior-level University officials. The panel included President Neil Kerwin, Marc Duber, chairman of the subcommittee on Real Estate on the Board of Trustees, and Jack Cassell, chairman of the Board.
With an attendance of approximately 250 people, only standing room was available when the event began. According to David Taylor, Kerwin’s chief of staff, the event is held twice annually by the University as an open forum for both students and administrators to “take an inventory in what people think.” Attendees were permitted to stand at a microphone and address the panel in front of the audience.
In light of racially-charged comments recently posted to Yik Yak and discriminatory posters placed around campus, students brought forward concerns regarding the status of race relations on campus. Earlier this month, President Kerwin responded with an op-ed in The Eagle with a plan for increased discussion on the issues as the course of action he would take to improve the University culture, including increased dialogue through town halls.
Kiersten Gillette-Pierce, a senator for the class of 2016, spoke before the panel to advocate for specific action on race relations and urged administrators to include students before taking action.
“When you pay your money or when your scholarship fund pays your money to be here, you want to feel like you belong and you want to feel like you have a place in your class and you want to feel like your professor cares about you and they [students of color] don’t feel that way,” Gillette-Pierce said. “It’s upon us as students of oppressed bodies and students of color to make sure that the people behind us have a better experience than we’ve had.”
Members of student racial-justice movement The Darkening, including Gillette-Pierce, wore black to demonstrate solidarity with racial discrimination at AU and on campuses around the country. Other members of the organization, including Tatiana Laing, brought forward the issue of discrimination posed by faculty members.
Kerwin acknowledged problems of racial discrimination and inclusion as a campus-wide issue. He explained that a proposal will be drafted early next semester and then communicated to the University community for feedback.
“Students believe diversity has been oversold, and that is an issue we have to address,” President Kerwin said during the town hall. “I understand that diversity and inclusion are not the same thing. However well we might be doing on the front end, we are not doing well enough with regard to inclusion and we have to improve. This will not be the University we want to be if this problem persists. I feel the need to engage the whole community.”
Half an hour before the meeting, the Student Worker Alliance and Exploited Wonk campaign, which includes students as well as dining and housekeeping staff, rallied on the steps of the Mary Graydon Center.
Christine Hamlett-Williams, who has served as a dining service worker at AU for 36 years, stood up and called for educational benefits for both workers and their dependents on behalf of the Student Worker Alliance. Additionally, she advocated for increased retirement benefits to supplement the lack of retirement contributions under one of the University’s previous dining contractor, Marriott. As a result of historically low pension contributions, many workers are unable to retire, Hamlett-Williams said.
“I am at age of retirement and can’t,” Hamlett-Williams said during the town hall. “We have several employees here who are in their 70s and still working because they can't retire. What is the University going to do for us? We need to sit down and see how we can fix this for the food service workers to make sure we have a pension.”
According to Kerwin, the University began subcontracting the labor for food service through different companies approximately 50 years ago, and Aramark is the University’s current dining contractor.
Kerwin suggested that the workers utilize the Project Team for Socially Responsible Business Practices, which is co-chaired by SPA Professor Jim Thurber and assistant vice president Linda Argo, as a possible venue for handling workers’ lack of pension funds. According to a memorandum released by Kerwin in 2013, the team researches and recommends ethical business practices to the University administration.
“I do find myself in a very difficult situation on this, nothing like you do, the situation is that we have to acknowledge the role of the union in these conversations,” Kerwin said. “The union’s relationship with the employer is something we have to be careful not to unduly interfere with for a whole variety of reasons, but I would be willing to have the Project Team on Socially Responsible Business Practices take up this issue and see what if anything we can do to assist with the problems that you are currently personally having.”
Mental health concerns
Isabel Zayas, a sophomore in the School of Public Affairs, addressed the panel specifically regarding the quality and quantity of staff at the counseling center. Zayas cited personal experience with long wait times as evidence for her concerns.
“They consistently use the extended walk-in crisis hours as some sort of improvement of the counseling center, and I wanted an answer to how they plan to fix the long wait times and how they plan to improve the counseling center,” Zayas said. “I didn’t really get an answer to those questions. I really just wanted some sort of tangible plan, but I don’t think they have one.”
Zayas believes that peer-to-peer resources would reach more students than the current counseling center and more realistically meet the needs of students who are experiencing what she called “suicidal” mental health tendencies. Following Zayas’ address, Kerwin called upon VP of Campus Life Gail Hanson, who oversees the counseling center, to respond.
“Because the demand has become so high, we want to be very sure that we’re not missing people who are in crisis,” Hanson said. “And so, to your point, no, we don’t anyone to harm themselves. That’s our first concern. That’s why we’ve expanded walk-in hours so that everyone feels the need to be seen immediately can come in and see a therapist and be assessed.”
The hour town hall left many students, including Devontae Torriente, a sophomore in the School of Public Affairs, frustrated with the panel’s responses.
“I think Kerwin said it best, the answers he [gave] us were not answers we want nor the answers that we needed,” Torriente said. “That was just the place he was at. I remain optimistic that if we keep pressuring them, we will see change.”
Eagle staff writer Katherine Saltzman contributed to this report.