In January, University administrators announced that laundry services will remain free for the rest of the semester, as well as the upcoming academic year. This came after widespread student support for free laundry, including a petition circulated by the Brown-RISD Young Democratic Socialists of America, an organization that we both belong to. The University’s decision to temporarily make laundry free suggests one thing: that the University is capable of meeting the student demand for free laundry but is unwilling to do so permanently. It is thus important for students to advocate for this necessary change until the University fulfills the demand.
Free laundry is one of the most widely supported campus life initiatives among students at Brown. The YDSA petition, which was reviewed by The Herald, gathered over 1,000 signatures in less than a month. Respondents to an Undergraduate Council of Students poll also “overwhelmingly asked for free laundry.” Free laundry is popular among the student body’s elected representatives as well, with the Undergraduate Finance Board publicly working toward a broader fee-free campus. With room and board costing over $15,000 per year, along with a recent tuition increase, the administration’s refusal to fulfill such a clear student demand seems unjustifiable.
Brown does not charge students for laundry services out of economic necessity. Columbia implemented free laundry seven years ago, which has not posed any meaningful issues for the university’s expenses, endowment or larger financial picture. Brown’s endowment, a healthy $6.5 billion, dwarfs those of Swarthmore College and Case Western Reserve University, just two of the many universities across the country which offer their students free laundry. The University’s decision to extend free laundry momentarily — a complete reversal from ResLife’s fall stance that laundry charges would be reintroduced after the installation of new machines — also strongly indicates that Brown is financially able to provide on-campus students with free laundry.
By providing free laundry for an extended period but refusing to guarantee it permanently, Brown only temporarily placates students. These incomplete concessions and insistence on procedure could ultimately stall and weaken student advocacy efforts in favor of free laundry. But for the sake of equity and accountability at Brown, the issue must be pushed with administrators.
The University’s refusal to make free laundry permanent comes at the highest cost for Brown’s poorest students. Laundry expenses are not adjusted based on financial need, meaning Brown’s poorest and wealthiest students pay exactly the same amount for laundry. Though the cost of a few dollars may not seem like a big deal for some Brown students, these payments can become a major burden on students responsible for supporting themselves financially. Clean clothes and bedding should not be luxuries — they are preconditions for our health and dignity. Low-income students deserve equal access to these necessities, and they certainly should not feel like they have to choose between laundry and other vital needs. Christina Paxson P’19 P’MD’20 said in reference to Brown’s Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan, “We know that people learn better and work better in environments where they feel respected, included and valued.” Until simple amenities such as free laundry are guaranteed for all students on campus, Brown, by its own metric, cannot in good faith claim to be working toward diversity and inclusion.
Students must continue to pressure the University to grant free laundry immediately and permanently. At the YDSA, we are using initiatives such as our petition last semester and an ongoing letter-writing campaign to advocate for free laundry. Free laundry is just one step toward a more democratic and equitable University, and Brown students should continue to fight for it every day.
Alberto Juarez ’23 is the Chair of the Free Laundry Committee with the Brown-RISD Young Democratic Socialists of America and can be reached at email@example.com. Ruth Schlenker ’23 is a member of the Brown-RISD Young Democratic Socialists of America and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.