Last Friday, in response to the widespread furloughs of Pomona College staff caused by a $37 million budget shortfall resulting from the COVID-19 crisis that came into effect on Oct. 1, the student group Occupy Pomona released a survey “to provide more information to Pomona College about the importance of financially supporting staff through this difficult period.” In the accompanying Instagram slideshow, “Debunking Pomona College’s Excuses For Furloughs,” Occupy Pomona charged that “[i]n challenging times, [Pomona’s] true intentions and values have come to light.” According to Occupy Pomona, the hope of the petition is “to create a broader narrative about the importance of staff members to students and the impact they left on alumni.”
Occupy Pomona describes itself as “[a] grassroots movement advocating for students’ continued right and need to live on Pomona College’s campus following closure due to COVID-19.” The organization vocally opposed Pomona’s decision to evict students from campus in March 2020, and successfully pressured the administration not to fine students who remained on campus after the eviction deadline or cut off their access to residence halls.
In the survey, Occupy Pomona objected to the administration’s framing of the furloughs “as a necessary decision in order to ‘offer the same high level of support and quality of education to benefit future generations of Sagehens in perpetuity.’” The organization claims that:
“[W]e do not think it is fair for the college to present this situation as an either or. We have witnessed how the college inadequately supported students with the evictions in March 2020, and now we see a similar trend with the furloughs of staff members who are among the most vulnerable communities (i.e. older, people of color, women, and low income). Occupy Pomona aims to advocate for the needs of staff members through the experiences of students and their value beyond the monetary view Pomona has opted to highlight.”
Accordingly, in its Instagram slideshow, Occupy Pomona stated that:
“This past year has proven how inadequately Pomona College supports its students, as demonstrated by how student evictions were handled in March 2020…Pomona College has demonstrated its incompetence in supporting current students, so why is the well-being of workers the trade off for the well-being of students?”
During the student evictions in March, the college agreed to most of Occupy Pomona’s demands, including a request that Pomona “not use campus security or the police to forcibly evict students from campus housing” after the deadline, as well as promising that students would not be fined for remaining on campus after the deadline.
Additionally, Occupy Pomona has said that Pomona has “delivered inconsistent messages to faculty, alumni, and students.” According to the Instagram post, despite the administration’s claims that the decision was made in a transparent manner, “faculty and student outrage proves otherwise.” In the email sent out by Pomona College President G. Gabrielle Starr announcing the furloughs in September 1, the president claimed that furloughs had been a topic of discussion in the monthly town hall meetings for several months after students were evicted. Additionally, the 5C Student and Worker alliance, an organization with the goal of “[c]ollectively building power with workers and students at the 5Cs to fight for Labor Justice and Worker Self-determination,” raised money for workers via a mutual aid fund organized by student activists over the summer. After raising over $57,000 as of August, the organization stated that it was “closing donations as [it had] exceeded [its] initial 40K goal!”
In response to Starr’s statement that “[w]ith many work areas now closed, it also leaves many staff members without work to do,” Occupy Pomona argued that “Gabi Starr and the rest of the Pomona College Administration have refused to explore alternatives to avoid furloughs.” According to Occupy Pomona, faculty have offered voluntary pay cuts to make up for the budget shortfall that caused the furloughs, but “the Board of Trustees and Gabi Starr have ignored faculty suggestions and decided to undervalue all the labor dining hall and housekeeping staff [have] given to the college for years.” Per Occupy Pomona, “[t]here is an insistence that some type of work must be done in order for staff to, essentially, rightfully earn their money. This line of thinking is harmful to the staff who are being furloughed because their labor is often undervalued by the college.”
Occupy Pomona also objects to the college’s assertion that reduced tuition income from student leaves of absence have made “the difficulty of the budget picture more evident.” The student activists claim that Starr is deflecting the blame away from “the Administration’s lack of foresight in finding creative alternatives to the budget deficit…Alternatives are possible, Pomona just refuses to seek them.” In 2019, Pomona’s expenditures on instruction and student services alone exceeded its revenue from tuition and unrestricted donor gifts by about $18 million.
Occupy Pomona’s states in its survey that:
“We are hoping to collect honest and authentic experiences of students with staff members. We want to share with the Pomona College administration the importance of valuing staff labor and lives. Are [you] willing to share your experiences in authentic ways?”
Occupy Pomona also expects that the college will “furlough staff for the entire calendar year IF students are not brought back to campus in the spring. This was confirmed in a faculty forum.” Occupy Pomona acknowledges the risks of bringing students back to campus in the spring, but insists that “student well-being and safety SHOULD NOT be in exchange of dining hall/housekeeping staff well-being and financial security.” Despite how drawing even $1 million from Pomona’s endowment deprives “the college of additional income generated from that $1 million in perpetuity,” Occupy Pomona believes that “[n]o explanation of how the endowment works detracts from the financial hardship this decision will bring upon furloughed staff. Other liberal arts colleges with similar endowments, such as Williams, have refused to furlough staff, though Amherst has enacted salary and hiring freezes.