Wooster is no stranger to change. Over the past 200 years, the town has gone from frontier village to regional hub of 26,000 people; after 100 years of being wed to conservative Christian sensibilities, the College took bold steps to modernize in the 1960s, this transformation heralded by the construction of McGaw Chapel. With how uncertain the future is, no one can say how either the town or College will fare going forward, but it is irresponsible for us to sit around and wait for the next existential threat to emerge before we take action.
As it stands, the greatest obstacle in our community is that the town and the College seemingly exist separate from each other. The College has very few stakes in the local economy, as the town’s primary economic base in manufacturing becomes ever more precarious. The best paying jobs at the College are done by highly educated professionals who would otherwise be working in prosperous urban areas, while most Wooster natives on the school’s payroll do underpaid, undervalued manual labor. And despite spending four years in Wooster, college graduates have little incentive to stay and contribute to the town, typically heading off to Chicago or D.C. to climb the social ladder.
There is nothing abnormal about this relationship. The College of Wooster’s model is not so different from that of Kenyon or Oberlin — the essential goal is to produce as many exemplary middle-class professionals as possible. But just because there is nothing strange about being a bourgeois institution does not make it good or moral; what our college’s doctrine implies is that your ability to live with dignity is guaranteed not by your inherent humanity, but by your being able to contribute meaningfully to the economy. Each person represents not a soul but a skillset.
It makes sense, then, that the administration would fail to endorse a living wage for hourly staff, as such a resolution runs contrary to the College’s interest in making the possibility of ascending to the rank of bourgeois the only way for the poor to have their humanity fully realized by society. In Wooster, former factory workers and their children, unsure of the future, look on as the College commits vast finances and labor to projects they have absolutely no stake in. It only makes sense that they feel alienated, or that they that don’t want students voting in local elections. If our college really is a humanitarian institution, how do we allow such grief and anxiety at our very doorstep? The reason is that The College of Wooster is inherently complicit in class hierarchy.
While I have fundamental issues with the College, I think there are ways it can strive to be more equitable in the community. I believe the school administration should make the implementation of a living wage for all employees a top priority. I also believe the City and the College should take deliberate steps to make privileges enjoyed by the College community more accessible, expanding scholarships for Wooster residents (including those studying part-time) and by offering tangible benefits to college graduates who choose to stay in Wooster. To prompt increased collaboration for the public good, I think the City of Wooster should invest a considerable stake in the school’s endowment as to influence choices made by academic governance.
To my knowledge, this would be an unprecedented move for a school like Wooster, but I would delight to see my college make so bold a commitment to social justice as to put itself at the mercy of the public.
Ciaran Lyons, a Contributing Writer for the Voice, can be reached for comment at CLyons20@wooster.edu.