Mixed feelings about EMU privatizing dining services with Chartwells

The Board of Regents authorized interim-president Donald Loppnow to sign a 10-year contract allowing EMU’s dining services to be privatized on June 21. Loppnow will now go into final negotiations about the contract with the food service provider Chartwells.

Regent’s chairman Mike Morris emphasized that Loppnow would be engaging in fine tuning the contract. Any new information added to the contact will not be released until after it is signed. The contract takes effect July 1, the same day that Loppnow’s successor will take office.

According to a press release from the university, “the university will perform extensive renovation and remodeling.”

“It isn’t just about saving money. I think privatization will allow them to update a lot of our common places where students eat. … I have had multiple communications with administrators and I have heard Interim-President Loppnow say that student workers are a priority,” Student Body President Tanisia Morton said in a phone interview before the meeting.

Eastern will get an expanded Flex Dollars plan, more choices in the types of food offered, food trucks, improved environmental sustainability efforts and an app that grant students easier access to their options and give them an opportunity to provide feedback. Eastern will get a $5 million signing bonus, $2.5 million in graduate assistant scholarships, $712,000 in graduate assistance salaries and $18 million in capital funds “plus programmatic refresh funds in year four of the agreement.”

Morton said before the meeting that she was satisfied that student employees would remain EMU employees and get the same pay and number of hours. Privatization is intended to free up money to spend on capital improvement projects.

That project list runs long. The university’s co-op power plant needs to be completely remodeled, as does the aging Loop One. Loop One is an underground power supply loop that distributes power to buildings around campus. This, along with the repair work needed on campus parking lots, and the continued renovation of Wise Hall and the renovation of Strong Hall were cited as reasons to privatize dining.

Once Chartwells takes over dining, they have promised to bring more options to campus. This includes everything from Smashburger and Za’tar, an eastern Mediterranean restaurant; to the Greek yogurt chain Chobani, Einstein Brothers and Zingerman’s. And this list is still not complete. The Starbucks that is in the Student Center will be relocated to the student lounge and include outdoor seating. Prices will vary from location to location.

“The University expects to realize $40 million in net present value over the life of the 10-year agreement,” Geoff Larcom wrote in the press release.

Lansing passed a bill granting $30 million to EMU to renovate Strong Hall last week. Eastern needs another $9.9 million to complete the $40 million project. Loppnow argued that the university could not do all of that and improve dining at the same time with the amount of money it would cost, so privatization was seen as the better alternative.

Half of the front row of the regent’s room seating was lined with union attendees holding “Stop Privatization” signs on their laps. The various unions across campus have been against privatization from day one.

“Nothing explains the desire for the EMU board to privatize dining services except [a] disregard for what is best for campus and the democratic process. Privatizing dining services will result [in a] poor quality of food, as well as poor conditions of employment,” said accounting professor Howard Bunsis.

Bunsis organized a rally outside of Welch Hall in the hours prior to the unanimous approval of the Board of Regents to proceed with privatization. While speaking at the meeting, Bunsis attacked the Board’s record; citing the Education Achievement Authority, the continuation of the football program in division one and the perceived lack of transparency in the search for the replacement of now-former EMU president Susan Martin.

The university claims that dining is not losing money, citing a $3 million surplus. Bunsis said that it did not make sense to privatize dining in that case. Loppnow did say after the meeting that the quality of dining was never in question, but the juggling of capital improvement costs meant it made sense to privatize dining, which would be a low priority, in order to focus on infrastructure improvements.

“Privatizing the dining services would do the student no favor, privatize the football team instead,” Bunsis said to smattering of applause from his supporters.

Bunsis also criticized the 4.1 percent increase in tuition that the Board also passed at the June 21 meeting. The approval of the contract finalization was actually moved to the front of the schedule of the meeting at the last minute, and the public comment from Morton, Bunsis, and five others, was moved to the end.

The Board of Regents made sure that Chartwells would retain the students dining employees as EMU students, and to maintain their pay and hours. But Bunsis claims that as soon as any of the students quit they will be replaced with Chartwells staff, furthering what Bunsis sees as an erosion of union power on campus. Bunsis has created an anti-privatization petition. As of publication, it has 929 signatures.

“We do not believe that students should put up with mold, human hair and under-cooked meat and we do not believe students should be left out of the process,” the petition says in its first paragraph.

Morton touched on unions when she spoke to the Board.

“What they will not tell you about, which I would like to bring to the Boards attention, is that on April 16, 2016, student employees who worked for dining services began a strike,” Morton said. “They vowed to resume work until there was an investigation. When I received information … I learned of a very long list of serious grievances over a six year period. I say this because contrary to what you will here today, the current state of dining service is due for a change.”

Morton did agree with Bunsis in not supporting the 4.1 percent increase in tuition that the Board of Regents approved at the same meeting.

When asked, Morton said she would not go into detail about the nature of the grievances, citing the privacy of the students and a lack of documentation. Attempts to contact the students involved were not immediately successful.

Chartwells has a checkered history of quality. The Washington Post reported improper food handling when they were in charge of food in the Washington DC school district. Chartwells settled a whistleblower lawsuit against them for $19 million last year.

The DC School district’s food services director was fired when he blew the whistle in 2014. He was later given a $450,000 settlement. According to the Washington City Paper, the district then renewed the contract with Chartwells.

Chartwells got in trouble again at a Connecticut high school, where moldy food was served. A Twitter account was set up to criticize Chartwells, which has not been active since April 18.

Chartwells already works in Michigan universities and school districts, such as Oakland. The Oakland Post has reported complaints from the student body about the quality and reliability of food provided there. Chartwells did invest $3.5 million in Oakland’s food service however, and arranged a town hall meeting with students to address those concerns.

Attempts to contact Chartwells directly have not been successful. 

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