Segregation at American University

Segregation Continues at American University–Fall 2021

One of the great benefits of being a fulltime employee at American University is that you or your child or partner can earn a free Bachelor’s degree, a free Master’s degree or a free law degree. See the big picture of how this tuition benefit works at See who is eligible at

Today the program is pretty much for white people since most of the faculty and staff on campus are white. The hundreds of Black and Latino service workers on campus are not eligible because over the years they have worked ON CAMPUS for private companies such a Marriott, Bon Appetit, Aramark, and now Chartwells—AU’s newest food vendor.

One thing that you need to know about the service workers is that they are not transient. Many are here for decades. They work hard for the students and faculty even if they do not receive checks directly from the university. This is not a McDonald’s workforce. They have a union. Their contract provides health benefits and a monthly contribution to retirement.  Some have worked ON CAMPUS for far longer than any administrator. One worker, Leila Williams, has served food to students in the Mary Graydon dining room for over 50 years.

Ms. Leila Williams

In her five decades ON CAMPUS, Williams has never been able to take a free course although a new hire who is a fulltime AU employee is eligible within four months. In all of her time ON CAMPUS, Williams has never been eligible for one of the most valuable employee benefits: FREE TUITION.

By excluding service workers from free tuition, AU is currently doing its very best to contribute to the well-known gap in educational attainment between the races and ethnic groups in the United States. And it continues with this policy of excluding campus service workers from educational benefits in spite of its much publicized policy of “inclusive excellence.” What a joke is inclusion on the AU campus.

Age 81, Ms. Leila Williams started work on campus in 1966. She has not able to retire since the food service vendor that AU brought to campus in the early 1980s did not make pension contributions.

Next: The Franklin and Marshall model of including service workers in tuition benefits.

The Franklin and Marshall Model

If administrators at AU decide to respect all the workers on campus and start to include Black and Latino workers in tuition benefits, they might look at how Franklin and Marshall College has decided to treat its cleaners. The cleaners are now equal to administrators and faculty in terms of all benefits including free college degrees which could transform families for generations. And Franklin and Marshall will pay tuition at a community college for workers or children of workers without the skills to start at Franklin and Marshall.

See the details of Franklin and Marshall’s commitment at

President Sylvia Burwell, is inclusion more than a web page?

What to do in the fall of 2021?

Some history.

Social media can influence the university since it is public.

The last major change in the university’s relationship with service workers was a program to give free tuition to the children of service workers. Former President Neil Kerwin announced this in the spring of 2016, and it did exist for at least a few years. Why did this benefit arrive?

At the time, a student activist attacked the university on Facebook almost daily for its treatment of the cleaners on campus. He is Latino and cared a great deal about the nepotism, and mismanagement that he said that the Latino cleaners were suffering. His voice mattered. The university may have gotten tired of his attacks. There was also a large and active Student Worker Alliance that organized large demonstrations in the spring of 2016. And an arrest on campus of a former staffer the previous fall also drew attention to the problems with service workers.

The Eagle covered the university treatment of the service workers with story after story. An example is here.

At the time, students demanded transparency about the service workers from the university. How many workers on campus are employed by private vendors? What is their compensation and benefits? Where is the ombudsman who could protect their rights? The university responded to none of their demands.

Campus administrators now refuse to talk about the tuition benefit given to the children of service workers. I think that you can assume that it disappeared. How can workers gain the transparency, the ombudsman, the tuition benefits for their children, and the free classes that other employees have?

Publicity that embarrasses the university is probably the only way forward:

Can student organizations conduct a vote of confidence/no confidence in the leadership of President Burwell and publicize these results widely?

Can students email the development office announcing that they will not be donating to the university during their careers as long as the university’s current treatment of service workers continues?

Can pickets appear at public events in the future such as Parents’ Weekend?

A Professor Speaks Out

Photo of Professor Mary Gray
Professor Mary Gray American University

A devoted cadre cleans AU and feeds its students, faculty and staff. But these employees do not have the same benefits as others who work on campus.  As an educational institution AU could offer a benefit proven effective in promoting diversity and inclusion for the university and career enhancement for the employees: free tuition for AU courses for these “outsourced” employees the same as for those faculty and staff directly employed by AU.

Service workers have also suffered from a lack of retirement benefits at AU. Many of the outsourced employees would like to retire from their physically demanding labor.  But for many years they, unlike AU’s directly employed workers, had no pension benefit payment set aside for them – in some case for as much as 19 years from 1981 to 2001.  As a result there’s little – very little – money in their pension fund on which to retire.  And of course, Social Security benefits are minimal since much of their work was at close to minimum wage.  AU should chip in to help, for example, Leila Williams– who has worked here for 51 years.

Professor Mary Gray
Department of Math and Statistics
College of Arts and Sciences
Office: 202-885-3171


Some of the Workers Who Can’t Retire

Marriott Eliminates Pensions for Food Service Workers and American University Stays Silent

Is American University a Moral Failure?

How to Solve the Retirement Crisis with No Cost to Students

What Can You Do Today?

Actions at Other Schools: The Franklin and Marshall Model

American University Students and Service Workers

The Great Cover Up, Part I: AU’s Board of Trustees Lost $91 Million to a Bank and Didn’t Tell Anyone

The Great Cover Up, Part II: American University Cuts Back on the Student Newspaper, Now It Publishes in Print Only Twice a Semester

A Survey of Educational Benefits at Universities in the District of Columbia

Some of the Workers Who Can’t Retire at American University

Photograph of Christine Hamlett-Williams.
Christine Hamlett-Williams has worked at AU for over 36 years. At age 71, she can’t afford to retire because the pension she was promised by American University was not funded after Marriott took over food services.

Percy Harris, age 76, has worked
at AU for 39 years. He can’t afford to retire.

Currently working as a food server in the Terrace Dining Room, Ms. Leila Williams is now 80. She has prepared or served food to students at AU for over 53 years. She says she can’t afford to retire. The photo is from May 1, 2015. Year after year, the University talks “inclusion” while refusing to even meet with Ms. Williams and her colleagues. Why won’t the University talk to Ms. Williams and other older workers about the broken promises about retirement made to them over 50 years ago?

Is American University a Moral Failure?

  1. Administrators broke promises about pensions made to service workers. AU promised workers who started in the 1970s pensions at the end of their years of work. Then AU brought vendors such as Marriott to campus who did not provide any pension payments for 18 years from 1981 to 2000. See the the workers’ contract with Marriott at the time. Note that pensions are not mentioned. Workers had the choice of accepting the contract or losing their jobs. Now 16 workers over 65 with more than 35 years of service can’t retire. President Sylvia Burwell refuses to meet with workers or faculty about this problem. What moral leadership!!

  2. Administrators exclude Black and Latino service workers from free classes on campus while publicizing how “progressive” and “inclusive” the university is. Every year 1700 administrative staff–mostly white–and 915 full time faculty, mostly white–can complete their law degrees, MBAs, and take other graduate and undergraduate classes for free. Service workers can’t even take undergraduate classes. Service workers–many of whom are DC residents–are locked out of education on campus while the university pays no DC real estate tax on a campus valued at hundreds of millions. What respect for the citizens of D.C. who pay real estate taxes. Adding one or two service workers to a class would cost the University nothing, but university administrators simply don’t care about giving people opportunity.

  3. Service workers on campus receive pension contributions at a rate one-third less than administrative staff. Every month the administrative staff–mostly white–receive 10% of their monthly salaries in their 403b pension accounts. This contribution is free from the University and is a very generous deal. These 403bs are just like 401ks in the private sector. Service workers receive $1.20 per hour worked, or around 6% a month, and they don’t work during the winter break or doing the summer so the actual percentage is lower. (See the previous contract at The new contract is not yet online.)

    An AU president once said, “If they wanted larger pensions, they could just bargain for them.” Really? Is it realistic for low wage workers barely scraping by to cut back on current wages to fund their pensions? If AU was a moral university, it would see that all vendors on campus had to match the 10% contribution, it gives faculty and administrators. Franklin and Marshall College gives its cleaners the exact same benefit package provided to faculty and administrators so it can be done. See

  4. Administrators cover up problems with labor practices on campus. AU web sites do not contain any information about the lives of the 250 or more service workers on campus. This is so convenient for AU administrators. When new outrages occur, such as depriving all the workers in the campus Starbucks of heavily discounted college, no one knows. Yes, that is the case. If the employees of the Starbucks on campus worked for Starbucks, they could take online classes at Arizona State University at a 42% discount paid for by Starbucks . Adding in a Pell grant, college would get close to free. But the workers in Starbucks now work for Chartwell, the new university food vendor. Before Chartwell, they worked for Aramark. Dozens of people have been deprived of college through the usual AU silence. Should the workers in the campus Starbucks be able to choose between Chartwell’s benefits and what Starbucks offers?

What Can You Do Today?

Ask your professors to discuss the issues in the post about the moral failure of American University. For years the people suffering the most from AU’s labor practices have been African-American and Latino. This is racism. This is classism. These policies are not acceptable.

What do faculty suggest? Please ask them before class, during class, and after class. How does AU become a community of inclusion? What pressures will persuade AU to include rather than exclude Black and Latino service workers. When will the service workers receive 10% monthly retirement contribution administrators and faculty receive rather than the 6% food service workers receive now? And when will service workers receive the same free tuition for classes that administrators and faculty receive now?

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