Ky. Voices: UK guided by one goal on dining services: what is best for students

Tim Tracy, left, is the interim provost and Eric Monday is the executive vice president for finance and administration at the University of Kentucky.
Tim Tracy, left, is the interim provost and Eric Monday is the executive vice president for finance and administration at the University of Kentucky.

Only one goal should drive the University of Kentucky's decision regarding the future of campus dining services: What's best for its students and others who work on or visit the campus.

With that goal ever present, a number of people — students, local food producers and the Herald-Leader — have thoughtfully raised questions about this issue.

That dialogue should, and will continue. A cross-section of university faculty, staff and students continue as a committee to research this issue with the hopes of making a recommendation to the university in the next few months.

As part of that deliberation, the committee has held forums with concerned citizens and students as well as dining employees, a process of transparency and dialogue that will continue.

Jaci Carfagno's June 23 column continues the discussion. Unfortunately, Carfagno seems to reach the conclusion that it's wrong for UK to even consider options for improving dining services — an odd conclusion to reach for an institution such as a newspaper that values inquiry.

And in doing so, she gives short shrift to several facts that have been on the table for some time. A few things to consider:

First, UK has committed explicitly that no matter what path we take with dining services — whether continuing to operate in-house or turning to a third party — local food sources and Kentucky Proud have to be an important part of the equation.

Carfagno, for example, leaves out the fact that two institutions, Berea College and the University of Louisville, use third-party vendors for dining services. And both of them buy more local food as a percentage of purchases than UK currently does with its in-house operation.

Second, we agree with Carfagno and others who have voiced support for existing food operations on campus like the student-run Lemon Tree Restaurant and the growing partnership with our College of Agriculture and the popular butcher shop we operate on campus. We are committed to maintaining those operations and partnerships. In fact, we want to enhance them.

Third, we also have made explicit commitments to our current full-time employees that they will have jobs, no matter which route we take with dining services. We also will continue to provide employment and rich educational opportunities for our students.

Finally, there is no question that UK's push to revitalize its residence hall system and to build new, high-tech classrooms, labs and research space have accelerated our need to consider the future of our dining operation.

Carfagno seems to equate this push with some commoditized view of higher education, where the pursuit of money is exalted above the values of learning, knowledge and discovery.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

We are building new residence halls for two reasons: the average age of our living spaces is more than 50 years old. They are outdated and in some cases not readily accessible.

More importantly, though, there is an inescapable fact: students do better — several percentage points better in retention — when they live on campus. They graduate at higher rates and become more involved in the life of the campus.

Is there a financial imperative to that? No question. But more importantly, there is an educational and moral imperative, as well. It's what's best for UK and the commonwealth.

So, too, is our push to expand, renovate and build modern classrooms, laboratories and research space, something Carfagno dismisses as nothing more than a push for "cool new classrooms" and "labs for scientists who bring in big grants."

Yes, we believe UK should have classrooms as technologically and educationally advanced as those found in high schools and other institutions of higher learning.And, yes, we believe that research and discovery into scourges like cancer, heart disease and oral health diseases — debilitating illnesses we unfortunately lead the country in — are at the heart of our mission as a land-grant, flagship university.

Indeed, such pursuits and discoveries are part of who we are. They are values we have shared for nearly 150 years. And we won't stop with that push. Again, it's what is right for our students and for our state.

So is a commitment to asking questions and digging deep for the answers. We should be willing to have such a debate — not shut it down.

We should be willing to go wherever that inquiry takes us — particularly if our real goal is doing what's best for our students.

At issue: June 23 column by Herald-Leader editorial writer Jaci Carfagno, "Keep it local: Entrepreneurial campus food services feeding, teaching, investing"

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