More than Cleaning: Custodians and Student Success

Steve Volk, October 24, 2016

When you think of successful university careers, you might think of presidents, provosts, and deans; when you think of the wisdom to be found on campus, you’re likely to think of professors sharing the fruits of their decades of research on chemistry, classics, or quantum mechanics. You almost certainly won’t think of the folks cleaning the bathrooms, washing the floors, and changing the trash bags.

— Serena Golden, review of The Philosopher Kings, a 2009 film about eight custodians  who worked at top-drawer universities.*

And yet I have been thinking about the people who clean our offices and the students’ dorm rooms, mow the lawns and rake the leaves, prepare and serve the students’ food, patch the roofs when there’s a leak, deliver food to our workshops, and – bottom line – make our surroundings not only habitable, but pleasant. They are, as Peter Magoda, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Educational Leadership at Miami University, observes, with a nod to Ralph Ellison, “an invisible campus culture.” [“Teaching, Learning, and Campus Custodians: Untidying Conceptualizations of Wisdom in the Academy,” About Campus (July-August 2014), available via Ohio Link]


Window at Calhoun College (Yale) broken by Corey Menafee

I’ve been thinking about service workers on campus since I read of the Yale dishwasher, Corey Menafee,  who broke a windowpane in Calhoun College – yes, that Calhoun College, the residential hall at Yale named after the South Carolina politician, Secretary of War and Vice President who staunchly defended slavery – that depicted enslaved people picking cotton. Menafee felt pressured to resign from his job after being arrested by campus police on felony charges before ultimately being taken back by his Yale employers after a five-week, unpaid, suspension.

I have been thinking about service workers because the dining workers at Harvard are on strike for pay that will allow them to make ends meet in one of the most expensive cities in the United States. [UPDATE: Harvard reached a “tentative agreement” with striking workers on Oct. 25, 2016.]

But it’s not wages and working conditions that I want to write about today – although there’s plenty to be said on that account. Rather, it’s the role that service workers – particularly custodians, food servers, and those who interact with students on a daily basis – play in the education of our students, not to mention our staff and faculty. (I have learned more about Guyana from the gentleman who delivers beverages to CTIE’s Brown Bag Pedagogy sessions than from many of the books I have read on that subject.) Many of the service workers on campus, certainly those in the dorms and dining halls, will likely engage more frequently with the students than many faculty. So, as Magoda, author of the recently published The Lives of Campus Custodians: Insights into Corporatization and Civic Disengagement in the Academy (Stylus, 2016) cautions, “failing to recognize and benefit from their wisdom represents squandered learning opportunities to the detriment of the entire campus community” [3].


“Janitor,” photo by Erik Gustafson, Flickr CC

In a 2015 dissertation written at the University of Iowa (“Mutually Beneficial Interactions: Campus Custodian-College Student Relationships”), Jeremy John Reed points out that “a corpus of student affairs literature supports the notion that custodial employees’ assumed duties directly enrich the student success mission of universities…” [15]. Reed’s ethnographic research was based on case studies of four campus custodians’ interactions with students at “Prairie University,” the pseudonym for a large Midwestern public flagship university. In focusing on campus service workers, Reed privileges the voices of historically marginalized members of campus communities who, he observes, “may contribute more broadly to students’ educational processes than previously understood.” His conclusions echo the findings of Kuh, Schuh, Whitt and Associates who called attention to the contributions of non-faculty workers such as custodial staff and secretaries, individuals who create “an environment conducive to student learning and personal development” [Involving Colleges: Encouraging Student Learning and Personal Development Through Out-of-Class Experiences (Jossey-Bass, 1991)].

Custodians and Student Well-Being

“With the doors to both bathrooms propped open, Lucas begins cleaning in the men’s bathroom.” “Lucas” (not his real name) was one of the custodians Reed featured in his study. An unmarried man who had been working at “Prairie” for almost 10 years, Lucas had earned a BA and held a variety of management and human resources positions before becoming a custodian.

Heeding the supervisor’s earlier warning, [Lucas] situates a pair of large goggles over his eyes and pulls on a pair of heavy rubber gloves. As he cleans the sinks, he describes the chemical’s harsh nature. ‘It kills everything. Once it’s added to water it won’t burn your skin. But you don’t want it in your eyes…’ … Lucas says that the chemical’s strength is necessary to kill dangerous pathogens. ‘Keeping things clean you keep the students healthy and yourself healthy. It’s like one big family,’ he says. Finished cleaning, Lucas rearranges the cart parked outside the bathrooms. He notices a student sitting in a nearby chair in the lounge. ‘Are you texting your grandma?’ he asks with a smile. The student looks up from her phone and replies, ‘Nope. I did that yesterday.’ Lucas responds, ‘Oh, good! I’m sure she likes hearing from you.’

In providing students a clean and safe residence hall environment, custodians help enhance the physical well-being of students. It is one way, probably the best known, that they support the institution’s mission to see that every student succeeds.

Sarah Yakunovich and Wanda Horning, Oberlin College "Source"

Sarah Yakunovich and Wanda Horning, Oberlin College “Source”

But their work in support of students quite often goes beyond their job description, as Lucas’ comment to the student in the lounge suggests. Custodians provide an important set of caring eyes looking out for students’ well-being. “Bea” had worked at “Prairie” for 7 years, having completed two years of community college course work herself. She drove in to work from a small town about 20 miles away.

“This morning I walked in here at 8:00 and saw a student sleeping on that couch with her books on the floor. I went by again at 10 a.m. and thought, ‘Should I check on her? Is she okay?’ I watched to see if she’s breathing. It seemed like a long time to be there. You just never know [92].”

Custodians look after students in a variety of ways. They protect students from intruders (making sure protective doors are closed, identifying people in residential halls who might not belong) and promote student health (both in their work of cleaning, sweeping, mopping), and by looking after student welfare in a larger sense. “Scarlet,” a high school graduate, started at “Prairie” two years before Reed spoke with her. She recounted that “Last year there was throw-up in this one bathroom almost daily. So I let the RA know. Because if it’s a daily thing it could be that someone is very sick. Or it could be a sign of anorexia, or some other eating disorder. So I told the RA, Brenda” [95].

Reed’s work illustrates how custodians promote student educational success in a variety of ways both directly, by engaging with and remembering individual students and details about their interests, interactions with other students and with their families; by comforting them when they are ill; by spending their own personal time with students; and by supporting them in emergency situations, including the most challenging incidents of sexual harassment and sexual violence. It is not uncommon for custodians to be the first to hear from a student who has just been raped if the victim is too frightened or ashamed to speak with anyone else.

Custodians look out for the students’ well-being. “Emma,” with a high-school diploma and three grown children, had been at “Prairie” for nearly 5 years. As she discussed members of the swim team who lived on a floor she regularly cleaned, she recalled, “One year, something was going on with them. A trip or something. And I made them all snacks for it. They were all on diets so I put carrots and broccoli in baggies for them” [105-6].

Custodians frequently provide advice for students that others can’t or won’t. “Well, they might think it’s a difficult thing they’re dealing with but I don’t,” Lucas relates. “No, they’ve mostly come to me with small things. I just give them my thoughts. Tell them what I might do. I think Emma might have students telling her more big things. I think they see her as more of a mom since she has kids. Maybe me as more of a brother since I don’t have my own kids” [102].

The mentoring and listening role that custodians play is perhaps better known in the K-12 setting. Larry Everett, who began as a custodian at the Webster Elementary School in Sumter County, Florida, told a reporter eariler this year that he is often summoned on his walkie-talkie to rush over to a classroom because a student is shouting, throwing things, and demanding to talk with “Mister Larry.“ “Sometimes,” he says, “a teacher or guidance counselor will call me on my radio and ask if I don’t mind hurrying to room such and such. It’s usually because there is a student with a problem who says he will only talk to me.”

Courtesy SEIU

Courtesy SEIU

Reed’s study is one of a number that calls attention to the “potential unique contributions of campus custodians to college student success.” It is not just the narrow roles of cleaning and maintenance; rather, as the above cases indicate, Reed stresses the mentoring, advising, supportive roles that custodians play and warns that “administrators who do not leverage custodial staff proximity to, and enthusiasm for, interacting with college students, may miss an opportunity to enhance college student success” [114].

As the research affirms, custodians can play this enhanced role not only because they are in unique proximity to students, but because they often come from different backgrounds, than the students, and, at a school like Oberlin or other selective residential colleges, they actually live in or near the town and thus represent a reality that can be very distant from the students’ own experience – and very useful in the students’ broader education. Stephen Sweet (College and Society: An Introduction to the Sociological Imagination, Allyn and Bacon, 2001) called attention to the problematic nature of insular and invisible campus subcultures:

… as a consequence of limited experience, privileged students at Ivy League [and other selective residential] colleges will likely have little insight into what life is like for the rural poor, and the rural poor have little idea of what life is like at an Ivy League college. Lacking this information, both groups will tend to rely on stereotypes, unrefined and often uninformed depictions of groups different from their own” (cited in Magoda, 6).

When Students Need to Be Schooled

Magoda and many others have pointed out that one does not need to be credentialed as a teacher in order to be an educator. The story of “Vida,” a housekeeper at “Compton University” (a pseudonym), is a case in point. Vida grew up in Croatia. She had been living in the United States for 15 years and working at “Compton” for 14 when Magoda interviewed her. He cited a letter she wrote welcoming students to the residential hall where worked:

Welcome Students! My name is Vida. I’m originally from Croatia (part of former Yugoslavia). I have been living in the United States for 15 years now. I’m married and have two children, a 23-year-old daughter and a 17-year-old son. My daughter just graduated from Compton in May 2012. She majored in Romance Languages and Literature. This will be my 14th year working here. I put a lot of effort in making this place a comfortable home for learning and living. I know this is your first year at Compton—everything is new and difficult. I am here to help you feel more at home, so don’t hesitate to come up and talk to me. I’ll do my best to help. I wish you a successful and clean year! Your housekeeper—Vida

At one point during that year, a “Compton” student (not necessarily from Vida’s dorm) wrote a letter to the editor of the university paper asking whether “it bother[ed] anyone else that our stuff is being stolen from our rooms?” The student went on to argue that there were only “two culprits for the thefts on campus: students and housekeepers.” Since the writer couldn’t imagine that the former could be responsible, he suggested that those reading his letter should “Try to put yourself in housekeepers’ shoes. You [housekeepers] work hard for not much money. You clean toilets for teenagers who all seem rich, look the other way when they see you, and have more expensive stuff in their small rooms than any entire family you know.”

Vida felt a responsibility to respond, and her reply, worth reprinting in full, schools the student, perfectly illustrating the educational role that custodians can play in the lives of students:

I can’t remember the last time I read something so embarrassing regarding a group of people, in this case, housekeepers – Vida began. You are probably bright enough to realize you can’t judge a group of people like that. Before doing something like this, you should think hard about how many people you will hurt. Many times there will be an individual that will give the group a bad name.

… I was once in a situation like yours. I talked like you. I thought things like ‘l will never clean somebody else’s home.’ Then something happened and I lost all of my material belongings. I was still happy, though, because my family was alive and safe. I got a chance to work and support my family as a housekeeper, and I don’t feel ashamed. I make an honest living and can provide a good life for my family. I can never imagine an instance where I would steal anything. While I have not lived in a student’s shoes, please don’t try to put yourself in a housekeeper’s shoes. It is not an easy job. In conclusion, please don’t blame a group of people for an individual’s shortcoming. I wish you happiness and good luck in all your endeavors. —Vida

“Custodian,” photo by Paul Sableman, Flickr CC

“Custodian,” photo by Paul Sableman, Flickr CC

The Educational Community

Those of us who teach and work in small residential colleges represent an increasingly rare kind of community. With less than 2% of higher education students, we turn out considerably more than our share of educational, scientific, cultural, artistic, and intellectual leaders. While there are many reasons for this, a central one is that we provide an entire community that is there to support our students’ success. As those who have researched the role of service workers on campus make abundantly clear, we need to think about all the members of our community who make this possible.

As I was writing this, I thought, more than once, about the words of a colleague in physics, Stephen FitzGerald, who had the sorrowful task of preparing a “Memorial Minute” for a young assistant professor of chemistry, Jesse Rowsell (1977-2015), who died in a tragic hiking accident. FitzGerald closed his remarks by citing a note that was left on Rowsell’s door: “It was always a great pleasure chatting with you @ 3 a.m. as you were leaving. You will be missed!” It was signed: “Night Custodians.”

*The eight janitors in highlighted in The Philosopher Kings are Melinda Augustus of the University of Florida, Corby Baker of Cornish College of the Arts, Luís Cárdenas of the California Institute of Technology, Oscar Dantzler of Duke University, Jim Evener and Gary Napieracz of Cornell University, Josue Laujenesse of Princeton University, and Michael Seals of the University of California at Berkeley.

One thought on “More than Cleaning: Custodians and Student Success

  1. Pingback: Student Success Rests on an Institutional Culture of Support | After Class

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