Kenyon College Outsourcing Plan Sparks Outcry From Students, Faculty

In a controversy that's roiled higher education, academics across the country have decried the University of Virginia's recent ousting of President Teresa Sullivan, accusing the Board of Visitors of trying to run the school as a corporation rather than an academic institution. The community outrage has sparked enough attention to convince the Board to reconsider its decision.

Far from Charlottesville, Va., and well outside the national spotlight, the same kind of bottom-line decision making has divided a small liberal arts school in Gambier, Ohio. Earlier this week, nearly half the faculty of Kenyon College denounced their administration's decision to outsource maintenance facilities work to a foreign multinational corporation. The anger towards Kenyon leaders for even entertaining the idea without community input has convinced the administration to suspend its negotiations with the firm.

Just five days before Sullivan's forced resignation from UVA, Kenyon President S. Georgia Nugent announced that the small private college would begin outsourcing its facilities maintenance to the French multinational firm Sodexo. Wages would remain the same, but the Kenyon employees would become Sodexo employees.

The decision to contract with Sodexo -- which has had to fight allegations about their labor practices, and which offers slightly fewer benefits than Kenyon -- sparked reactions from not only those within the community, but outside the tiny college town where Kenyon is located.

A petition protesting the outsourcing gathered more than 2,000 signatures -- impressive for a school with a student body of just 1,600. The proposition to contract with Sodexo also launched a protest from the labor union representing the affected employees and inspired one prominent friend of the college to return her honorary degree.

"We support the staff of our college and they play a huge part of our Kenyon experience, especially for students," said the petition, written by Kenyon senior Rebecca Chowdhury. "We demand that the jobs of such integral members of our community are not outsourced to such a dubious organization."

Nugent said the contract with Sodexo would save the college about $500,000 per year without the need for layoffs. The savings would instead come from systems efficiencies from Sodexo Kenyon did not previously have. Sodexo also provides services, such as elevator repair, which the college previously had to purchase from outside companies.

According to the school, these savings would help keep tuition costs down -- a notable achievement at a time when tuition is generally rising throughout the country.

"In the face of the need to address facilities management, the college could have made other choices," said Barry Schwartz, chairman of Kenyon's Board of Trustees, in a forum on campus. "It could have raised tuition, it could have reduced the workforce. It could have ignored maintenance and our facilities needs. It could have kicked the can down the road."

The decision to outsource the jobs of 23 of their members didn't sit well with United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) Local 712. The workers have a combined 435 years of employment at the school, and two members have worked at Kenyon for more than 40 years.

"We don't feel this is right for Kenyon, we don't feel it's right for the community and certainly we don't think it's right for us," Bob Smith, the president of UE 712, told The Huffington Post. "You can't imagine the shock, our jaws just dropped. … It goes against everything the College has ever said as far as, 'No matter what your job is here, you're part of the community.'"

Some at the college saw this as a corporate decision -- one that violated the academic and community principles inherent to the college. Kim McMullen, a professor of English at Kenyon, said that a large part of the college's appeal, and what makes it unique, is its integration with the community.

"The very idea that a multinational organization could come in and somehow manage workers here seems to violate that rootedness in a fundamental way," McMullen said. "It really does threaten to sort of alter the distinctiveness of the education students get here, the distinctiveness of the community."

Nugent said it is always difficult to draw the line between the academic side of the school and with the business side.

"I would say that we work with a little bit of tension between being the College as an academic institution where we think of everything as being open to debate and discussion," she said in an interview with the campus newspaper's blog. "We are also, though, an employer."

The administration scheduled forums to clarify their decision and released statements on the topic. But it was not until a letter signed by a large portion of the faculty was sent to the administration that Kenyon announced it would suspend negotiations with the firm.

"We do not believe that the recent decisions of the administration and members of the Board of Trustees reflect this understanding of community or a commitment to what it stands for," the 88 faculty who signed the letter wrote. "We fear, in fact, that key members of the administration and Board of Trustees may be operating with a very different model of the college than that entertained by many of the faculty."

The college responded to the letter within a day, announcing its decision to suspend negotiations with Sodexo and instead form an advisory panel of community members to consider a path forward.

"There's just a good, positive feeling on the campus and of course in the social media world, the petition has basically ended," Nugent said after the announcement. "I think people are saying, 'Okay, we hear you, let's pause and see what happens.'"

Still, Sodexo isn't completely out of the picture. The advisory panel could still decide to contract with the company after deliberation. "We're going stand by, ready to support their needs and see what their outcome is," Enrico Dinges, a Sodexo spokesman said.

That uncertainty has members of UE 712 upset that the college might cherry pick people for the committee to "make the decision they've already made," according to Smith. This week, contract negotiations, rescheduled after those held earlier this month failed, have again stalled.

The college says it remains committed to reaching an agreement with UE 712, which would include a wage increase, according to a release. But the college refused to provide information related to outsourcing to the union, saying the current negotiations don't include any contracts with an outside vendor.

Though the union has consistently negotiated three-year contracts in the past, this week the college sought a one-year contract, which "lends to our suspicion that we think the decision still has already been made," Smith said.

The advisory panel is expected to conclude its discussion in the fall.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article referred to a "graduate of the college" who had returned her honorary degree. The individual did not graduate from Kenyon.

The reporter of this story is an alumna of Kenyon College.

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