Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Lost and Found

I moved my six-student Literature and Human Rights class into my office a couple of weeks ago when I found a nice table in my office. (I will try to get pictures; I got a small rug too. And a trash can!) It is a nice group, and meeting in the office give it a nice vibe. Largely due to the class size, I have probably gotten to know this group of students better than any other.

Last week, one of the students lost her mobile phone before coming to class. I knew she was looking for it. We checked the office and the area and it was nowhere to be found. The next time I saw her, I asked about it and she told me that she found it. Il-hamdu li-ilaah.

The story of how she found it is, in part, a story of quite ingenious detective work.

Unable to find the phone, she went to security. The security guard took her mobile number and gave it to several supervisors who fanned out over campus dialing her number until they heard a phone ring. They were moving around the groups of construction workers, who are everywhere because, remember, construction is incomplete. After about an hour of this, one security officer finally heard a ring, and found a phone that matched the description given by my student in the pocket of one of the workers. In fairness, he insisted that he was going to turn it in.

After returning the phone to my grateful student, the security supervisor insured her that there would not have been a problem since the workers are searched before they leave campus! This part of story disturbed me a little bit. I don’t know what this searching involves or understand how it really could identify and uncover a contraband mobile phone. And while I am glad that my student’s phone was recovered, I do not like the idea that my employer searches some people before they leave work for the day. It would even be preferable if they “searched” everyone. To enter campus, I only have to show my ID.

Of course, it was not any kind of uniform search that uncovered the mobile. And despite whatever they are doing, there has been an ongoing rash of thefts on the new campus (lots of computers taken from offices).

There are literally thousands of extra people—mostly contractors--on campus doing different tasks, and things are still chaotic. The construction workers are paid 32LE per day (about $6US), which after transportation costs, is probably not enough to support a family. (The construction delays are partly attributable to high turnover because of the low wages.) And the system of subcontracting has created an entirely different dynamic. At the old campus, there was a service worker assigned to each department who cleaned and handled other kinds of administrative responsibilities. Most were there for decades and developed close ties to their departments. In addition to receiving a university salary, they were the beneficiaries of the crucial, if informal, Egyptian system of baksheesh, or tipping. These folks are still employed by the university, and work at the old downtown campus. But the large cleaning company that the university has hired for the new campus will not have the same stability, and AUC will have little input over the treatment of its workers. And the salaries are low, which should be embarrassing for an institution whose students are so wealthy. (I don’t know what the direct hires were or are paid.)

At the University of Miami a few years ago, a similar dynamic resulted in a massive, and ultimately successful, unionization campaign among contracted cleaners and gardeners. UM embarrassed itself by not supporting the workers in the face of protests from workers, students, and faculty. At Gettysburg College, as I understand it, the folks who cleaned the campus were employees of the college and received all of the related benefits, including tuition for their children (at Gettysburg or elsewhere).

AUC’s response to the thefts on campus has been tightening restrictions and limiting access to certain buildings. Among other issues, it means that there is no cleaning that can take place in any offices after 3pm, which means that my office can only be cleaned when I am in it. And I have to holler above floor buffers or drills while trying to teach. While these are mostly minor inconveniences, they seem like unnecessary ones.

My student insisted that her telephone never would have been found at the old campus, and for this she was understandably grateful. There is something different about the security network in place on the new campus, a place where not a lot of things work well yet. I want to understand more about why the thefts are happening, and why searches are necessary. I fear that all of this somehow speaks to the priorities of the campus, and its move to a gated community in the suburbs, all of which leaves me a bit ambivalent.

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