UK inclusive in discussing food services

November 18, 2013 

Eric N. Monday is vice president for finance and administration at the University of Kentucky.

  • At issue: Nov. 8 Herald-Leader editorial, "Best to keep food in the UK family; But school has set table to outsource"

When an issue involves how best to serve thousands of students, faculty and staff with a vital service like food, you should expect debate and even disagreement about the best outcome.

But there should be some agreement — based on dispassionate analysis — regarding the basic facts in question. However, in the case of the University of Kentucky's exploration of how to create the best possible dining service, it's that examination of basic facts where, respectfully, the Herald-Leader repeatedly falls short in fairly and accurately describing the process to its readers.

There is only one goal that the administrators, faculty, students and staff involved in this process have — creating the best possible dining operation to serve not only the campus community but the broader community that uses this critical service.

But unfortunately, the Herald-Leader — now opining at least twice on a decision that hasn't even been made yet — apparently doesn't believe we should be even asking the question about how to enhance dining services at UK.

To be sure, the university is growing, educating a record number of students, creating thousands of new jobs and generating millions in revenues for local and state governments through new construction.

And, indeed, that growth is reinforcing the imperative to examine how we expand and enhance dining services. That's to be expected. We're feeding more people. But we're also trying to figure out how to be more responsive to all our stakeholders. To that end, we're examining whether we can expand food choices, create healthier food options and more convenient ones.

And we also are asking, in a time of continued economic constraint, whether a business partner with private equity and capacity could bring investment to the table to improve antiquated facilities that nearly everyone agrees need to be updated or replaced.

The Herald-Leader believes asking such questions is troubling. I call it responsible.

Moreover, as part of our process, we've taken the time to engage in deep and respectful dialogue through a series of open forums with interested members of the campus and broader community.

We've gained valuable insights from those forums and have incorporated many of the suggestions we've heard into the recent request we made for formal proposals.

If a decision is, ultimately, made by President Eli Capilouto to negotiate with a private business partner, we have created explicit protections for our current employees.

We are committed to ensuring opportunities for student employees, maintaining partnerships with the College of Agriculture as part of our land-grant mission and explicitly insisting on a commitment to using locally sourced food and the Kentucky Proud program.

Many of those provisions are a direct reflection of the ongoing conversations we've had with the community. And they underscore our commitment to transparency, continued communication and truly listening.

Other institutions have undergone similar processes. There are universities that successfully utilize in-house dining services. And there are many institutions that have successfully gone to public-private partnerships. Ask 10 of the 14 universities in the Southeastern Conference, including land-grant institutions — universities like Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Texas A&M, LSU and Mississippi State — that work with partners to provide dining services.

Of course, you don't have to go that far.

Six of the eight public universities in the commonwealth work with business partners for dining service. UK and Murray State are the only two that do not. Or you can drive a few miles down the road to Berea College, an institution known for its strong connections to history and the land, to examine how an institution partners with a private business and, at the same time, is purchasing more locally sourced food as a percentage than we currently do.

The truth is whatever path we take we will have to find ways to enhance the service we provide for a growing community that wants and deserves more options for food service.

That will require firm management and strict oversight — something the Herald-Leader apparently doesn't believe is possible, although as a large, private business the newspaper presumably has relationships with scores of vendors it manages every day to specific performance expectations.

The University of Kentucky, no matter what path we take, should be able to do the same thing.

That means insisting on a fair and inclusive process. But it also means being willing to ask questions and going wherever the answers take us. It's unfortunate the Herald-Leader, which encourages necessary discourse and debate on a host of important issues, so passionately wants to discourage such a process this time.

At issue: Nov. 8 Herald-Leader editorial, "Best to keep food in the UK family; But school has set table to outsource"

Eric N. Monday is vice president for finance and administration at the University of Kentucky.

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