Joshua Eaton

Independent Journalist

Category: Harvard

Passion Is Not Payment: Why Creatives and Intellectuals Deserve Decent Pay

Will Work for Pay

Will Work for Pay

LAST week I tweeted about unpaid internships, free blogging, and the general idea that people in creative or social service jobs should work for the love of what their doing rather than (not in addition to) decent pay and benefits. My tweets got a really great response and generated a lot of really interesting conversation. Here's the thread:

Why I Am (Possibly) a Humanist

EVERY week, a different student group at Harvard Divinity School hosts our Wednesday Noon Service. The first Noon Service of this past semester—27 January 2010—was hosted by the HDS Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists, who recruited me to do brief reading in response to the question, “Why are you a humanist?” I don’t know that I actually am a humanist—an ambivalence that is, I hope, subtly apparent in my reading itself—but agreed anyway. The service itself turned into bit of a disaster after the choir sang the Klezmatics’ rather irreverent and accusatory “I Ain’t Afraid,” but my reading was well received, so I decided to post it:

At some point the story lines of my native Christianity stopped making sense and the practices stopped connecting. I wanted something that I could follow without apprehension, something I could swallow whole. Mostly, though, I just wanted something to move me.

Converting to Buddhism in Georgia was like coming out of the closet. First, I was a Christian who just liked Buddhism a lot. Then, I was a Buddhist-Christian. Then, I was a Buddhist who still believed in God. Finally, I was just a Buddhist.

Abandoning my belief in god was one of the most valuable things I have ever done, because it forced me to get over my subconscious, ingrained notion that there might actually be a god somewhere who would punish my disbelief.

Of course, I never embraced materialism, either. Unlike many of my western coreligionists, I believe in the real existence of kārma, rebirth, spirits, heaven and hell realms, and so on. I firmly believe in the supernatural.

In Existentialism is a Humanism, Jean-Paul Sartre says, “If a voice addresses me, it is always for me to decide that this is the angel’s voice.” For me, this means that belief and disbelief really are our choice. Why not choose what we find most helpful, most life-affirming, most moving and beautiful? It is in this sense that I am a humanist.

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Why Harvard’s Top Administrators Should Take a Pay Cut

TOWARD the end of last month, Harvard University’s President Drew Faust announced the layoff of 275 Harvard staff and a significant cut in hours for 40 more. She described these measures as “modest…, but nonetheless painful,” and she called the decision “among the hardest that an institution like ours can make.”

So why is President Faust still so rich?

When my mother spanked me as a child she would start by saying that it hurt her more than it hurt me. I was always skeptical. President Faust’s platitudes about Harvard’s “modest…but painful” layoffs have the same empty ring. If she really means them, she and her top administrators should take voluntary pay cuts.

On 18 May 2009, The Harvard Crimson reported that Faust made $775,043 in total compensation during her first year as Harvard’s president. Harvard’s top administrators made more than $4 million overall. When I look at those numbers a lot of adjectives come to mind. Modest isn’t one of them.

To be fair, President Faust’s compensation is low when compared with the presidents of other top universities. Vanderbilt’s President E. Gordon Gee earned $1.17 million between 2004 and 2005 alone. Still, two wrongs never did make a right. If anything, President Faust has an opportunity to exercise real leadership among her peers by personally shouldering some of Harvard’s budget deficit.

Questioned about why Harvard’s top administrators haven’t taken voluntary pay cuts, University Provost Steven Hyman said he “worries about faculty salary cuts, because what we want to do is retain our very best faculty.”

Sound familiar? It’s the exact same excuse used by AIG last March when its top executives received $218 million in “retention bonuses” at the same time they were accepting bailout after bailout of taxpayer money.

Perhaps realizing how well that explanation worked for AIG, the dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Michael Smith, took a different approach. “Just cutting a few administrator salaries,” he explained, won’t fix Harvard’s budget woes.

He has a point. Even if they decided to go without pay altogether—they won’t—Harvard’s administration still couldn’t make up the budget gap closed by layoffs. But they might be able to save five, or twenty, or even a hundred jobs. To a parent wondering how they’ll make rent next month that’s a lot more than just a few administrator salaries.

More importantly, voluntary pay cuts would show the sort of empathy, leadership, and yes, modesty that have been so lacking in the Harvard administration’s response to the economic crises. They would show that all of Harvard’s high-minded rhetoric and liberal ideals are more than just hollow words. In short, they would show that we really are different from AIG.

Other universities have already set a precedence. Standford’s President John Hennessy and his top administrators announced last December that they’ll be taking a 10 percent pay cut. In March, President Thomas Fallo of El Camino College declined a $36 thousand raise, and last November President James Drake of Brevard Community College used his $100 thousand raise to start a text books scholarship fund for students. Surely Harvard is not to be outdone.

By taking voluntary pay cuts Harvard’s administration could show their leadership and magnanimity, raise employee morale in the wake of a panic-inducing layoff process, and save at least some low-income staff positions. Surely they can make due with just a couple of million dollars among them.

Growing up, I saw my mom take a second job to make ends meet and my retired grandmother take the bus to work at Walmart so I could have school clothes. Then, when I was in high school, my mom almost got laid off from her clerical job at the University of Georgia. Months went by before she knew if she’d have a job the next year. Thankfully she was spared; if she hadn’t been, I wouldn’t be at Harvard today.

My family constantly went without so that I wouldn’t have to. Whenever I thank my mom today she just shrugs and says, “That’s my job.” If they really mean what they say about Harvard being a community then Drew Faust and her top administrators need to cut their own compensation. It isn’t just the modest thing to do, or the empathetic thing to do, or even the realpolitik thing to do. It’s their job.

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“Now, Kalamas:” A Sermon on the Kalama Sutta

Now, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness’—then you should enter and remain in them.

—Buddha, Kalama sutta

IN the Kalama sutta, the Buddha is approached by a group of villagers called the Kalams, who ask him a very simple question: “All of these preachers pass through here praising their own doctrines and criticizing the doctrines of others. How can we sort out the truth?” It is much the same question implied by Harvard’s moto, veritas, and in the Divinity School’s self-description as “an academic community characterized by…investigation of truth.” Indeed, it is much the same question that western intellectuals have been dealing with in one way or another ever since the Enlightenment shook our belief in received knowledge to the core: “How can we sort out the truth?”

This is why the Kalam sutta has become so popular among westerners familiar with Buddhism. They see its skepticism of tradition as an endorsement of rationalism and the scientific method; and they see the Buddha as a sort of fifth century B.C., Indian Bertrand Russel. Buddhism itself describes the Buddha not as a great rationalist, but as the Great Physician. St. Gregory the Great similarly described ministers as “physicians of the soul.” And while the pressures of medical school often encourage physicians-in-training to neglect their physical health, the pressures of divinity school—let’s be honest—often encourage us ministers-in-training to neglect our spiritual health. Looking at our bookshelves and our volunteer work, it’s obvious that we’re studying to be ministers; but looking at our prayer lives, or our meditation practices, or our contemplations of scripture, you’d hardly know it.

St. Maximos the Confessor said, “Theology without practice is the theology of demons.” It seems that even within the walls of the academy we’ve fallen prey to the the demonic notion—brought about by consumer capitalism—that a person’s worth is measured not by their compassion or their wisdom, but instead by how much they can produce and consume. Wendell Berry points out that all of this has spoiled our education. He writes, “To in-form is to form from within. Information, in this sense, refers to teaching and learning, to the formation of a person’s mind or character.” We are all, no doubt, in formation; but, how certain are we of what we are actually being formed into?

Reading the Kalama sutta, I can’t help seeing the Buddha seated before us, addressing us just as he addressed the Kalamas over 2,500 years ago. “Now, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture.” We all nod our agreement, heirs as we are to the reformation and the enlightenment; but, that part wasn’t meant for us. The Buddha goes on, “Don’t go by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability,” or even—sorry professors—by the words of a teacher. What, then, are we left with?

In Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon a priest, a woodcutter, and a commoner take shelter from a storm in a ruined gatehouse. As the priest and woodcutter tell the commoner about a court case, the movie flashes back through four mutually exclusive, eye-witness accounts of the rape and apparent murder. Everyone seems to by lying—even the dead man himself, through a court medium. Suddenly, the stories are interrupted by the sound of a crying baby whose family has abandoned it. The priest’s faith in humanity is almost entirely shaken by the deception and selfishness he’s witnessed; but, resolution doesn’t come in hearing what really happened. Instead, it comes in a selfless display of compassion. The woodcutter picks up the crying baby and takes it home to raise as his own.

Brothers and sisters, we are trying to give others what we ourselves do not have. We cannot gain it no matter how many books we read; no matter how many sermons we preach; no matter even how many wars we stop or children we feed. If we are to become “physicians of the soul,” as St. Gregory entreats us, then we also have to take medicine. If we are to “acquaint men at first hand with Deity,” as Emerson entreated us from this very pulpit, then we ourselves cannot be unacquainted with the ineffable; and, if we actually believe that we are more than just embodied intellects, then this acquaintance and this medicine cannot just be intellectual.

“How can we sort out the truth?” Look at our great moral exemplars. It isn’t as if they eschewed education, or spent their lives praying in a cave far away from the world; but, their education and activism are not what made them who they were. When Christ hung on the cross and said, “Forgive them, father, for they know not what they do,” that didn’t come from a book. When the first word on Gandhi’s lips after he was fatally shot was the name of God, that didn’t come from a book. When Buddhist monastics in Tibet were tortured with electric cattle prods and then said that the only time they were ever in danger is when they almost lost their compassion for the Chinese, that did not come from a book.

Don’t get me wrong. Academics has its place, but Rashomon shows that our rational minds alone cannot take us down the spiritual path. The Buddha didn’t say that we should “enter and remain in” skillful actions or ideas, but skillful qualities. Virtues. Wisdom. Veritas. The crying of a child in an abandoned gatehouse.

Note: A version of this sermon was preached by Joshua Eaton during the 2009 Billings Preaching Prize competition and Billing Preaching Prize finals, both at Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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The Responsibility of Intellectuals in an Economic Crises: An Open Letter to the Harvard Divinity School Community

We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.

—Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter From a Birmingham Jail

IN February of 1967, Noam Chomsky published “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” in The New York Review of Books. It was a rallying cry for intellectuals to take a good, hard look at themselves and their unquestioned assumptions with respect to pressing social problems—especially the war in Vietnam. Twenty-five years later, in October of 1992, Eugene Rivers published “On the Responsibility of Intellectuals in the Age of Crack” in Boston Review. Like Chomsky before him, Rivers was calling on intellectuals to squarely face the great moral crisis of their day—black poverty and nihilism. “As intellectuals, as humanists, are we not morally obligated to provide more than lecture circuit radicalism,” he asked.

Here at Harvard, there seems to be a certain unspoken courtesy we all provide to one another—especially within the humanities—not to bring skepticism to bear on the morality of our academic pursuits in the midst of largely preventable human suffering. Still, such ghostly silence only serves to underscore the urgency of the question, and the existential despair with which it so often fills us—a plural pronoun in which I very much include myself. The question hangs constantly, the elephant in the room: are we not morally obligated to provide more than lecture circuit radicalism?

• • •

Estimates vary—from 22 percent, to 30 percent, to as high as 50 percent—but, the current economic crises has taken a toll on Harvard’s endowment. The term layoff has not yet been uttered—another little courtesy we provide to one another—but, it has certainly been alluded to. In her letter to the Harvard community on the economic crises dated 18 February 2009, Harvard University’s President Drew Faust pointed out that “compensation” accounts for nearly half of the university’s operating budget. The times call, she said, for “discipline and sacrifice.” Harvard Divinity School’s Dean William Graham was more forthright in his 28 January 2009 financial update: “As we reexamine priorities, …it has become clear that this will inevitably involve a review of staffing configurations.” Later he acknowledged that “the shifting of priorities” might “lead to staff reductions.” Note the passive voice. Meanwhile, Graham assured us, “events, travel, and catering budgets…will be cut in ways we can all live with.”

Let’s be clear: Harvard University is still obscenely wealthy and obscenely powerful. Still, times are, relatively, hard. The university has already resorted to layoffs to meet its tightening budget—most recently among subcontracted custodians at the medical school, as detailed in the 7 April 2009 Harvard Crimson, and while the economy appears to be showing tentative signs of recovery unemployment always lags behind other economic indicators. There is the possibility that the worst is still before us. Layoffs could touch the divinity school yet.

• • •

So, are we morally obligated to provide more than lecture circuit radicalism? In Buddhacharita 4:60, the Buddha says

But when a man happens to see
someone who is old, sick, or dead,
And remains at ease, unperturbed,
He’s the same as a dead man.

Elsewhere, in the Sigalovada Sutta, the Buddha says that masters should share delicacies with their servants and care for them when they’re sick. Of course, old age, sickness, and death are more than just bodily realities. Job insecurity is old age, sickness, and death. Unemployment is old age, sickness, and death. Poverty is old age, sickness, and death. What Chomsky wrote 42 years ago and what Rivers wrote 17 years ago still matters for us today. It may, in fact, be more pertinent now than then. If we “remain at ease, unperturbed” in the midst of this, then we are truly the same as dead.

The Buddha did not content himself with simply cursing the darkness. Once he saw the old age, sickness, and death swirling around him he gave up his kingdom, with all it privileges, in order to find a solution. I am writing this on Easter Sunday, and like Christ, the Buddha understood that the success of the Bodhi Tree required the sacrifice of the Great Renunciation. Today we feast; Friday we fasted.

In the face of possible staff layoffs, how few events, and how little travel and catering, can we all live with? Us divinity school students go on endlessly about equality and rights and justice. We have a responsibility—not just to others, but to ourselves—to put our money where our collective mouth is. If worse comes to worse, we ought to say to the administration, as students, that we would rather lose all of our community teas and catered lectures, all of our organizational budgets and finals week green rooms, all of our Billings Prize money and orientation luncheons, than lose a single employee. President Faust called for “discipline and sacrifice.” It is up to us to ensure that such sacrifice never comes at the expense of people’s livelihoods—even if it means voluntarily taking it on ourselves. That is our responsibility as intellectuals, and it is no lecture circuit radicalism.

Note: A version of this article first appeared as Joshua Eaton, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals in an Economic Crises: An Open Letter to the Harvard Divinity School Community,” The Wick (spring 2009): 66-68.

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