Thursday, November 11, 2021

One More Squeeze in Higher Ed

I heard the other day that the dorms at Howard University are being run by a management company. Is that common these days? I'm not sure, but if it is, it follows the earlier pattern of outsourcing food service, which is now widespread at colleges and universities.

I finished college about 40 years ago, and at the time I'm pretty sure it was unheard of for food or housing to be run by anyone but the college or university. At my university, housing was run by Residence Life, which was just another department of the university, part of Student Affairs. Food was run by an auxiliary campus enterprise company. In fact, that was its creative name: ACE. It was separately incorporated from the university, and I'm not sure if it was for-profit or nonprofit (I tend to think nonprofit), but it was definitely a stand-alone company on that single campus of New York's public system (SUNY).

I don't know how much later it was that this company gave way to an outside contracted company, such as Sodexo (formerly Sodexho, acquirer of Marriott Management Services) or Aramark. At the University of Minnesota, I know the change happened some time after the mid-1990s, because food service was still a University department when I left grad school.

Whose idea was it that these types of companies would provide better service or quality than locally run departments or separate companies? Let's be honest: it probably wasn't about service or quality, it was about price. I'll bet it started with the idea that the companies could buy in bulk, taking advantage of economies of scale, or that they would have more professional management (meaning, they could get the work done by fewer employees). Maybe they gave a show of having higher quality food at first.

But what it led to was students hating their corporate food service, exploitative employment practices, and connections to companies working in — or even running — prisons.

And now the same thing is happening with dorm management, or has been happening. Just what we need.

Why is it so hard for colleges and universities to run their own operations, rather than outsourcing them? It's a fit with the loss of tenure-track positions, of course, but less remarked upon.

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