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Share the wealth

Since coming to Princeton, I have been impressed by two things: how rich the University is, and how seriously ethics is taken here. The wealth is evident to anyone who walks around the campus or uses the library. In comments marking President Shapiro's planned retirement from the presidency, it has been said that one of his achievements was to build the University's endowment from $2 billion to $8 billion. At a dinner a few months ago, a senior Princeton administrator told me proudly that, on a per-student basis, Princeton is now the richest university in the world.

President Shapiro has also been active in building the University's commitment to ethics. Our motto has been broadened, encouraging us to see our role not only as service to the nation, but as service to all nations. Undergraduates are required to take a subject that in some way involves ethics, and there are many such courses, in a wide variety of departments. President Shapiro has indicated, in speeches and interviews, that he sees attending Princeton as a privilege that gives rise to a special ethical responsibility to use what one has learned for ethical purposes.


It was therefore with a sense of shock that I read, in David Tannenbaum '01's long article in The Prince Magazine last November, that while the University's wealth has quadrupled, the wages paid to the lowest-paid members of the University community have actually fallen relative to the cost of living, and are now below the wages paid for similar work in local government. Moreover, the University has started outsourcing to contractors, which means that people working at Princeton will be paid even less than Princeton's lowest-paid employees, and will receive no benefits. It seems that attitudes to workers at Princeton are — even down to training in smiling a lot — more what one would expect from a fast-food chain than from a great university.

A great university forms an ethical community. Of course, when we think of the Princeton University community, we think first of students and faculty. But the University could not function without members of its staff, at all levels, and they too are part of the Princeton community. If they are treated as interchangeable cogs, to be bought at the lowest possible price and let go whenever cheaper cogs can be found, they cannot feel themselves to be part of the University community. The result will be a community that is limited to students, faculty and the higher-paid staff, relying on the work of a separate caste of outsiders — people who cannot feel themselves part of the Princeton community — because the University does not show them its concern for their well-being by sharing, even to the smallest degree, its wealth with them.

Not everything that students learn at Princeton is taught in the classrooms. Some of it is learned by observation. If Princeton students see people working at Princeton being paid the lowest possible wage, and given few or no benefits, they will learn that, even in situations of great abundance, there is one rule for the fortunate and privileged members of the community, and another for those at the bottom of the pile. Hence, there are sound educational reasons why Princeton should spend just a little more of its staggering wealth on its lowest-paid workers. This would be an excellent use of money given to Princeton with the intention of improving the education of its undergraduates.

I will end on a bright note. Some students have been concerned enough about this situation to form a Workers' Rights Organizing Committee, which is about to launch a campaign for a fair wage and benefits for all workers, and an end to outsourcing and to the practice of employing some staff, year after year, on a casual basis, without benefits or summer work. The existence of WROC is an encouraging sign that there are students at Princeton with the right ethical attitude. I hope their efforts will soon succeed in persuading the administration and the trustees to rectify the problems that have been exposed. It would be nice to know that Princeton workers smile because they like working at Princeton, rather than because they have been ordered to smile a lot. Peter Singer is the Ira DeCamp Professor of Ethics. He can be reached at