The Tufts Labor Coalition (TLC), a group of students working closely with janitorial staff members and advocates, protested Jumbo Days last Friday, earning the group significant criticism on Yik Yak, in line with past criticisms of protesters. Posts on the infamously anonymous app accused the group of crossing the line by attacking the university in front of prospective students, as Tufts Divest has been accused of doing a few times over the years. Posts like “F*ck you TLC don’t protest at commencement #WeAreTheMajority” may or may not actually represent the views of the majority, but the anger is there. Criticism of TLC takes one of two angles: one, that the group’s efforts are self-aggrandizing and fail to help workers, and two, more darkly, that damaging the university’s reputation in front of prospective students may lessen the value of degrees. Neither of these arguments hold water, and in fact speak more to a disturbing tendency among some people in our community to assign self-serving motives to those student groups willing to provoke a little bit of discomfort to try to help people.
There is nothing sacred about Jumbo Days events; prospective students should know what Tufts does right and what it does wrong. The hostility to student activists, however, is not solely tied to the fact that protesters targeted Jumbo Days. If this is because there is a perception of a “politically correct” atmosphere in our community, let’s start by disabusing ourselves of the notion; overall, our university is far less leftist than many of us think. TLC protesters are not the vanguard of some overwhelming majority who want to ruin the university’s image — quite the opposite. They are a dedicated few, part of a group that has worked on behalf of workers for decades. We should be proud of them instead of complaining about them nonsensically.
In the last 20 years, tuition has shot up as American universities have shifted from institutions of learning into corporations. Adjunct professors struggle, as janitorial staff and first-generation students do; the priorities among universities are changing, and the signs are not good. Those angry at TLC need a real gut check: our tuition makes us complicit in whatever this university does, for good or for ill. Its corporatization and role in economic inequality is something that we have to engage with to be “active citizens,” as we purport to want to be by being here. Modern universities compete by doing anything to raise their profiles and reputations, offering more amenities by squeezing workers and enfeebled city governments and profiting from fossil fuels in labyrinthine finance packages. If your gut instinct is to value the reputation of the name on your degree or the relative calm at commencement more than the welfare of others who have struggled because of our collective impact, then it may be time to reassess.
While there is merit in critiquing the specificities of the TLC demands, such as its vague push for “stronger language” in janitorial contracts or the economic realities of what they are requesting, the hostility directed toward student activists trying to give a platform to the often-ignored voices of custodial workers is misplaced.