Over the years, the Knox Administration has been outsourcing various aspects of the college — the bookstore, dining services and human resources to name a few — and it seems that the Knox Administration is intent on outsourcing as many assets of the college as they possibly can. The Knox Administration often informs us of the benefits of outsourcing, whether it be economic reasons, promises of renovation, an enhanced student experience or an attraction to prospective students. Although these issues are important, the Knox Administration has overlooked very important issues concerning outsourcing, the most important of which is the loss of student autonomy.
When I was a high school senior on the college search, I heard over and over that the smaller the college, the more sway each student has over what goes on at that college. I was told that smaller colleges are more democratic because of this. I definitely noticed this to be the case during my first year at Knox. If someone had an issue with food in the caf, for example, they could write a comment card and the Director of Dining Services would address the issue and respond thoughtfully and appropriately. If the Director of Dining Services, or any other staff member for that matter, was disrespectful or didn’t address the issue, one could go to the Knox Administration and get the issue worked out.
By outsourcing, though, we as a student body no longer have this autonomy. A perfect example of this happened Fall Term with Bon Appétit. At the start of the year, students were expecting the logical system of food labelling accompanied by lists of ingredients and nutritional information that former Director of Dining Services, Helmut Mayer, had brought to campus. However, this system, or any system of labelling, was not in place. Many students wrote comment cards asking for a comprehensive and logical labelling system with reasons ranging from dietary preferences to food allergies to just wanting to know what is going into their bodies. Students wrote many comment cards addressing this issue. The responses at first were “As we move from pre-made/frozen to fresh made-from-scratch this will not be possible,” to “Have a nice break,” by the end of Fall Term. Because the Knox Administration has little if any jurisdiction over an outside company (unless the Administration is just apathetic to student suffering), there was nothing that they could have done. It was not until a “surprise” inspection by the Knox County Health Department on Jan. 21 did the first rudimentary food labels appear. If Knox instead had kept a director of Dining Services instead of outsourcing the management, an issue such as labelling would not have been handled so poorly. If there were an issue, it would have been dealt with by the sheer number of students requesting it. If students alone could not change the person’s behavior, we could address the issue with a higher up who would be a member of the Knox community instead of having to navigate a complicated corporate ladder that may not at all.
The issue of company standards is one that also relates to the loss of student autonomy. One of these company standard related issues are the replacement of napkin dispensers. Before this year, all of the napkin dispensers were Tork Xpressnaps (what you can still find in the Oak and Skylight Rooms). The napkins we had fit perfectly and made the dispensers work like a glorified tissue box. However, Bon Appétit has a certain image, and one of the ways they maintain that image is by having metal baskets as napkin dispensers at all of their locations. The student body brought up multiple concerns about the new napkin dispensers, which included everything from contamination to waterproofing. However, as the metal baskets are required as part of Bon Appétit’s company standards, we might never see our old napkin holders again. Due to a discount that Knox had with Tork, Knox bought all of the Tork XPressnaps for less than it cost Bon Appétit to buy one metal basket. This money wouldn’t have been wasted if we had not outsourced.
Knox College has a long standing commitment to human rights and social justice, from our start as a labor college, to being one of the first colleges to allow people of color to attend to being one of the first colleges to desegregate classrooms from men and women. If we are to continue this legacy, we cannot simply rest on our laurels. We need to actively push against what could be easier, or more normal. If we are to value student input on this campus and the values, needs and desires of the student body, we need to insource our assets.