Opinion: The new leadership award system is inequitable
One of the major changes to University operations on the mind of many of Willamette’s student workers is the [switch from hourly pay to leadership award], meaning that many students in ‘leadership positions’ on campus are now receiving compensation by way of two payments over the course of the semester as opposed to biweekly paychecks. Those who do shift-based work are still receiving hourly pay, while students who manage others or work a leadership position have been changed to the new system, considered a project based scholarship. This decision, made by a committee comprised of WU administrators, faculty and one student has caused ripples of discontent throughout the student body. Receiving only two payments does not work for people who need to pay their own bills and groceries on schedules that are not made flexible by significant additional resources. As Managing Editor of the Collegian, my own compensation was changed to a leadership award this academic year. This was also the case for many other students who were hoping to work at Willamette to earn money for work-study, support themselves through school or earn a little extra cash to make the increasing cost of living and attending a four-year institution more manageable.
University administrators claim that the change in payment systems was made to address Oregon Department of Labor compliance and issues of equity. As stated in a [previous Collegian article], “According to [Lisa] Holliday, the legal text the decisions for leadership awards have been based on is an excerpt from the [Department of Labor Field Guide] on when there is an employee relationship. Section 10b24: University or college students says: ‘University or college students who participate in activities generally recognized as extracurricular are generally not considered to be employees within the meaning of the Act.’ According to Holliday, the tasks and responsibilities of positions determined if it was to be paid hourly or by leadership award along with the text from the Department of Labor.” Yet other Oregon universities such as Lewis & Clark College, Pacific University, University of Oregon, and Portland State University still maintain student workers on hourly systems.
The University’s reasoning, while understandable at face value, fails to take into consideration ever [widening class divides] that have an increasing impact on working college students. This system places student workers into two categories with distinctly different outcomes on their well-being: those who remain hourly can depend on a regular paycheck and a sense of financial security, while those who have been switched to leadership award may be forced to find supplemental income to tide them over for weeks of payment despite comparable amounts of work. Regardless of which category student workers may fall into, one thing remains clear from this decision: the University’s willingness to exploit student labor and leverage scholarships over their workers.
Despite the goal of promoting equity and the understandable desire to comply with labor laws, the way the University approached the change in payment systems was severely flawed. The lack of sufficient student participation in this decision has led many students to feel justifiably betrayed by the institution, leading them to advocate for their labor in other ways, such as creating petitions and Instagram infographics, as well as personally demanding answers from administrators. The University should have provided a space to communicate this change with students directly, outlined the reasons for the change and gone over the problems it intended to solve. They should have made submitting comments and input readily accessible, and they should have listened.
[Holliday claims] that the decision was made using “an equity lens, and making sure that students who are in leadership positions are being compensated in a consistent manner.” According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), “equity means recognizing that we do not all start from the same place and must acknowledge and make adjustments to imbalances. The process is ongoing, requiring us to identify and overcome intentional and unintentional barriers arising from bias or systemic structures.” Considering that WU is not providing additional support resources for students negatively impacted by the change beyond the option to file a financial aid appeal, words of “equity” ring hollow. How does this system do anything but support barriers put in place by bias or systemic injustices when it has virtually eliminated a significant portion of jobs on campus for students who rely on consistent payment?
Despite good intentions, it is impossible for the single student involved in the committee investigating student compensation to represent student labor as a whole. No other students were included in the process, regardless of the many students that this reform would impact. There was not a sufficient effort made to invite more students to this task force, nor were student workers effectively informed that this was a decision being made.
As well as inadequately considering student perspectives, the leadership award system was poorly communicated to students and advisors. Partly for this article and partly out of curiosity, I asked on my Instagram story for fellow WU student workers to comment on experiences with the leadership award system and how it has been functioning thus far. Marni Aosved (‘24) said:
“I think for me, the thing that has been the most frustrating has been the fact that there is no direct line of communication. There's not one person to talk to, so anything we as students have to say, the admin can just be like "oh yes, we'll talk about that in the committee" or like "oh actually I'm not in charge of that so I can't help" which is just super draining.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Isabella Lamb (‘22), who stated:
“I have worked within student activities for my entire time here. Frankly, I am appalled, but not surprised by the neglect towards student workers. It was communicated to me (under contract) that I would be paid biweekly for my jobs on campus, however, when I returned in the fall, I was told that I would be paid via leadership award… I am astonished by the lack of communication towards students, and the lack of regard for them as essential workers. We are full time students, who, for most of us, rely on a consistent paycheck to keep us afloat. If not, we are forced to look elsewhere (off-campus), for jobs that are less flexible with our class schedule. Leadership awards minimize our value as student workers, and are highly inequitable.”
The new leadership awards system has placed a burden on students trying to make ends meet. The claim that this decision was made with regards to equity is irreconcilable with the fact that it has left students without a consistent source of income to support their livelihood and well-being, exacerbating existing socioeconomic gaps between students who can afford to go for extended periods of time without pay and those who cannot. The types of jobs that are paid through leadership awards are the ones that are project based or coordinating other students, allowing students who do shift-based work to remain hourly. Students looking for a job must now choose between doing more routine work for a reliable income or leadership jobs that will foster interpersonal and resume building skills for two payments. This functionally reserves leadership roles for the students who can afford them.
I urge the Willamette University administration to listen to student feedback and recognize the weight of our objections to these decisions. Should the leadership award system remain in place, it is necessary to increase the accessibility and attainability of financial aid to students on leadership awards through scholarships, grants and other support mechanisms. I would also advocate for increased funding and support for community care based organizations that concretely provide resources for struggling students. The Students Organizing for Access to Resources (SOAR) Center operates the Bearcat Pantry, Clothing Share, and First Generation Book Drive, which serves all Willamette students and promotes equitable access to these resources, and logically must be invested in when considering equity. Additionally, the office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) should be reinstated as a place for students to voice their feedback on issues like this one and hear back from people who can take action on that feedback. Nonetheless, these support systems are a bare minimum should the University continue with the leadership award system. Willamette must do better than these counterintuitive and confusing messages attempting to solve an unclear problem with this unsustainable solution.