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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Book of Matthew: Scenes from Brandeis’ past, part three

Aramark’s arrival

Published: March 25, 2011
Section: Opinions, Top Stories

If you checked your mailbox recently, you probably found a small ballot with some ideas for dining reform on it. Go ahead and fill it out, if you haven’t already. It’s courtesy of the Justice League, Brandeis’ friendly neighborhood activist group, which plans to hand-deliver all the ballots to President Lawrence.

This sort of thing happens a lot at Brandeis—maybe not the random ballots, but the idea of rallying for dining reform. Once again, students want Aramark, our dining provider, to change or get out.

But one question has, for the most part, gotten lost in the flurry of ballots and banners: How, exactly, did we get saddled with these Aramark guys in the first place?

For the answer, we’ll have to travel back to the 1997-1998 academic year. Up until that point, Brandeis dining had been run by the university itself, through Dining Services.

It had some problems. Meal plans were inefficient and some of the most expensive in the country, choices were limited, and it was generally agreed among students that food quality left much to be desired.

One student said in a 1998 Justice interview, “It would be great if we got better food because then we wouldn’t have to go home reeling ill after every meal.”

Not exactly the best way to sell a product.

Sometime in 1997, administration officials decided that it was time for something completely different.

On Nov. 25 of that year, they announced in that day’s Justice plans to take bids from private companies for control over the university’s dining operation.

Brandeis Chief Operating Officer and Executive Vice President Peter French told the Justice that he hoped contracted food service would allow Brandeis to improve the “variety, customer service, and quality” of campus dining, without raising meal plan prices.

By January 1998, four companies responded to the university’s requests for proposals (RFPs): Sodexho Management Company, Marriot Education Services, Chartwell’s and, of course, Aramark Corporation. Brandeis Dining Services also made a bid, in an attempt to keep control over dining.

Almost immediately, the decision to outsource became controversial.

“They’re selling us down the river,” said one anonymous Dining Services employee in a Jan. 20, 1998 Justice article about the proposed change.

Many long-time employees worried that a restructuring of dining by a private company would cost them their retirement benefits, health insurance, sick time or even their jobs.

Though the administration promised dining employees that they would be offered jobs with equivalent benefits packages under any circumstances, some workers—and students—were not convinced.

Justice columnist David Nurenberg, writing in the Jan. 20 issue, worried that nothing would prevent a private company from laying off workers once Brandeis handed them the keys. In his column “Outsourcing has its price,” he cited a layoff that occurred at MIT in 1995, for which Aramark was responsible. According to a report by MIT’s student newspaper, The Tech, the associate director of food services at MIT claimed to have no say in how Aramark hired or fired workers.

“How can we in good conscience agree to a plan that could throw current employees and their families into unemployment?” Nurenburg wrote. “Would we want our parents’ jobs put in that kind of jeopardy?”

Not all students shared these fears.

In a Jan. 27, 1998 Justice op-ed, Miriam Heller argued that even though the university is a business, it need not be in the business of food production. “Brandeis simply cannot be competitive in today’s market if it continues to operate like a Mom and Pop store,” she wrote.

A letter written to the Justice that same week pointed out that Dining Services was infamous for paying low wages and, as a result, had trouble attracting employees.

The letter suggested that there was little to lose by going private, and if the university did not like the results it could always let the new company go.

While this debate was going on, the administration held several open forums to try to address student questions about possible changes. The Justice, meanwhile, embarked on an investigation of all parties submitting a bid.

Reporters interviewed students and administrators from colleges and universities that had contracted out their dining services. In almost all cases, the results were almost uniform: At each school, administrators were enthusiastic about their partnership with private dining companies, while students were considerably less so—in most cases, because of disappointing food quality.

At around the same time, Brandeis’ imperiled Dining Services made its last stand. At the end of January 1998, Dining Services managers proposed to students several changes that would occur of they maintained control of dining, such as a grill station in Sherman, made-to-order breakfasts, expanded vegan and vegetarian options, and an as-of-yet untried all-points meal plan.

They complained, however, that a “dearth of departmental resources” prevented them from raising Brandeis dining to its full potential. Dining Services’ inability to fill necessary positions, they said, was the result of an overly strict budget.

The managers also warned of the consequences of outsourcing. “There will be a price paid in terms of the sense of community,” said Mike Falconer, general manager of Usdan, at the presentation. “Is this what the university is willing to sacrifice for the bottom line?”

Their pleas earned sympathy from some students. One letter to the Justice following the presentation took the side of dining employees, while accusing the administration of being too quick to outsource, without attempting to solve problems within the structure already in place. The authors of the letter also not-so-subtly accused the administration of purposely restraining the ability of Dining Services to improve itself.

Nevertheless, on Feb. 27, 1998 the university decided to outsource its dining and by September Aramark, the winning bidder, was running the dining halls.

Many of the fears that had been raised during the outsourcing process did not, thankfully, come to pass.

The second it signed its two-year contract, Aramark immediately hired all Dining Service employees and negotiated a deal with their union.

But beneath all the flashy renovations, not everything had changed. Just before the final decision was made, in his Feb. 10, 1998 column “A genuine and official administrative blunder,” Justice columnist Lee Rubin pointed out that most of the changes that the bidding companies proposed involved either physical adjustment to dining hall layout or changes that had already been suggested by Dining Services.

One thing that was not guaranteed to change was food quality. “The actual food may be very similar to the food served now,” Rubin wrote, “only it will be served under a pretty new sign with some neon lighting.”

Or, as Tywanna Taylor ’00 put it when interviewed for an earlier Justice article: “I’m not for it. I’ve spoken to friends who go to schools who have outsourced. It’s all good for a few months, then it changes.”

More than anything else, these last two predictions were the ones that eventually came to pass. Which is why after 13 years of an effective Aramark monopoly over student dining, students are still not satisfied with the food on campus and are still signing petitions begging for change.