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Housekeeping at Duke

Every Monday morning, as Duke students wrest themselves out of their beds, they awake to a brochure picture-worthy campus. Vomit, trash and other miscellaneous evidence of a weekend of binge-drinking and social events have been removed; displaced, toppled furniture has been reoriented; and residence halls have been returned to a livable state for the week ahead. Most undergraduates don’t give this cycle—or who is responsible for it—a second thought. However, recent moves to reshuffle the work schedule of campus housekeeping employees have pushed these members of the Duke community into the spotlight. The scheduling change now will requires housekeeping staff on some weeks to work Saturdays and Sundays (days they previously had off) and move their “weekend” to Thursdays and Fridays, resulting in reported issues with finding child care and difficulty attending religious services. This was answered with outrage from students and housekeeping staff alike—even resulting in a petition calling for the reversal of the decision. Duke administrators who green-lit this decision claim to have answered desires from students to be covered during weekends. Any potential wage hike or other financial compensation for these new working hours is not being implemented to the knowledge of the petitioners. The stir this shift adjustment has caused not only begs questions of labor conditions on campus, but also highlights the current glaring deficiencies in basic personal sanitation routines that Duke students have accepted as normal.

In the 1960s, housekeepers made students’ beds and cleaned their rooms and in previous days, students were waited on by employees at was then officially West Union. Though the student body seems to have developed some sense of personal initiative since then, the most recent alteration to housekeeping work schedules seems regressive. Apparent demands that housekeeping work weekends to deal with the evidently widespread inability of undergraduates to maintain the hygienic integrity of their collective living spaces raise concerns as to the very purpose of communal living. Although it should be unnecessary to elucidate such a fundamental principle to adults, the underlying purpose of living in a communal space is to undertake a sense of responsibility. Once farewells are said and tearful hugs are given on move-in day, students are implicitly expected to uphold a Rousseauian contract of sorts associated with taking up residence into a space where their parents will no longer dutifully follow trails of clothes with a laundry basket. However, one tour of any common room after Friday night would show that a considerable number among us have decided ignore the need to take initiative in our own living spaces—and instead have shifted that responsibility onto already overworked employees. Beyond the baseline spatial awareness of those around you required for living in dorms, there’s additionally a great sense of community to be potentially generated from keeping one another accountable in shared spaces, as opposed to living carelessly at the unnecessary expense of housekeeping staff whom students barely even acknowledge in their day to day lives. 

The question then becomes why Duke would choose to facilitate students’ bad habits and incompetencies, failing to facilitate preparation for the mildest of real-world obligations? This inquiry is inseparable from the socio-economic and racial disparities involved with labor on campus. Be it unpleasant, those who have called Duke a “plantation” are not without valid concern. The apathy regarding the conditions of primarily low-income African-American and Latinx workers, and our own lack of basic integrity at their very expense, is—to put it lightly—disgraceful. Most students continue to fail to even acknowledge the burdensome, difficult labor that facilitates our above-the-clouds dreamy existence at Duke that we are so fortunate for, much less attempt to help rectify it. This isn’t to say that students can solve the structural problems, inequalities and injustices that gird these conditions. Nor does the solution simply lie in embitterment and guilt. Yet, to choose not take notice of the inequities directly implicated by our presence at Duke and the direct, real human costs of student indifference, demonstrates a similar lack of responsibility that results in students' lack of interest in maintaining their shared dorms.

Is pure academic erudition with no practice of basic life skills truly sufficient preparation for the world outside of Duke’s walls? Administrators would do well to not remove the already meager incentive for us to be aware of our duty to take care of our surroundings. As for a practical step all students can take, the RA cleaning closets located on most Duke dormitory halls are not mere decorations. Visualizing a regular hall in any East or West Campus dormitory, one pains to fathom precisely what level of mess is being made to require housekeeping employees to shift their entire lives around for. To ignore the injustices that are occurring on our campus and affecting the employees that acts as the backbone for everyday university operations, is an act of dishonesty that amounts to a superficial and consciously ignorant state of being. This lack of empathy—especially for the individuals that work in our temporary homes—stands in stark contrast to our university-wide goal to be in service of society.

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