Kenyon at a Crossroads

A Lost Sense of Community in the Case of Sodexo

By Conrad Jacober

On June 5, 2012 the Kenyon Administration announced a decision that affected the entire institution: “UE Local 712 Proposal: The College proposes to contract out the work currently performed by the unit to Sodexo. Sodexo has assured the college that it will recognize the union should the College contract with Sodexo to perform the work.” This is the exact wording the College used with the heads of the Skilled Trades Union on the first day of contract negotiations.

Prior to this decision, no announcement was made to Kenyon’s faculty, students, or staff. No member of the Kenyon community was told of a decision to outsource through email, bulletin, or forum. No announcement was made that the college was in financial trouble and needed to cut costs imminently. No member of maintenance was asked where he or she thought money could be saved in the daily operations of maintenance. The administration made no effort to include the community of this college in a decision that would affect its members. In some institutions, this is normal procedure. Kenyon is not one of those institutions.

To be clear, I am sure the administration was trying to act in the best interest of the College when it moved to outsource the Skilled Trades Union and eventually all of maintenance to Sodexo; it was a decision made in line with these administrators’ vision for Kenyon. But what is their vision for our college and our community? Are we an institution that outsources in the face of a multitude of alternatives? Do we exclude from discussion those who root our institution to the surrounding area, namely the staff, and in this case, maintenance? Do we only announce significant decisions once students leave campus? Do we aspire to be thriving educational environment for our students, or to rank higher than competing institutions? And does our current model fit our goal, or do we need to tweak it? These are questions we must ask, and we all have the right to take part in answering them It cannot be accepted that the larger community is not involved in decisions of this magnitude, decisions that decide the kind of path we are choosing to follow.

Most maintenance workers at Kenyon can list, extensively, ways to save money and improve services. One member of the Skilled Trades Union who wished to remain anonymous gave me an entire packet, a compilation of the time-wasting activities he had observed and recorded over time. If the administration had consulted maintenance, the College could have saved a great deal of money and simultaneously strengthened the bond of the community, rather than create feelings of doubt and insecurity among its members.

Just weeks after the administration’s announcement, the leaders of the Trades Union proposed not only new work order system, but an entirely new way to organize staff and management in maintenance. The proposal is structured such that the staff and the management would be more integrated, extensive communication and decision-making would be regular practices, and, ultimately, the processes would be performed with greater efficiency and better service.

The sophistication of these proposals are proof that these people are invested in their work and the community. The members of maintenance care, as stated in the Trades Union’s Middle Path Proposal, “We view our work not just as a job for which we are paid, but as a living relationship to a broader family of friends, students, staff, and faculty.”

Why then was there no conversation with maintenance or with the community at large? It is not a fluke though; it’s something maintenance has been seeing more of recently, as they stated in their proposal: “The union membership has been frustrated by the lack of respect shown to us by management over the past few years. The current poor relationship between management and union did not happen in a short period of time. It has been growing and festering for decades.” This gap in communication and deteriorating faith is not the fault of maintenance, but a problem with the current administration, one that should be addressed immediately.

Upon talking to Professors McCarthy, Urban, and Schortman, as well as many of the members of the union, my impression of deep divide between the administration and the staff was solidified. I learned that after the first contract negotiation, the Skilled Trades Union felt it was necessary to bring in an outside observer, something rather unprecedented but necessary given the character of the first meeting. Professor McCarthy noted the same atmosphere the union members had felt in the first negotiation: an utter lack of camaraderie. On paper, the administration and maintenance are partners in a common goal: the success of Kenyon College and the achievement of its goals, but this feeling was absent from the aforementioned negotiations. All three professors who attended noted that the maintenance-administration relationship was cold; there was no small talk, no handshakes, nothing of the like. Even the Trades Union felt the divide had sharpened.

This is not the kind of relationship that anyone wants to see at Kenyon. The administration has lost the trust of maintenance workers and many others in the community. It has acted ignorantly and naïvely at best, dubious at worst. But it still has the power to turn around and work with the community, with every member of the college to achieve a common vision and greater success. We can open dialogue—which we have already begun to do as a student body through mediums like all-student emails and the Thrill—and include every member of the community, practicing the same tenets of democracy that we preach in the classroom. These wounds are not permanent, but they do run deep.

It is time that the administration, for its own sake and that of the community at large, to prove its commitment to the entire College. Let’s start talking. Let’s forge stronger relationships. Let’s listen to one another and treat everyone with dignity. Let’s keep Kenyon, Kenyon—a better place for every one of its members. Let’s remember that we are one community.

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