What is Dorm Crew outside the dorms? | News
Paul G. Stainier ’18 found a home at Harvard by participating in the College’s Dorm Crew – a program that previously hired college students to clean dorm bathrooms.
“Everyone in the room is ready to put their hand in the toilet for money. And that, I thought, was a good filter for people I would get along with,” he said of his colleagues.
Stainier later became House Captain, a leadership role in which he oversaw a team of students tasked with cleaning up Cabot House.
The College began hiring undergraduates to do guard work in dormitories in 1951 under the Student Porter Program, which provided a new source of on-campus employment.
Prior to Covid-19, the directors decided to engineer a change in the function of Dorm Crew, a longtime magnet for controversy. According to leaders of the organization, administrators had said they wanted students to be responsible for cleaning their own spaces.
Dorm Crew leaders began planning to phase out on-call work in the spring of 2020 and developed a proposal for new ways to employ members on campus.
That spring, Covid-19 struck. Since then, Dorm Crew’s work has largely come to a standstill.
Now, after a 70-year history defined by cleaning bathrooms, Harvard is rolling out a new future for Dorm Crew – a future that no longer involves toilets.
“A safe place to learn about leadership”
When applying to trade school, Jose I. Garcia ’19 highlighted the leadership experience he gained as captain of Dorm Crew House.
“Leadership roles have real consequences, and that’s not to say Dorm Crew didn’t have real consequences, but it was a safe place to learn about leadership,” Garcia said.
Most college students first heard of Dorm Crew through Fall Clean-Up, the only freshman pre-orientation program to pay its 200-300 annual attendees. Thanks to FCU, incoming freshmen spent the week before move-in cleaning dorms for $13.50 an hour.
Upon completion of FCU, students were encouraged to join Dorm Crew, which paid entry-level bathroom cleaners $16.25 an hour for a minimum of two hours per week. Students could also participate in the Spring Clean-Up, which paid them to clean dorms and prepare the campus for the May start.
Dorm Crew employed more than 800 students a year through its various programs, according to its website.
FCU participant Guillaume Bouchard ’23-’24 wrote in an email that his days in the program were among his “happiest and most meaningful to date”.
Bouchard, a low-income, first-generation international student, said the job helped him apply for a Social Security number and complete his financial aid package.
“I met some of the most down-to-earth, genuine people I’ve known in my time at Harvard,” Bouchard wrote. “The work was rarely difficult, the company was great, and the pay was a great way to start the year.”
Benjamin E. Frimodig ’21, who chaired the organization as chief captain, said Dorm Crew helped him find like-minded friends on campus.
“I came to Harvard, and it was an overwhelming place,” Frimodig said. “Being part of a community of people at the most prestigious institution in the world who were willing to clean bathrooms to pay for college was such a gift.”
Despite glowing reports from many of its members, Dorm Crew has drawn criticism from some academics and undergraduates who argue that the program exacerbates inequalities between low-income students and their peers.
In 2019, Anthony A. Jack, an assistant professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, published “The Privileged Poor,” a book that criticizes programs like FCU for fostering divisions among students from different socioeconomic backgrounds.
Temple University professor Sara Goldrick-Rab sparked heated debate in 2019 when she tweeted about the program.
“Low-income HARVARD students working 20 hours a week in their freshman year of college cleaning up fucking dorms?” wrote Goldrick-Rab.
Hrolfur Eyjolfsson ’23, who did not participate in Dorm Crew, said he found the idea of the program “uncomfortable” and “kind of belittling”.
“I know someone who would come into my room, and they would come there to clean the toilet while I’m just sitting on the couch. It was super awkward,” Eyjolfsson said.
Still, many current and former members of Dorm Crew pushed back against those criticisms.
Chief Captain Magdalen M. Mercado ’22-’23 said she believed the program actually mitigated socioeconomic differences.
“It’s a way to increase your access to things, put money in your pocket, and also give you access to this huge network of students and alumni,” Mercado said.
For Frimodig, criticism of Dorm Crew stems from the “elitist” stigma of guard work at Harvard.
“As an employee of Dorm Crew, I never appreciated being informed of my own oppression by people who had never done Dorm Crew and people who had never done manual labor,” said he declared. “I think there was an idea that Harvard students are above guard work, which is not true.”
When the pandemic hit in 2020, Dorm Crew went on hiatus. But even with the return to full residential capacity last fall, Dorm Crew employees were assigned to fulfill work orders for yard operations and to perform small jobs during the move-in.
“It felt like the College was really using Covid as an excuse to cut the program short, and their real motives were a bit more based on the bad press Dorm Crew got,” Frimodig said.
Frimodig said he felt there had been “dishonest communication” from the administration during the pandemic regarding the future of Dorm Crew.
“We responded to every curve ball that the pandemic threw at us and the College administrators threw at us, and we just felt like it kind of ended in a lot of platitudes from them,” Frimodig said. “Just a lot of empty promises and frustrating messages.”
With no regular schedules, many Dorm Crew members, like Naomi Davy ’22, opted to take new jobs on campus.
“I am now a representative in the Office of Sustainable Development and I really enjoy this job,” said Davy. “But I don’t think I would have taken this job if Dorm Crew was still around. I really enjoyed that.”
Former Dorm Crew member Ryan J. Golemme ’23 said he believed maintaining the program was not a priority for Harvard and feared a loss of institutional memory.
“The longer we wait [Dorm Crew’s return], the more that institutional knowledge is lost, the harder it will be for us to reform again,” Golemme said. “To be honest, I think Harvard sort of knows that.”
Harvard spokesman Michael Conner declined to comment on the student criticism.
According to Mercado, students will not have the opportunity to participate in spring cleaning as usual this year.
In early 2020, Dorm Crew’s chief captains drafted a 17-page “strategic plan” outlining a future for the program beyond cleaning the bathroom – which made up the majority of Dorm Crew’s work.
Mercado said that in finding a new direction for his organization, it was important to maintain opportunities for “meaningful, accessible and flexible student employment.”
Previously an initiative of Harvard Campus Services, Dorm Crew found a new home on campus this semester under Education Support Services. The ESS includes the Language Centre, teaching and learning support, and event and media production.
Language Center director Andrew F. Ross, who will oversee Dorm Crew, said ESS is “extremely excited” about its new relationship with the organization.
“What interests us a lot is Dorm Crew’s long-standing ability to self-organize, recruit and train student leadership,” Ross said. “Our intention, really, for this semester is to provide continuity for Dorm Crew, first and foremost.”
As early as next fall, select Dorm Crew members will begin doing AV work for residencies and in select Harvard classrooms, Ross said.
But former chief captain Daniel I. Mendoza ’21 worries that without janitorial work, there will be fewer flexible, high-paying job opportunities for Dorm Crew employees.
In the spring of 2020, Dorm Crew hired 150 students for part-time work. But, according to Ross, the ESS could only hire 45 students if each worked 10 hours a week.
Mendoza said it’s hard to imagine Dorm Crew changing, but he’s optimistic about the organization’s future under ESS.
“They’re going to keep that Dorm Crew spirit, even if it doesn’t seem the same,” Mendoza said.
—Writer Vivi E. Lu contributed reporting for this story.