Why we must demand a standard of self-sufficiency
Written and illustrated by Han Sayles
"We have the concept that we are going to match market and we think our $11.06 is the correct interpretation for the living wage for a single individual,” said Robert Moore, member of the Compensation Committee and Financial Director of Colorado College.
The new proposed minimum wage for Colorado College staff is $11.06. If the wage supported by self-sufficiency ten years ago—$9.46—were adjusted to inflation, this would amount to $11.89, eighty-three cents below what was called for in 2003. Not only has the college not made any of the promised improvements, but it has actually made steps in the opposite direction. In 2003 Celeste put his consent in written word, “ I do accept the committee’s recommendations that the college move toward the notion of a minimum ‘self-sufficient wage’ as a starting wage for CC and Sodexho employees.” So how did this happen?
Joseph Sharman, systems administrator at CC’s Information Management office, recently dug up the forgotten promise of self-sufficiency and has been advocating for a push back since Human Resources announced the $11.06 wage for this fiscal year. “The college made this commitment in 2003 and I thought that we were honoring it, but apparently we haven’t been keeping up with that standard . . . This effort was fought for by CC students and we need to say that this is what we value as a community.”
Professor Dan Johnson, chair of the Compensation Committee, expressed the fact that our staff wage is actually above the self-sufficient standard for a single person. “We do have a self-sufficient wage—it’s not the most generous definition we could determine, in the same way we don’t offer full scholarships to every student who comes here,” he said.
In 2003, the Colorado College Fair Labor (CCFL) group was originally fighting for the self-sufficient wage of the single parent with one child model; Celeste chose the less expensive two-parent two-child model. So while Johnson is correct, the fact is that a single-adult wage discriminates against employees with kids, making it difficult, if not impossible, for a family to sustain itself without government help. If our college adopted the self-sufficient model for this year by the standard promised by Celeste, the base wage would be $13.42—a $2.36 increase from the current $11.06 per hour. This is the standard we should be upholding, a realistic estimate of what it costs to live here in El Paso county for a single parent and a child.
The financial crisis of 2008 and 2009 undoubtedly played a major role in the initial wage decrease of our staff, a point that several members of faculty and administration have pointed out. Johnson said, “I wouldn’t say the promise of a now former president is history to be banished from memory, but it has to be contextualized, in an era where the budget was running very nicely, the rates of return were very nice. We could afford to think fairly aggressively, fairly proactively and fairly generously.”
Professor Jeff Livesay, the original advisor for the CCFL, expressed his concern about the reversion to a market-based scale. “The fear is that the whole self-sufficiency idea has been thrown out,” said Livesay. He also spoke about how President Jill Tiefenthaler recently acknowledged that staff—janitors/maintenance, etc.—morale is one of the largest issues our college faces. He continued, “One piece of it is a sense that staff have felt they are not adequately remunerated. The ‘market wage’ business creates a real division in the college. The faculty wage structure is based on an analysis of a national market, while staff wages are confined to a local market.”
So while our faculty wages compete with those of other private colleges, our staff’s wages are based on a purely local economy. Faculty has agency and protection during the wage-making process and are clearly prioritized. We must challenge the idea that financial security is a privilege only extended to those who have the access to becomes educated. With the influence we wield as educated students, we can choose not to subscribe to this sentiment and the first step is making self-sufficiency a reality.
When discussing the options that CC could explore in order to make this happen, Johnson additionally spoke on behalf of the Compensation Committee, saying, “The challenge that compensation sees is that if we choose to pay certain categories of the employees more than a market wage it means we either increase the salary bill in total or we have to pay other employees less than the market wage. That last option is a little troubling.”
There is a pool of money allotted for wages at the college, so the “challenge” that Johnson references is the fact that, unless we raise tuition, our options for the wage pool remain consistent. Both Tiefenthaler and Johnson addressed the problematic issue that increasing the salary of our lowest earning staff would result in the inability to meet market wages for other employees. Sharman suggested we compress all of our wages, taking the unwanted raises from faculty members who already donate their money back to the college, or start a campus-wide savings initiative to reach this self-sufficient goal. There is no limit to the number of routes one could explore to actually implement this standard.
We live an exorbitant lifestyle at Colorado College, what with the amount of of renovations, frequent renowned speakers, and a mandatory $350 student activity fee that covers concert tickets, events and every other campus group in which we might want to participate. Yet we can’t seem to commit to bringing up the living wage of our lowest paid earners? Moore estimated that the total cost of moving all the employees up to the $13.42 wage would be around $125,000 per year. Even if this rough estimate were incorrect and the actual rate to move all the lowest paid employees to the self-sufficient wage were half a million dollars, what do we want to say that we spent our money on: renovations in Rastall and the library, (not to mention El Pomar—though that was a privately specified donation) or the lives of our community members?
Tiefenthaler reflected on the complexity of this issue during our meeting, saying, “The hard part in higher education is that you can’t measure the bottom line. I can’t know if by lowering X and increasing Y that I’m making things better. It’s all a tradeoff and you have to do the best you can to balance those tradeoffs.” Yet, when it comes to the matter of people’s livelihoods, why is it that our lowest paid staff, the most vulnerable of our employees, are the first on the chopping block during a financial crisis?
It all comes down to a matter of priority. The statement from our core values that we “value all the members of our diverse community” should include our staff. As the original CCFL members suggested in their recommendation to Celeste, if we decide our first priority is new facilities, then we are unquestionably “investing in buildings and not people.” Tiefenthaler pointed out that making a commitment to long-term self-sufficiency is not the same as the one-time cost of a reconstruction or a featured speaker.
This institution needs to change the way it thinks about staff wages. We do not have to transcend economics in order to make this a reality and since we are a community, that must necessarily take precedence over our other priorities. We do not have to accept the notion that certain people, certain human lives, are less valuable to invest in than others.
The report of CCFL’s original assessment, opens with a quote from the CC mission statement: “the college makes a special effort to ensure that all persons . . . value one another and learn mutual support for intellectual inquiry.” The next paragraph reads,
All members of our diverse community should be valued. Members of the community should not be means to our ends, but valued for themselves and for their contributions to the community.”
With these claims in mind, we ought to take a new look at the seriousness of CC’s values. In an interview concerning the complicated relationship between the endowment and our institution’s values, senior Wyatt Miller said, “I would like to see what other students think now, whether or not it’s possible to have a liberal arts education in an ethical vacuum, and if students really believe that there’s such a thing as a ‘liberal arts education’ that’s disconnected from these other core values, like social responsibility.”
If you take the idea of education to its only logical end, it is not just an abstract “theory.” It must motivate students to enact change based on the conclusions they find in the classroom. We have to draw the line somewhere between education and the rest of the profit-driven world. The larger question then is this: how can we hold our institution accountable? Accountable not only for the sustainability of promises made to past student activist groups, but also for probing whether we really practice the kind of idealist respect that we claim to have for every member of our community. Or is that exclusively a core belief for faculty and students? Remodeling our principles to be in line with our actual policy would be a ridiculous defeatist mentality, so this means holding the administration responsible for our advertised principles and asking why the past president’s word and official statement for long-term goals have not been upheld. How is this idea of self-sufficiency disconnected from the main objective of our institution?
“I try to hold us to our values every day but they compete,” President Tiefenthaler said. If our values compete, it’s because Colorado College is a private business, not because our mission statement of “education” competes with our values. Yes, the administration needs to think financially, but the living standard of our employees should not be contested on an economic level. Making sure that every member of our college is properly appreciated and compensated needs to be our top priority if the integrity of this college is to mean something.
A recent interview with an anonymous staff member who works one of the lowest paying jobs at CC revealed the silence that much of the staff endures for fear of losing their job: “It’s different when you’re employed, you can’t just say everything on your mind because then you won’t have a job. We don’t have a union or anything to back us up.” When asked about the self-sufficient wage, this person replied, “Oh yeah, it would make a big difference for a lot of people. Some people have been out here for 20, 30 years or more and they’re just making the same pay. It doesn’t make any sense to me. I can’t say too much, I need my job . . . ”
For student leaders and government, or any activist group that has an initiative to make life better for others, wage reform is a platform on which we can create a tangible difference in the lives of those in our community.
“I welcome the student voice on this issue,” said Tiefenthaler.
So here’s your radical call for change: lets advocate for the respect of our “diverse community” and make the self-sufficiency standard that the CCFL fought for not just a new policy, but a mandatory addition to the structure of this institution. Consider this a fundamental part of your liberal arts education.