The Case of the Vanishing Harvard Dorm Crew

After 70 years, Harvard University is flushing its oldest—and most controversial—student employment organization down the toilet. But that's only the beginning of the story.

Photo illustration by Benjamen Purvis / Photo via StockSnapper/Getty Images

My first taste of the so-called Harvard experience occurred the week before school started. I stood in a line of fellow giddy 18-year-olds who, at least on paper, were among the world’s best and brightest. In front of us, a self-assured sophomore with a messy blond bun held a sponge above a filthy toilet and led us in a sacred ritual. She wore a vibrant red T-shirt with what closely resembled the Harvard shield, but instead of the university’s Latin motto “Veritas,” it read “Sanitas.” We hung on her every word as if still trying to impress the latest in a series of admissions gatekeepers.

Our “captain,” as she was called, submerged her green-and-yellow sponge into the water below. Up to her elbow in its deepest, darkest caverns, she expertly showcased scrubbing techniques perfected over generations. One by one, we took the plunge. For most of us, it was the first time we’d ever cleaned a toilet.

It wasn’t a hazing ritual of the elites. This was Dorm Crew, a student employment and leadership program once cited as the largest—and one of the oldest—student-run fee-for-service organizations in the world. A division of Harvard’s Facilities Maintenance Operations, Dorm Crew had been employing students for custodial work in dormitories since the 1950s. For decades, Dorm Crew provided some of the best-paying jobs on campus: cleaning student bathrooms throughout the fall and spring terms and cleaning dormitories at the beginning and end of the school year. During much of its existence, roughly one out of five Harvard undergrads worked Dorm Crew in some capacity before graduating.

Still, that legacy came under scrutiny in 2019 when Anthony Abraham Jack, an assistant professor of education at Harvard, published the book The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Underprivileged Students, revealing the struggles of less privileged students at top-tier universities. As an example, Jack critiqued a student custodial organization with the fictionalized name “Community Detail” at an unspecified Ivy college for furthering class and racial divisions on campus and shared anonymized student accounts depicting its “disgusting” and “dehumanizing” work. It didn’t take much to connect it to Dorm Crew. A viral tweet by Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University, followed and intensified these discussions: “Low-income students at HARVARD working 20 hours a week in their first year of college cleaning goddamn dorms??”

What the Tweet got wrong was that students were only required to engage in two hours of weekly cleaning to participate in the program during the school year and that they were not exclusively low-income students who participated. Students from different socioeconomic backgrounds joined Dorm Crew, enticed by the high hourly wages—the last going rate for bathroom cleaning was $16.25 an hour.

It didn’t matter; the backlash was swift and unsurprising. After all, the optics Dorm Crew’s critics presented were terrible: a form of forced servitude imposed only on the school’s most vulnerable students for the benefit of its most elite.

After 70 years of being Harvard’s trusted workhorse, Dorm Crew suddenly had a bull’s-eye on its back, one placed there not by students in Dorm Crew themselves but by onlookers. In the winter of 2019, the university halted all Dorm Crew bathroom cleaning during the school year, later saying the decision stemmed from the pandemic, even though, in reality, the decision predated it. In April of this year, Harvard announced that all Dorm Crew cleaning would stop. The organization, if it wanted to continue to exist, needed to find a new home outside of the facilities and maintenance department. For the first time in memory, when students return to campus this month, they won’t be greeted by the usual sight of hundreds of welcoming peers sporting “Sanitas” shirts and wielding mops and buckets.

Largely left out of the public discourse and decisions related to Dorm Crew? The legions of students—past and present—who participated in the program. I was one of the low-income students who critics are purporting to defend against the supposed indignities of cleaning the toilets of classmates. To me and to Dorm Crew’s current leaders, Harvard’s decision to quietly dismantle a program that was such a large and positive part of our college experience has a lot less to do with equity than it does with a deep cleaning of its appearance.

My own love affair with Dorm Crew—and with Harvard—was not immediate. I signed up for Dorm Crew’s weeklong Fall Clean-Up because it was the only optional freshman pre-orientation program that didn’t cost anything and guaranteed I’d start the semester with book money in my pocket.

A working-class “townie” from a mile away in Somerville, I had grown up knowing the difference between myself and many of the students who attended Harvard. Historically, the university looked to my town for labor, while Crimson students crossed the town line for colorful tales and cheap rents. My brother had worked through high school at the hardware store in Harvard Square, catering to its comically insufferable clientele. I knew the dynamics; I had just never straddled them.

The transition wasn’t exactly smooth. In class, my fellow students informed me that my Boston accent—I didn’t think I had one—would make it harder for me to pronounce French words. A classmate’s mother affectionately called me “the girl from Slummerville.” Incoming freshmen in my dormitory were told to always use the so-called buddy system when leaving Harvard’s protective bubble to enter my neighborhood. Suddenly, I, the nerdiest of nerds in my high school, became a go-to bodyguard for trips to Circuit City.

After the intensity of Fall Clean-Up, I took a cushy, even higher-paying campus job in a special collections library while I tried to acclimate to life on campus. I was tasked with filing delicate design sketches, but a lot of the time I listened to music and did homework in the quiet subterranean stacks. It was what many would call a dream job, but I was bored out of my mind. I missed cleaning and the peers that Dorm Crew attracted.

I returned to Dorm Crew at the end of the year for Spring Clean-Up. I was one of approximately 400 students who, during the course of a month, would clean rooms, set up elaborate university events, and provide hospitality support for Harvard’s annual commencement and alumni reunions, which together bring roughly 30,000 visitors to campus. We were all there to make a quick buck—some to earn tuition money, others because their parents refused to bankroll European summer travels—but many of us found much more than a paycheck. There was a certain catharsis in cleaning and in watching my more financially privileged classmates not just toil in misery—and some did toil—but actually experience the joys and value of manual labor. Something clicked for them, as it had for me. They found a respect for this type of work, even if it was the only time in their life they experienced it.

I saw future physicists scrub shower grout, fledgling investment bankers damp-dust Harvard’s iconic crown molding, and soon-to-be doctors learn best practices for broom-sweeping. (Future medical professionals always seemed to gravitate to Dorm Crew.) Some did not enjoy it or excel at a job in which the solely intellectual were no match for students who also possessed practical knowledge and the ability to execute it. Even that was a lesson for students. Most important, perhaps, the work became an equalizer among Dorm Crew members from different economic strata and diverse backgrounds.

Despite the fact that many participants of Dorm Crew gained a newfound respect for manual labor, the recent discourse surrounding Dorm Crew has, in part, been fueled by—and continues to fuel—the stigmatization of custodial work. The notion that any Harvard student would be working an on-campus manual labor job cleaning toilets instead of working in a library or for a professor is appalling to some. “The entire premise for the argument to get rid of Dorm Crew,” says Harvard senior Magdalen Mercado, Dorm Crew’s latest, and likely last, Head Captain, “rests on the idea that manual labor is inherently degrading, that these essential jobs are not appropriate for Harvard students.”

That viewpoint ignores the qualities that Dorm Crew members and people willing and eager to do manual labor work bring to the job and develop along the way: being down-to-earth, quick-thinking under pressure, self-assured, and possessing a sense of humor. These are all qualities one would think Harvard would want to instill in its future real-world leaders. “No one gets into Harvard without being willing to work hard. But the Dorm Crew people are not afraid of any kind of work,” says Mercado, who fought tirelessly to save the program. After Harvard’s recent decision to scrub custodial jobs for students, the program has pivoted. Perhaps fittingly, what remains of Dorm Crew’s staff will now work in jobs with better optics: providing multimedia support in classrooms.

For my own part, I returned to Dorm Crew each semester until I graduated, eventually working my way up to captain and leading hundreds of fellow students in crews during my tenure. I found my social community in the process. It was only through Dorm Crew that Harvard started to feel like home. Maybe that was part of the problem.

As the news of Dorm Crew’s fate started spreading, I found myself reaching out to Dorm Crew alumni to mourn the program’s passing. Among the most notable Dorm Crew alum and also someone who is well versed in its history is Baratunde Thurston, class of ’99. He is an activist, comedian, and the author of How to Be Black, in which he describes his time as a Dorm Crew captain. Thurston admits that the dynamics of working Dorm Crew were sometimes “awkward as hell” but said he loved it. It was an experience, he said, that “helped shape who I became.” It was among the Dorm Crew ranks, Thurston tells me, that he found community and like-mindedness.

Thurston believes that the conversations around Dorm Crew are not so simple and that we may not be having the right conversation at all. Maybe the question is not what kinds of jobs low-income students should be working at Harvard, but why any student at an institution with as many resources as Harvard should have to work in order to afford tuition at all.

Dorm Crew’s origin story itself is messy. Immediately following World War II, Harvard reformed its admission policies, admitting students from more diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, which brought an influx of working-class students and returning soldiers, some married with families. Unlike its previous pedigrees, these new students needed jobs. The process of creating them likely undermined local laborers from towns such as my own, unionization efforts, and calls for higher wages. On-campus jobs also allowed administrators to assert greater control and oversight over these new types of students. Yet Harvard never anticipated that it would evolve and that student workers would take ownership over the organization and befriend—while working side by side with—the very workers they had the potential to undermine.

Harvard also never appeared to have anticipated that Dorm Crew would become a source of pride and agency for generations of students and a home for not just those on the fringes but anyone—financially privileged, middle class, or low-income—who connected with the work and the mindset. Students were expected to stealthily clean their peers’ bathrooms. In reality, they became an enthusiastic, mop-wielding and bucket-toting army of young adults wearing brightly colored T-shirts mocking the Veritas logo while developing and passing on highly visible traditions like the hundred-person tug of war in Harvard Yard every fall. During my senior year, Harvard threatened us with copyright infringement over our logo—an exact replica of Harvard’s except for the word “Sanitas”—forcing us to tweak the shield. Apparently, the university didn’t appreciate the joke. “Maybe Dorm Crew students were a little too visible and a little too proud of their work,” Mercado says.

Perhaps the biggest issue raised by criticisms of Dorm Crew is not about whether low-income students should work Dorm Crew or even whether any student at Harvard should have to work at all. The real question in my mind—and one Harvard doesn’t seem to want to address—is why so many of us felt more at home in Dorm Crew than elsewhere in the university.

A statement provided to me by a Harvard College spokesperson read: “We strive to ensure every student finds a path that supports their life on campus and work with each student individually to pursue their passions, build their community, and enhance their learning.” But what about all of the students like me and Mercado who found community and passion working Dorm Crew? The answer, according to media coverage and Twitter, is that participants must be exhibiting a kind of Stockholm Syndrome in which we defend Dorm Crew because we cannot see how the system has abused us.

None of this is to say that some of the criticism of Dorm Crew isn’t valid. It is. But Harvard hasn’t remediated anything by eliminating student custodial jobs. Providing better-paying, more-flexible campus jobs didn’t require the eradication of these jobs or the dissolution of a beloved student institution. This was a choice Harvard made. In favor of appearances, it disenfranchised the students in the program and ensured that future students will never have the chance to experience everything it has to offer.

For the students who have sat in the cool shadows of Harvard’s institutional hierarchy and have witnessed the messes behind the Ivy façade, these questions warranted more than a lofty edict; they warranted a discussion. Thurston calls it a missed opportunity for Harvard. “It comes back to agency,” he says. “When well-meaning people claim to speak on behalf of the downtrodden without actually talking to the downtrodden about their needs, it’s a problem.”

In June, I found myself back in Harvard Yard for my 15-year reunion. Harvard’s commencement and reunions are the pinnacle of engineered nostalgia—Veritas-stamped Belgian waffles, crimson lanyards with name badges, and photo montages that feature vaguely familiar faces. Instead of enjoying the pomp and circumstance, I found myself longing for those days during Spring Clean-Up when I worked with some of the most capable, interesting people I’ve encountered in my life—both the students and the facility workers. Many of my closest friends worked Dorm Crew—doctors, human rights activists—not necessarily the people most likely to show up for a reunion during a pandemic. What I really wanted to attend was a Dorm Crew reunion.

When I spoke to Mercado, she shared my sentiment, as do so many Dorm Crew members I have known over the years. “Harvard is a very hard place to be someone from a minority background or from a lower socioeconomic class,” she told me. “It’s a place of tremendous inequity. Dorm Crew didn’t make that experience harder. It made it easier.”

That is the real mess that Harvard needs to clean up.