Washtenaw Community College (WCC) announced on July 9 plans to discontinue the Culinary and Baking/Pastry Arts programs.
According to the email, the decision was made due to the high program running cost, low enrollment, and low graduation rates. The 43 active students in the program can have the option to finish their certificate/degree course work over the next 12-18 months, to change to a new program, or be assisted in transferring to Henry Ford College or Oakland Community College (OCC). WCC also mentioned that the college will provide faculty with employment support through human resources if desired.
The Echo interviewed Dr. Kimberly M. Hurns, the Vice President for Instruction, regarding the questions and concerns about the program’s discontinuation.
“It was a difficult decision to make, ” said Dr. Kimberly, “however, much careful thought went into the decision. It was based on a thorough assessment that showed a changing marketplace and a shift in workforce demands in the culinary industry. Additionally, we reviewed the enrollment numbers in the program and found a declining interest dating back over the past five years. So, we took all these realities into account as we made this decision.”
Dr. Kimberly explained that the main goal of WCC is focusing on meeting their obligations to align their programs with workforce sectors that are growing and in high demand.
A petition to save the program was started by two aspiring chefs and current culinary arts students, Nana Kubo and Samantha Evens, along with with the program’s faculty and alumni, and people from the culinary industry. They also opened a Facebook group called “Save the Culinary Program at WCC” to share their stories and other helpful resources. The group aims to save the program and make the public re-recognize the importance of formal training in culinary art and hospitality management. As of Wednesday, July 29, more than 1,000 people have signed the petition.
The group sent the petition with over 1,000 signatures to the WCC Board of Trustees for their monthly meeting on July 28. The meeting was run digitally on Zoom and was originally open for public comments.
Comments were disabled after 15 minutes when a board member stated, “We’re sorry, it's a hard decision.”
The group feels disrespected and says they will keep spreading awareness and taking action. They are planning to get more signatures, funds, and support from local chefs at high-end restaurants to make a statement or possibly organize a demonstration.
“We students are only given 12 to 18 months to finish our degree, if not we will be cut. Some of us are not able to be full-time students and are not financially capable,” Kubo states in the petition. “Not only is WCC taking away our dreams but they are also taking the opportunity and dreams of the youth. If my school decided to cancel the culinary program, wouldn’t other schools eventually do the same?”
“It’s taking away our dreams and opportunities,“ Kubo said.
When Kubo knew that she would be in Michigan for the next few years, she decided to begin her culinary art studies at WCC after online research. WCC’s culinary arts program consistently rates in the top 10 for best culinary schools in Michigan. While working for two part-time jobs in Yoon’s Pastry and Sweetwater’s Cafe, Kubo thought she was set for her two years of happy studies in the Washtenaw Culinary Community.
“An inside joke between the instructors and me is that I live inside the shared culinary office. Whenever I am inside the office, you will either see me studying, consulting with the chefs, or using my time with the chefs to gain knowledge,“ Kubo said.
Kubo depends on public transportation. For her and other students like her, transferring to another school may be difficult.
“Either Oakland Community College and Henry Ford School are like 40 minutes' drive away, and I don’t have a car,” Kubo said.
Other financial barriers exist as well in regards to tuition.
“The Washtenaw Community College’s credit rate per hour is $95, while Oakland Community College . . . is $188. That’s almost double the amount of WCC,“ Kubo said.
“But I want to graduate from WCC and become someone influential within the culinary world. I will become someone with great talent and I wanted WCC to be proud to say I am their alumni,” Kubo said.
Evens said she is often unable to take her desired classes due to low enrollment.
“There [have been a] couple of times [when] we could not take the class we want because the class doesn’t have enough students registered,“ Evens said. "However, to maintain our financial aid or student loan, we have to take enough credits for each semester. As a result, we always have to take classes we don’t want to fill the requirement and take a longer time than we were supposed to [in order to] finish the degree.”
A customized learning plan will be assigned to each current student
In response to WCC’s commitment to the students currently in the culinary program, Dr. Kimberly said the program will continue for current students over the next 12 to 18 months and they will be given a wide array of resources along with quality instruction by WCC’s faculty to complete their program and receive the certificate or degree.
“We value all the students in the program, each student will receive a customized learning plan with input from the division counselor to ensure they are on track to successfully complete their program.” said Dr. Kimberly. “Students will continue to pay WCC tuition rates that are the lowest in the state and if desired use our flexible payment plans. There are also scholarships available through our Foundation that students are encouraged to apply for – as well as a Student Emergency Fund for students who might need help with unexpected expenses.”
However, as for August 5th, Kudo told the Echo that she was given a schedule to take 7 classes in Fall 2020 after meeting with an advisor.
“I am lost," Kubo said. “ I don't know if I can keep up in 7 classes including the competition. Am I being set up to fail?
Little promotion for the culinary arts program
Chef Gary Marquardt has been teaching culinary arts at WCC for over 10 years. He said that the enrollment of culinary art dropping is an overall phenomenon throughout the nation, not only in WCC alone.
“Nowadays kids watch too many chefs TV-shows,” Marquardt said. "They think that chefs are just garnishing the dishes and yelling at people, or they think they can self-teach themselves by watching YouTube, but most of all are because they scared of hard work, very few of them might be able to go out by talent, but 99% of them don’t."
Marquardt said that the culinary art program is left out of various school promotional content.
“In the entire 23 pages of WCC Fall 2020 handout, there are only a few lines that mention Culinary Arts, while the Nursing/Medical assistants have multiple full pages devoted to them, plus the front cover,“ Marquardt said. "As for our Business Education division, only one person is handling all kinds of media promotion for so many different programs, and so far the Culinary Art program only has an Instagram page showing students’ works occasionally."
Marquardt criticized WCC’s lack of support and use of some culinary resources
In opposition to the email stating that the program is a high cost to operate, Marquardt said that the school has not tried to maximize the resources of the culinary art program effectively. Marquardt said WCC does not allow the restaurant to reserve parking spaces for the customers.
“The Garrett’s restaurant could be more profitable if the school had offered more support on it,“ Marquardt said. "It is a place where you can have a fine dining experience with $20 from appetizer, main to desserts. You can’t even buy three meals at McDonald’s for $20."
"Also, we cannot do take-away because the school signed contracts with other vendors like Starbucks and Panda Express not allowing direct competition in the same hall,” Marquardt said.
The Garrett’s restaurant and the Sweet Spot have been the place for WCC Culinary Arts and Baking/Pastry program students to practice their food preparation and dining services skills since 2000. Along with the Culinary Arts and Baking/Pastry program being axed, the community members are assuming the school will fund Aramark, national foodservice, facility, and uniform service provider, to run the catering services as opposed to culinary students.
WCC claims that Culinary Arts do not require formal training and can be achieved through “sweat equity”
The same email from WCC states, “Culinary is a field that does not require formal training. Employees can be successful with sweat equity." This statement has received a lot of criticism from the culinary arts community.
“The culinary world is a fast-changing industry, the chef would ask you to prepare a new type of sauce and you should know do-it-now. It can easily tell who has received proper training versus who has not,” Marquardt said.
Leopold Chen, a WCC culinary art alumni currently studying Hotel and Restaurant Management at EMU, explains why it is important to receive classes that are accredited by the American Culinary Federation (ACF).
“I know for a fact I am not a pastry chef, and I wouldn't even consider doing southwestern cuisine if I hadn't taken those classes that are ACF accredited no less and is rarely even considered in the Ann Arbor food scene,” Leopold said. “In order to even spark our creativity, we need those classes . . . ACF is not only nationally known, but other parts of the world also recognize the organization to create the standards of what qualifies as culinarians, sous chef, or even executive chef, and many titles in between.
Issac Rivera Cuevas, a WCC culinary arts alumni who started working at Zingerman’s Bakehouse and Roadhouse after graduation, is now the Lead Cook at Sodexo USA, points out formal training is essential to ensure safe food production during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I can assure you from my 5 plus years industry experience, "sweat equity" cannot prepare you for the fast-changing landscape of foodservice especially during the time of COVID-19. We will need more professionally trained chefs in hospitals, schools, and the private sector that can uphold higher standards of safety and sanitation. More importantly, we will need chefs educated to train novices and customers to ensure safe food production.” Rivera Cuevas said.
“During my time as a student at WCC, I have felt the constant bias of the Dean against the program specifically during the rigorous ACF certifications. It should be noted what the brilliant staff was able to accomplish despite the Dean's malevolent indifference,” Rivera Cuevas said in his message to the WCC Board of Trustees at their monthly meeting on June 28. He also recorded a video statement to urge the culinary business and public to support the Culinary and Baking/Pastry Arts programs at WCC.
WCC’s Culinary and Baking/Pastry Arts programs have earned accreditation with the American Culinary Federation, offers ServSafe Certifications, and foodservice management certifications through the National Restaurant Association.
An apprenticeship program will continue to provide education and prepare students for career paths
Dr. Kimberly said WCC will remain responsive to the needs of industry and has developed an apprenticeship program with Destination Ann Arbor that aligns with the competencies of the National Restaurant Association.
“Through our management program, the apprenticeship program will continue to provide education and prepare students for career paths in the hospitality industry based on the skills and competencies that are in demand and defined by the restaurant industry,” said Dr. Kimberly.
Options to transfer to EMU
Within the public transport covered in the Washtenaw county, the EMU transfer/3+1 articulation program with WCC in Hotel and Restaurant management BS can be an option for students who want to continue their education in the area. The articulation for enrolled students will be effective until August 31, 2022. However, some students said that they either have not heard about this program before or are financially incapable of meeting the tuition rates at EMU.
Leopold says most of his classes in EMU Hotel and Restaurant Management are in the lecture-class model with less hands-on workshop classes like WCC.
“Sadly, data showed that arts, journalism, and culinary have one of the lowest returns in a lifetime based on how much the degree cost the student. But still, having a bachelor’s degree does open up more opportunities. I got denied from applying as an instructor at WCC when I graduated from there, saying I need at least a bachelor’s degree.” said Leopold.
Leopold believes WCC should keep their culinary arts program. He also said that, if they can afford the time and money, students should go for the bachelor’s degree, but sadly many potential chefs are either locked down at their jobs or not paid enough to consider transferring.
Leopold spent four years part-time studies to finish his Associate degree program in WCC. He believes that current students would have a hard time to finish up their degree in the next 12-18 months, the school should have provided a better transition to help students before making the final decision.
Culinary students and faculty hope WCC will reconsider cutting the Culinary and Baking/Pastry Arts programs from Washtenaw County, recognize the importance of proper training in food services, and keep the open door for potential young chefs to fulfill their dreams in an affordable and accredited program.