Student Business, Campus Life

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It was a quiet, rainy day at McGill when Devin Alfaro, just out of his last exam of the semester, walked into the Caférama on the first floor of the university’s William Shatner student centre.

Two weeks earlier, in early April, the café was at the centre of a battle over campus business. Caférama will not renew its lease this summer, so the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU), which manages the space, was faced with a decision: rent it to students, who would operate a non-profit café, or rent it to another private vendor. Although leasing the space to a student-run business would fulfill SSMU’s obligation to prioritize student needs, a privately-operated tenant would provide a reliable cash flow to the student union.

“It was a marathon meeting,” recalled Alfaro, a third-year undergraduate and arts representative on SSMU council. “It started in the early evening and lasted until three in the morning, and the vote was close.”

Ultimately, SSMU voted 13-12 to lease the café space to an outside business. Alfaro was one of the council members who voted against the student proposals, not because he was opposed to the idea of student business on campus, but because the three student proposals that had been submitted were simply unfeasible.

The strongest bid came from Midnight Kitchen, a volunteer-run collective that provides free vegan lunches to students. Along with serving lunch, it would have used the café space to sell coffee and pastries, but this proved too modest for SSMU, which was looking for a full-service café.

Food services and other businesses at Canadian universities are becoming increasingly centralized. Every year, new undergraduate students are being met with restaurants, cafeterias and bookstores run by corporate franchisees, and many complain of high prices and a lack of choice in product offering. This is especially true at McGill, Montreal’s oldest university, which has systematically closed many of its student-operated businesses over the past several years.

In many cases, student businesses can better cater to the student market by providing lower prices, a wider variety of niche products (including organic or vegan food) and an atmosphere that is conducive to social interaction. Often, student businesses favour local suppliers, which forges links between the university and the surrounding community. They also give students a chance to participate in the management of a business – similar to how student newspapers offer a crash course in news media.

As SSMU’s decision to rent its space to a private vendor suggests, however, even McGill’s students are having a hard time seeing the advantages of student business. Some, like Alfaro, blame the university’s administration for discouraging student ventures.

“It’s difficult to get started up when McGill is so hostile to it,” he said. “Our relationship with the administration really complicates things. They really limit how we can advertise on campus and so on. A big part of it is that universities are so underfunded in Quebec, so if anything money-making is happening on campus, McGill wants to be the one that is making that money.”

Haven Books is one example. Founded in 2002 by Carleton University students, it aims to provide a more affordable alternative to university-run bookstores by selling used textbooks on consignment. Two years ago, it opened a branch on Aylmer Street near the McGill campus, and it was bought last year by SSMU, which advertises it as an alternative to the university bookstore’s “long lines and unscrupulous gouging.”

Despite high hopes, though, Haven Books has failed to break even, and most students continue to buy their books at the McGill Bookstore, which is owned by the university. Some SSMU members blame McGill’s administration.

“When we start something like Haven they’ll do what they can to sabotage it,” said Alfaro. “They’re smart enough not to leave a paper trail, but we figure that the upper administration has made it clear to the deans, who have made it clear to their faculty members, that they are not to order books from Haven.”

Morton Mendelson, McGill’s deputy provost of student life and learning, denied the charge, insisting that no directive has been made to faculty members to avoid ordering from Haven. He also justified the university’s centralized approach to campus business by pointing out that much of the money it earns is invested in maintenance and university services.

“The only way a university can function is by having a broad and reliable source of revenue,” he said. “The businesses on campus contribute to some extent to the bottom line, but by and large, the university-run businesses are there to provide services. There’s profit in the bookstore, but that profit in recent years has gone towards bursaries.”

Haven Books, he added, “is capable of competing in a free market” like Paragraphe, The Word or any of the other booksellers that compete directly with the McGill Bookstore.

But McGill isn’t a free market: SSMU and other student associations are not allowed to compete with the university’s own business ventures, such as the cafeterias operated by Chartwells, a subsidiary of Compass Group Canada.

That policy nearly forced the closure last fall of the Architecture Café, a popular student-run coffee shop in McGill’s School of Architecture. Last-minute negotiations in September allowed the café to remain open by becoming part of the university’s food services operation. Prices went up, and the café is overseen by a central food services manager, but it remains essentially a business run by and for students. Earlier this year, architecture students renovated the café as part of a class project.

“It was a bit of a challenge working with [Food Services] at first,” said Jessica Dan, the president of the Architecture Students’ Association. “But they’ve learned to back off a bit and now things are more or less the same as before.”

For the most part, however, compromises like that are rare at McGill. Architecture Café aside, the university’s student-run businesses are on the verge of becoming extinct. Devin Alfaro, for one, is pessimistic about their chances of ever thriving.

“McGill is going towards a more private-sector, corporate model of governance. They’re leaving that old collegiality behind,” he said. “I don’t think that bodes well for undergraduates.”

An opinion piece derived from this story was published in the Montreal Gazette on May 29, 2008. Read it here.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Thursday May 29 2008at 01:05 pm , filed under Asia Pacific, Society and Culture and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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