UT’s forced food fee draws scrutiny

Excerpt from a New York Times article earlier this month on the University of Tennessee’s new $300 food fee:

For the first time this year, the University of Tennessee imposed a $300-per-semester dining fee on Mr. Miceli and about 12,000 other undergraduates, including commuters, who do not purchase other meal plans. The extra money will help finance a $177 million student union with limestone cornices, clay-tiled roofing and copper gutters, part of a campus reconstruction plan aimed at elevating the University of Tennessee to a “Top 25” public university.

Tennessee’s contract with its dining vendor, Aramark, is just one example of how universities nationwide are embracing increasingly lucrative deals with giant dining contractors, who offer commissions and signing bonuses to help pay for campus improvements and academic programs. It is part of a new model of raising money through partnerships with private vendors, officials say, and with state funding for higher education still below pre-recession levels, a way to replace lost revenue.

Under its contract, which runs through 2027, Tennessee will get 14 percent of all food revenues plus $15.2 million in renovations to dining facilities.

In exchange for signing a 20-year contract that runs through 2034, the University of Virginia recently got a $70 million contribution from Aramark, based in Philadelphia — in addition to $19 million in renovations and annual commissions increasing to $19 million a year.

…Universities frequently announce the windfalls with great fanfare, but critics say the cost gets passed on to students and contributes to the expense of college.

…Administrators here at the University of Tennessee, where a $1,899-per-semester meal plan is mandatory for freshmen who live on campus, first floated the requirement that other students buy a $300-per-semester meal plan at a meeting two years ago. Grant Davis, a student who attended the meeting, at which Aramark served lobster ravioli, said, “We knew we were being greased.”

Students protested the plan, garnering more than 1,000 signatures practically overnight on a petition titled “Don’t Force Feed Us.”

Phase 1 of the new student union building, heralded as the cornerstone of a campus transformation, opened this year, with a Chick-fil-A, Subway, Qdoba Mexican Grill, Starbucks and several other restaurants.

Students can get refunds if they do not eat the food, but experience at other schools shows that most succumb to the fast-food temptations.

Mr. Miceli, a senior from Dandridge, Tenn., intends to ask for a refund. Even so, he said, he regards the money as a loan to the university that he could not afford.

Former Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe, in his Shopper-News column, offers some commentary after citing the article:

One has to wonder about the fairness of charging students and adding to their college costs for services they do not seek or use.

…The state Legislature may decide to enact a ban on mandatory fees for unwanted meals. It is not a lot different from workers at a plant who do not belong to a union being required to pay the equivalent of union fees. That triggered Tennessee’s right to work law many years ago.