In an interview with The News-Letter on Tuesday, University President Ronald J. Daniels discussed the current political climate, ongoing labor and divestment campaigns on campus and the relationship between the administration and the student body.
Contract workers controversy
Over the past semester, the Student-Labor Action Coalition (SLAC) has led several demonstrations where students, union representatives and contract workers demanded that the University guarantee improved benefits for dining workers and security guards.
SLAC’s demands include a $15 per hour minimum wage, a guarantee that they will not lose their jobs if the University switches contractors and a program similar to Live Near Your Work, which assists faculty and staff in finding housing close to Hopkins.
Contract workers are not directly hired by Hopkins but are instead employed by third-party contractors.
Daniels said that contract workers should be treated well by their direct employers.
“It’s the University’s responsibility to ensure that the vendors whom we deal with... understand that we want the workers they employ to be treated fairly and equitably and that they should receive a competitive wage,” he said.
However, Daniels emphasized that the administration should not be involved with the wage negotiations between contract companies and their workers.
“There is sometimes an expectation that the University should take a position in these negotiations, and I am concerned that would subvert the integrity of the collective bargaining process,” he said.
For Daniels, it is not the University’s role to intervene in discussions on raising contract workers’ minimum wage to $15 per hour. He referred to a set of meetings between Bon Appétit and the dining workers’ union earlier this year.
“There was a collective bargaining process and the parties arrived at a set of wage improvements,” he said. “That’s an area where... there has been direct negotiation and a clear understanding reached. I am loathe to wade into that particular issue.”
Daniels explained that the University did support SLAC’s demand for guaranteed job security. He referenced last summer, when the University was considering changing their security guard contractors.
“We made it very clear to all prospective employers who we would contract with that we wanted them to basically work with the existing employee group,” he said.
SLAC’s third demand is for the University to provide contract workers a program similar to the Live Near Your Work, which provides direct Hopkins employees housing grants to purchase houses in local neighborhoods.
Daniels explained how Baltimore city leads the initiative, which subsidizes the costs of these grants. He suggested that the contract companies should do something similar.
“Here, we will and have encouraged our contract employers to take seriously the prospects for that program,” he said. “We hope that they will enter into an arrangement with the city where they will set up their own ‘Live Near Your Work’ program that parallels, not necessarily in quantum but at least in structure how we thought about the program for University employees.”
Fossil Fuel Divestment
Student group Refuel Our Future, has spent the past six years advocating for the University to divest its endowment from fossil fuel companies. Their efforts led to a forum on Monday evening, hosted by the Office of the Provost, where supporters and opponents of divestment delivered their arguments. Daniels attended the entire event and reflected on the evening.
He emphasized that he does not dispute that climate change is happening and believes there is a need to address it.
Regarding fossil fuel divestment, Daniels raised concerns about how the University would choose which companies to divest from. For example, he pointed out that some companies such as airlines are major emitters of greenhouse gases.
“It’s important to figure out how to draw principled lines around what you would want to divest if you decide to divest,” Daniels said. “If you are going to think about divestment, is it just coal? Is it all fossil?”
He also suggested that if they were to divest from fossil fuels because of a moral obligation, then the divestment movement could spread to other University investments. He brought up the examples of generic drug companies that exploit their market power or for-profit prisons as other businesses that are morally questionable.
“One could go on and on in terms of things that we find odious about types of corporate behavior,” he said. “But then the question is ‘are every one of these going to be a target?’ That was an important theme that came up in the session last night.”
Students and the
This past semester, the administration has rolled out several controversial policies that affect student life, one of which is the Homewood Student Affairs Branding Guidelines. These guidelines regulate the use of the Hopkins name and symbols by student groups.
Many student groups have criticized the guidelines as being restrictive and unnecessary. Because of the backlash, Daniels sought to alleviate those concerns.
“The spirit that I’m hoping to create with our interactions with the student body is that we do our thinking out loud, that we listen to students about concerns they have,” he said.
Daniels emphasized that student feedback is important to help the administration revisit and revise their policies.
“We communicate to students regarding certain goals, imperatives that we are seeking to pursue. You put things out on a draft basis with consultation,” he said. “Ultimately, you get a document that people see is principled, but workable.”
A divided campus
President Donald Trump’s administration has changed the political climate on campus. On Feb. 1, Daniels wrote a letter to the student body condemning Trump’s travel ban, which prohibited citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S.
Daniels explained his rationale for publicizing his personal stance on the travel ban.
“There are issues where I believe that there is a very strong University interest in engaging a set of problems or positions,’” he said. “The travel ban was a matter that I thought rose to the level [at which] it was important for me as a university leader to speak out.”
He acknowledged that although some might disagree with his position, he still felt compelled to take a stand.
“I am in no way seeking to suppress dissent or say that there is only one view on this issue,” he said. “[But] there were key University stakeholders whose interests were very seriously imperiled, and it behooved me to speak.”
Hopkins in Baltimore
Baltimore residents have, at times, been critical of the fact that the University draws accomplished students to the city but that the majority of these students leave after they graduate. Community members argue that the skills students gain from a Hopkins education are not used to benefit the city.
Daniels pointed out that the data they have collected seems to indicate that there is a trend of more Hopkins students staying in Baltimore.
“For as long as I have been at Hopkins, I’ve really been anxious to see students, and indeed all stakeholders of the University, see themselves as part of Baltimore,” he said. “Although it’s unrealistic to expect that every student who comes to Hopkins is necessarily going to stay here after graduation, seeing more students feel that they’ve had enough engagement with the city... is really exciting.”
He suggested that initiatives from the Center for Social Concern, increased career placement programs and new initiatives for student entrepreneurship are ways to encourage more students to stay in the city.
“We are hoping that students can get exposure to Baltimore, to investors in Baltimore and to opportunities not necessarily to be employed in Baltimore, but in fact for them to employ others by building their ideas through startup companies,” Daniels said.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Correction: The article incorrectly stated that the March 31 meeting was betweenBon Appétit and the dining workers' union. The meeting was in fact between SLAC and the administration.
Regarding the administration's consideration for new security contractors, Daniels stated that “We made that essentially a condition for renewal.” His office reported that Daniels was mistaken.
Updated correction: The article incorrectly stated that Daniels referred to a meeting between the administration and SLAC to elaborate his viewpoint on setting a $15 minimum wage for contract workers. Daniels was in fact referring to meetings between Bon Appétit and the dining workers’ union earlier this year.