Letter to the Editor: Vice president responds to management of auxiliaries

Posted Thursday, January 20, 2005 - 12:00am

Dear editor,

In 1766, at the age of 21, Asa Dunbar orchestrated the first known student demonstration in America, at Harvard University. Dunbar led the student body off campus. Their slogan: "Behold, our butter stinketh."

From 1766 to the present, students on college campuses have frequently challenged the decisions and motives of those who are responsible to set policies, prices and priorities. The favorite targets of this perpetual tension are the departments known as "auxiliaries." The prime reason: the auxiliaries on every college campus extract money from students in exchange for housing, food, books and other services. The costs are substantial to students and families. It should come as no great surprise that these campus departments are easily considered "the enemy."

One of the best kept secrets on college campuses is that many, if not most auxiliary operations are hard-pressed to break even. They suffer perennial losses or are heavily subsidized from general college funds. This is particularly true of smaller schools like CEU. There are certainly exceptions, but food service departments, dorms and bookstores do not exist to fatten the coffers of school treasuries. In fact, more and more, the substantial losses in auxiliaries have led schools to outsource these functions simply to stop the bleeding. More on that subject later.

The purpose of this article is to share with the CEU student body the view from the other side. Today's offering will provide an overview of the auxiliaries with a few specifics for illumination. Subsequent installments will examine each department in turn for a deeper view. There is far too much information to include a comprehensive treatment of this subject in one article. Hopefully this effort will lead to better understanding regarding the mission and motives of the people involved in auxiliary operations here at CEU.

Good Deal or Raw Deal?

January 2002, during the middle of the 2001-02 school year, is when President Thomas asked me to assume control of the CEU auxiliaries in addition to my other responsibilities. The following paragraphs are provided to highlight a few of the changes in general price levels and CEU auxiliary prices since then.

2001-02 tuition at CEU was $1200.70. Today tuition is up 25% to $1505.00. During the 2001-02 school year, the cost of regular gasoline varied between $1.10 and $1.40 per gallon. As everyone knows all too well, regular gas is now near $2 per gallon. Milk reached historic high retail price levels in 2004, peaking at a national average of $3.57 per gallon in June, up from $2.68 the previous year. Typical food inflation is about 3% per year. Heading into the 2004-05 school year, dairy prices were up 27% from a year ago. Meat and cheese were up 11% and poultry 9%.

In 2001-02 a semi-private room in Aaron Jones (suite), coupled with the lowest cost meal plan (10 meals per week) cost $1590 per semester. Currently that combination, including a more flexible meal plan, is $290 less or $1300 per semester. A private room in Aaron Jones (suite) with 10 meals per week in the cafeteria in 2001 cost $2105 per semester. Today the same room with a meal plan allowing the student to eat anytime is $505 less or $1600 per semester.

How do our prices compare to other schools in the area? Following are a few comparisons to our lowest cost meal plan currently at $650 per semester: The closest is Snow which has a plan similar to ours for $750 this past year and $825 for the coming year. At the high end of the scale is Mesa State College. Their least costly meal plan is $1522 per semester, but on this plan meals can only be eaten between 10:30 AM and 6:30 PM. Weber State's lowest cost plan is $875 per semester, which buys fewer than 5 meals per week plus some "flex money." At the U of U 10 meals per week plus $250 flex money is $1338 per semester. At Utah State, a 12 meal plan plus a semi-private room similar to Aaron Jones is $1750 per semester, $450 more than at CEU.

What about the prices charged in the cafeteria and snack bar? Since our plan allows each student to spend his/her meal plan money with complete flexibility rather than a fixed number of meals, a reasonable question is: are the prices for each item fair? I wish we had the time and resources to do continuous comprehensive surveying to determine the relation of the price of each of hundreds of items in our menu to prevailing prices. I did my own mini-study this past week on a road trip with the basketball teams. My first meal was at a fast food restaurant in Woods Cross (Atlantis Burgers): 1/4 lb cheeseburger, fries and 22 oz. drink (health food!). The cost: $4.89. Same thing in our snack bar with a 24 oz. drink: $3.41. Late that same night I had breakfast at IHOP: 2 pancakes, 2 bacon strips, 2 sausage links, 2 eggs for $7.21, not including the tip. Same thing in our cafeteria, only with 3 bacon strips and 3 sausage links: $6.20. The next day I had a slice of large pizza at a Flying J truck stop next to our hotel. The cost: $3.38. Same thing in our cafeteria: $2.00. Finally I had a foot-long ham and cheese sandwich, chips and drink at Subway for a total cost of $8.47. A similar sandwich plus chips and drink at our place: $4.54.

What about the bookstore?

JanSport Sweatshirt (hoody): today, $27.99, four year ago, $42.90; CEU Notebook (5 subject): today $3.99, four years ago, $5.49; CEU Tube Socks: today, $4.99, four years ago, $5.98.

Yes, textbook prices are soaring, but the margin we take on textbooks to cover the operational costs of the bookstore is actually lower than it was 3 years ago.

Given these facts, one would think that all students should be thrilled with the bargain prices for food, housing and supplies. The reality: if a student wasn't here 3 years ago, hasn't attended other schools and hasn't made the price comparisons listed in the previous paragraphs, it is difficult for the student to know if he/she is being treated fairly. Understandably, students react to short-term changes rather than long-term trends.

What is our Strategy and Why?

Stated simply, we want to offer the best possible value to students. This means the best possible prices and the best possible service. We want the dorms full and we want students to have a great experience here. Every meeting, every decision, is guided by these overriding priorities. Clearly the facts and prices cited above would suggest that we are on this path. However, the issue is a bit more complex than it appears on the surface.

For example, why would we increase prices in the cafeteria and not offer some of the packaged items that we offered last year? I will answer this more fully in a subsequent article, but will answer it briefly here. CEU has no magic pipeline to lower cost food than other schools. The general food cost increases cited above affect CEU as much as any other school and yet we are charging less. How can we do it? Mainly by reducing administrative and overhead costs. We do not have a full-time director. We hire as many students (40-50) as possible and have very few (4) full-time employees. We therefore pay out much less in personnel costs than any other comparable food service operation I am aware of. However, we are required by state law and our Board of Trustees to cover our costs and at least break even. We must make the pricing adjustments necessary in order for the department to pay its bills. At the same time, we are committed to keeping prices at or below the prevailing levels for similar items in the outside community.

Why should it matter to a student if the food service department charges enough to cover its costs? The answer: if we don't break even we will be forced to outsource the food service operation to a company like Sodexho (Snow and Mesa) or Chartwells (Weber and U of U). The prices at these schools will be our prices. Because of our size, our prices could even be greater than some I have cited.

You may be thinking: "Even if we pay more, perhaps the food will be better." I happened upon the following letter to editor of the Snow College student newspaper about a year ago:

"Dear editor, FINALLY!!! Somebody actually wrote about how disgusting the cafeteria is at Snow. I attended Snow last year and I had a meal card that my parents purchased for me. Let me tell you something: Never again will I let my parents waste their money in such a ridiculous way. To be quite frank with you I hate, I mean literally hate the cafeteria. They are way over-priced and the prices are hardly justifiable for the quality and taste of the food. Not to mention the salads they sell by the ounce. A good size healthy salad for me would be about $8, when Wendy's has better salads for about $3. I will never eat there again ... "

I am sure there are those who feel nearly as strongly negative about our food services. It is difficult to eat in the same place 3 times each day for weeks and months and not grow tired of it. We simply do the best we can to offer a variety of choices at the lowest possible price. The same is true of each of the auxiliary departments. If I don't do my job and reach the break-even point, a company headquartered in New York will likely be running these departments with consequences that go well beyond the inevitable increase in cost to students. It would actually make my job easier. But I don't believe it is in the best interests of the students. I will provide more details about possible outsourcing in subsequent articles.

Is Anybody Listening?

The final issue I will address is the matter of communication. I frequently hear that students are frustrated about our lack of communications with them. This one puzzles me, but it is because of this feedback that I am taking the time to write these articles.

In food services we publish daily and weekly menus, have a suggestion box in the cafeteria, have a food service committee which we invite any interested student to participate in and give feedback directly to the cooks, publish notices of holiday schedule changes and send out information to each student in housing giving the details of how the meal plan works.

In housing we have approximately 1 RA for every 25 students, whose job it is to see that the concerns of students are addressed. We have a repair hotline (x5390) which is published in every room. We have hall directors assigned to each residence hall. We have a bi-weekly staff meeting with a member of student government sitting in and the minutes distributed to others in student government. We have orientation meetings at the beginning of the school year. I have also participated in an open question and answer session with President Thomas and other members of administration. Finally, we do an annual survey giving each resident a chance to anonymously tell us how we are doing.

If anyone still feels a lack of access you may feel free to email me personally at [email protected] or call extension 5245. My office is in the SAC building and I have never subjected a visitor to bodily harm. All constructive ideas are gratefully accepted. Problems and complaints are dealt with swiftly. The only problems that will go unaddressed are those we aren't informed about.

You must understand, however, that not every student feels the same on all issues and we must often choose a side. For example, some want more Mexican food; some want less. Some want to party all night; some would like it quiet to study and sleep; a few residents choose deviant or destructive behavior forcing us to take action to protect innocent parties as well as property. There are those who refuse to report problems and yet expect the problems to be solved. The list goes on.

In summary, I would like to repeat that the auxiliary departments have no other motivation than to do the best possible job for the students. There are no bonuses attached to increasing the burden of cost to students or to any other unfair or unjust policy decisions. Our success is measured only in the well-being and success of the students we serve.

We are organized to maximize employment opportunities for students as well. There are more student jobs available through the auxiliaries now than ever before. In fact, the auxiliaries provide more student employment than all other departments on campus combined. Outsourcing the auxiliary functions is certain to reduce student employment significantly.

Although this article is quite long, there is much more to say about each department individually. Stay tuned.

Dan Allen, associate vice president of institutional advancement and auxiliaries

Filed under: viewpoints

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