Eric N. Monday: Public-private partnership on UK campus dining will serve all

February 11, 2014 

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

University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto last week directed our purchasing division to begin negotiating with potential vendors toward the goal of developing a public-private partnership for dining services.

We hope to complete that agreement for his consideration this spring.

Apart from the editorials, debate and useful and important dialogue, one question has driven this process and our decision to move forward: What's the best thing to do for students, their success while they are at UK and our entire community?

Today, despite the tireless efforts of an exemplary staff, we don't have the capacity to offer students and others the combination of food options, healthy choices, convenient hours and facilities they have repeatedly told us they want and that other universities offer.

In short, we don't meet their needs. And, as a result, we aren't doing all we can to maximize student success. We can do better. We must.

We know that students learn better and do better when they live on campus. They are retained and graduate at rates several percentage points higher than students who do not live on campus.

So, how we house students and how we take care of them — including how we feed them — is a critical part of student success.

For the last several months, teams of administrators, faculty, staff and students have reviewed our existing operations. They have traveled to other campuses to examine their dining services. They have analyzed and questioned proposals from potential partners.

The reality is that we must adapt as we grow and as the needs and desires of our campus community change and expand.

What does a public-private partnership offer that an internal operation does not? And what commitments must be made and maintained for us to move forward?

Here are the facts:

■ Students have told us repeatedly, in surveys and anecdotally, that they want more healthy food choices and expanded venues than we currently offer. We must be responsive to those needs.

■ After visiting with several other campuses that have moved to dining public-private partnerships, we can and will strengthen and enhance relationships with local food growers and locally sourced food options. We can preserve what is best about our long-time commitment to service and our land-grant mission.

■ A public-private partnership can help us improve existing commitments to Kentucky Proud and initiatives such as the Butcher Shop and Lemon Tree Restaurant that provide students and others with valuable opportunities.

■ We are adding thousands of modern residence hall beds on our campus right now with the expectation of many more students living at UK in the coming years. Indeed, we will house over 21 percent more students in fall 2014 than we did in fall 2013.

■ A partnership with a vendor with expertise in this area offers the opportunity for millions of dollars in facility investment over the next several years. We simply do not have that capacity internally. Nor can we expect the taxpayers of this state to foot the bill.

■ Any agreement with a private partner will contain explicit assurances to student employees and the continued employment of our 109 valuable team members who were at UK as of February 2013.

There is proof to back up the ambitious goals and the desired commitments.

All but two of Kentucky's public universities have already chosen this path.

In addition, 10 of our 14 SEC sister campuses have chosen this path — often with pronounced enhancements in food offerings and expanded healthy choices and facility development that also improve the campus learning environment.

We must, however, develop a Kentucky partnership that honors this university's values and needs. That is the goal as we move forward with negotiations.

It is an unwavering expectation we will have of any potential public-private partner. They will help us maintain our commitments. They will help us continue to honor our values as an institution. We must now seek an agreement — with tough, explicit expectations outlined in a management and operating contract — that help us ensure those commitments.

During the past several months, we have endeavored to be responsive to questions and concerns and accountable in how we have communicated to the campus and community. That will continue. At the point where we finalize such an agreement, assuming we are successful in these negotiations, those final, executed documents will be open for all to review.

The debate and dialogue on this critical issue will continue. It should. Such discourse is also one of our values. But we should also remain firmly fixed on the most important question we are trying to answer: What is best for our students and those we serve?

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

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