The Q&A with Miller ran for nearly an hour, with additional questions covering topics like transparency between administration and students, the relationship between HUSC and administration, the campus’s strategic plan and how to communicate concerns about professors outside of course evaluations." />
Answers to important university conversations around the sunset of the Religion Department and Aramark were danced around during last week’s Q&A session with President Fayneese Miller. This occurred during a Hamline Undergraduate Student Congress (HUSC) general assembly on March 2, 2021.
Miller was asked about why due process was not used for eliminating the Religion Department, and if realigning the department would mean more religion professors being hired and more classes being offered.
Miller focused specifically on the terminology, declaring “The Religion Department has not been eliminated, the Religion Department has been combined with another academic unit. Okay? I know the rhetoric is that it has been eliminated. It has not been eliminated.”
She elaborated on the decision to combine departments, saying that the goal is to look at institutional needs as a whole, specifically mentioning declining enrollment numbers and a decreasing retention rate.
“What do we need in order to call ourselves a liberal arts institution? Does that mean you have to have a department in religion? No, you don’t. We will still offer religion as part of our curriculum because that is part of our history, that’s in our DNA. So we’re not eliminating religion,” Miller said.
However, this answer never came back to why due process was not taken. Miller’s focus came down to saying that religion has not actually been eliminated, but combined with another department. Though this is somewhat true, the religion program still remains, she was incorrect in saying that the Religion Department had not been eliminated. The departmental body that housed the religion program, the Religion Department, no longer exists.
We are still left wondering what due process then looks like for combining departments. Where are the student voices and input during this process? Why wasn’t the fate of the department decided after the program review?
Unfortunately, questions about Aramark also came with roundabout answers. When asked about insights on Hamline’s contract with Aramark and the ideas that Miller and the Board of Trustees had surrounding the contract, Miller’s answers were inconclusive.
“I’m not so sure of any food service company in the higher ed industry that will meet all standards. Not a one, not a one,” Miller said. This was her initial, very disappointing response.
From a university telling us to do all the good we can, simply dismissing concerns about an outsourced group on our campus because everyone else is doing it is a weak answer.
This is especially disheartening when students are not calling on Hamline to find a new outsourced dining program. The food sovereignty group on campus, formed during summer 2020, specifically called on Hamline to develop internal dining services, and in the fall of 2020, HUSC passed a resolution calling on Hamline to have a sustainable, local and inclusive internal dining program by the 2024-25 school year.
“I will say that if you look at the organization as a whole, you’re gonna see something very different than if you look at the units within the organization. And the Aramark people here at Hamline have done a wonderful job working collaboratively with us,” Miller said. “It’s not the big Aramark… it’s the little Aramark.”
However, this is not what students are arguing. No one is saying that “little Aramark” is the problem. The issue is with Aramark as an organization, “big Aramark,” which has alleged human rights violations and uses prison labor. While students have brought forth concerns about certain Aramark employees on Hamline’s campus, there are many employees students love and have great relationships with. Not only that, the HUSC resolution calls for Hamline to advocate for retaining current food service employees if an internal food service program is developed. This strawman argument is just the first way that Miller diverted actually addressing the issues and question at stake.
In addressing the contract aspect, the conversation revolved solely around how Patti Kersten negotiated with Aramark back in March in order to save Hamline from falling into deeper debt as a result of COVID-19. She shared how, due to the pandemic, St. Thomas’s internal dining services lost $10 million because of the compensation they paid to their employees. However, Hamline was saved from a lot of debt because they did not have that burden of having to pay the dining service employees because they are employed by Aramark.
Future contract plans were not brought up. This is frustrating because Miller is very aware of student concerns about Aramark, and at no point was she asked about the contract in relation to COVID-19. Rather, she attempted to distract from all the bad that Aramark has done by bringing attention to the good they have done, while still not addressing future plans.
This “good” was in relation to the financial benefits of using Aramark during COVID-19. This is interesting considering a global pandemic is not common. This is not something good Aramark does for us all the time. And it is surely not good enough to justify continuing a contract with an oppressive group that Hamline students have specifically asked to be expelled from campus.
While specifics about money were not mentioned, Miller elaborated generally about financial concerns regarding not using Aramark.
“I’d rather money go towards scholarships for students than go towards something else when we could save money,” Miller said. “So my choice is between giving you scholarships or increasing our compensation budget. I’d rather give you scholarships than increase our compensation money… I worry about what this means in terms of us being able to support students if we go into a direction of bringing food services on campus.”
This comparison was an interesting one and frankly came off as more of a threat than an answer.
“It will cost us a significant amount of money that will take away from the scholarship budget,” Miller said.
Without addressing specifics, this implies that the scholarship funds and dining service funds are coming from the same pool of money. And in doing so, is threatening the over 90% of students who are receiving Hamline gift aid (according to hamline.edu/undergraduate/admission/financial-aid) with the choice between an ethical food program and their financial ability to attend the university.
When later asked about the future of Hamline, Miller said, “Our focus should always be student-centered… We focus on who our students are and who we need to be for you.”
When looking at her overall answers, this student-centered narrative does not seem to be true. When students have tried for years to rid the campus of Aramark, and even passed a resolution about it, they have been ignored. When students asked for clarification about the future of the Religion Department, they were met with confusing answers that led to skewed rhetoric surrounding it.
As an editorial staff, we are calling on Hamline’s administration to answer in full the questions that were still left after this Q&A, specifically addressing what due process is for department combination and what plans there are for contracting with Aramark in the future.