A Dish Best Served Cold

An alumnus with a grudge wreaks havoc by requiring a college to tenure its food service workers. Lee Williams surveys the carnage.

February 2, 2010

It was during my job interview here at Stovetop College that I first heard about the quirky little tradition that makes us unusual, and to be honest, it was a real selling point for me, being a populist kind of history professor looking for her first tenure-track job. As I walked across the Lawn, I was thinking about the conversation in which my soon-to-be-department chair had told me about it, three short years ago.

"Yes,” she said. “It’s an oddity. I believe we’re the only college in America, maybe the world, that tenures its food services workers.”

At first, I thought I hadn’t heard her correctly. But as she went on to explain the history of this arrangement, I found myself charmed by this small liberal arts college in the middle of nowhere.

As the story goes, she told me, we had an alumnus who, through some smart investing in a California tech firm, had accumulated an enormous fortune. But then, being in California and all, this fellow, whose name was Edgar H. Carson, converted to Buddhism and decided to give it all away. Since Stovetop was apparently near and dear to his heart, he offered a gift -- $75 million up front, and another million a year in perpetuity, to do whatever the college wanted. The endowment at the time was around $20 million, so this was pretty unbelievable.

Carson attached one string. It seems that when he was a student here in the ‘60s, he was keenly disappointed in one particular professor who often missed class, showed up drunk, and harassed the women in the class -- the whole nine yards. When Carson, who at the time was just a sophomore, approached the department chair to complain, he was told, “There’s really nothing I can do. He has tenure.”

So Carson vowed that, if given the chance, he would rid Stovetop of tenure and, in doing so, assure future students that such faculty would not be able to make them miserable.

Of course, in 1985, when he offered the gift with the stipulation that tenure be abolished, the president told him we could never do such a thing. But $75 million! Imagine turning that down! Carson offered a compromise, which the president, without a second thought as to the consequences, accepted: tenure food services employees in addition to faculty.

Why? It turned out Carson had worked in the dining hall for three years, and felt that our food services employees, of whom he had grown very fond, were treated quite badly by the institution. One particular dishwasher, an older woman who occasionally invited Carson to join her family for Sunday dinner, was fired in an effort to appease an unhappy student who also worked there -- itself a long story.

And so here was Stovetop College, with a beautiful rec center, state-of-the-art technology, well-paid faculty…and tenured and tenure-track food services employees.

I couldn’t possibly pass up an opportunity to work at such an innovative (and well-off) institution, and so I accepted Stovetop’s offer of employment without hesitation, imagining a career of teaching capable students in well-equipped classrooms at the heart of maybe the most egalitarian college community in America.

Or so I thought.

It was a rainy April afternoon as I made my way across campus to a meeting of the Food Services Tenure Review Committee (FSTRC). I had been appointed to the committee at the start of my second year at Stovetop, no doubt due to my effusive appreciation of the whole idea. I was thrilled then, but after two years on this committee, found myself counting the days until the end of my three-year term.

Let me put it this way. You know the saying about faculty infighting? “The knives are so sharp because the stakes are so low”? Well, on the FSTRC, “sharp knives” is not a metaphor.

One of the stipulations demanded by the committee that designed the entire process of awarding tenure to food services employees was that a faculty member would always serve on the FSTRC, ostensibly to assure some “academic” quality control, and that was why I took my seat at the conference room table.

I poured a cup of fresh-brewed shade-grown Costa Rican coffee from the carafe in front of me, and snatched some fresh-baked Danish almond anisette cookies off one of the platters in the center of the table (obviously, these meetings always had the best meeting snacks on campus, given that, as dictated in the Food Services Tenure Manual, the director of food services and three tenured food service employees -- a cook, a line server, and a dish engineer, among others -- sat on the committee).

“We’re all here,” the director, Steve, said. “Why don’t we get started on the agenda?” He passed out a summary of the career accomplishments of two food services workers: Roberta, a line server, and Albert, a cook. Both Roberta and Albert had been in their positions for six years, and their egg timers of tenure were about to ding.

I swallowed a bite of cookie and sighed deeply as the battle commenced.

I used to believe that Edgar H. Carson had never really understood the ins and outs of higher education, academic life, “guaranteed lifetime employment,” and all the nuanced subterfuge of faculty politics, and that it was out of naiveté that he had offered his compromise.

But now I realize that Carson understood more than any of us exactly what a system of tenure could render in an otherwise humble organization like food services. I realize now that back in 1985, Carson still harbored a 20-year old grudge against a professor and the institution that was powerless to hold that instructor accountable, and that Carson’s very clever form of revenge was to subject us to more misery than any college, even a small, private, wealthy liberal arts college, deserves.

“Let’s start with Roberta,” Steve said, and pulled her thick tenure file from his briefcase. “You should have reviewed the material already. Solid recommendations from the other line servers. Student evals are stellar,” he continued, reading from the file. " ‘Roberta’s portions are always fair… she always greets me enthusiastically… she laughs at our jokes about mystery meat, unlike some line servers who get really defensive… she never lectures about eating vegetables, which I appreciate, because I hate lectures.’ ”

He went on. “Three solid letters from external reviewers that attest to the quality of her work. Apparently, she has a real knack for switching out food pans at the right moment, and when she presented a paper on this topic at a regional conference, it was standing-room-only and received rave reviews. She’s also written two articles, with one more in press, on plate presentation. This one, ‘Ratio, Proportion, Nutrition: A Postmodern Analysis of the Balanced Look/Balanced Meal Argument,’ was published in the American Food Services Personnel’s leading journal, which has only a nine percent acceptance rate.

“A recommendation from the head server concurs with all of this, with a special note that Roberta has always shown exceptional banquet leadership, taking on the difficult chafing dish role.

“Are there any concerns about Roberta at all? I mean, this is as solid a file as we get.”

“I have a question, Steve,” said Allison, Stovetop’s personnel director. “We’ve got five current tenured line servers, and two more come up next year. If we tenure Roberta, we’ll be looking at a department that’s 75 percent tenured with two more possibles next spring. Do you really want that a department that’s that heavily tenured?“

“Damn it, Allison!” It was Ned, the dish engineer rep. “We go through this every meeting! You can’t punish someone just because you’ve made bad decisions about others in the past. She deserves tenure! She’s not the problem. The problem is the wimps who served on this committee before us who capitulated and politicked and buckled under pressure and tenured two servers who should not have been.”

“It’s true,” I said. “And now we pay the price every day at lunch when our Tater Tots roll off our plates because they’re not well-placed and our green bean casserole juices run into our fish sticks.”

Allison shuddered and then glared at me. “Don’t go there, please. But you’re right, Ned. I understand that. It’s just that tenuring Roberta leaves little flexibility within the department to hire in the future, and I think that shifting enrollments might require us to hire more counter staff for the Taco Bell in the Student Union. And I’m not sure she’s willing to retool herself. She’s very committed to line serving, and that’s fast becoming too narrow a field. Sure, she goes deep. But we need broad.”

More discussion ensued, but after 45 minutes, Steve called for a vote. Roberta was awarded tenure by a 6-3 vote. Barring any unexpected interference from the provost (who, just last year, overturned us on a mealcard checker who had apparently lied on her C.V. -- who knew? The case is now in the courts), Roberta could look forward to a lifetime of serving students.

Now I was the one who shuddered. She would be working shoulder-to-shoulder with two tenured line servers who were miserable in their jobs but unable to get hired elsewhere, were woefully out-of-date on current food serving technique and research, and invested the majority of their energy in sabotaging the authority of both the head of serving and the Food Services director. They were a pathetic pair of institutional critics who, in faculty parlance, would be called “dead wood.” In food services, though, they’re known as “salad spinners.”

The discussion then turned to Albert. “Look,” said Ned, tearing open four packs of sugar and dumping them into his coffee, “this is a no-brainer. Albert’s a good guy, the students like him, we all like him. But he’s phyllo-dough thin in the research area, and like it or not, that matters here.”

“Oh come on!” yelled Ramon, the cook rep. “He’s doing some great things with four-cheese lasagna!”

“Four cheese?” countered Lou, the server rep who up until then had been silent. “Cooks at our peer institutions are offering up seven, sometimes eight cheese lasagnas, as well as alternative ravioli fillings -- portabello mushrooms, tofu, which Albert won’t touch -- ‘too trendy,’ he told me. Four cheese lasagna? That is so ‘90s.”

“Except that one of the cheeses is asiago,” defended Ramon. “No one else is working with asiago in institutional food services. Look, the thing you have to understand is that sometimes research needs time to gestate. I don’t think we can fully anticipate the impact that Albert’s work might have in five years … 10 years. Besides, he’s been incredibly loyal to this college. He comes to football games!”

“We don’t tenure on loyalty, Ramon!” insisted Steve. “That leads to mediocrity. You know what you call a college with loyal, but mediocre staff? Underenrolled!” No one said so, but we were all thinking of another school in our state, Aloe Vera College, a tiny Catholic college that had suffered a trichinosis outbreak due to careless kitchen techniques. That slippery slope led to AVC’s loss of accreditation three years later, and ultimately to their current enrollment crisis. It was a scenario we could all imagine happening if we were careless in our decisions.

The afternoon was late, and Steve ended up tabling the discussion of Albert’s file for the night, after we agreed to meet at 7 a.m. the next day. I silently cursed at the prospect of yet another meeting of this committee, an assignment that sucks up more time than my own research. And when my tenure decision comes, will this work matter to anyone on that committee? I have my doubts.

I grabbed one last cookie and made my way back across the Lawn. The sun had set below the ridge of Stovetop Mountain off to the west. Some students ambled by on their way to the dining hall. “Hi Professor!” they called out. I smiled at them, knowing that because of our battles in the FSTRC, or maybe in spite of them, a good dinner, well-served on clean plates, awaited them.

And I thought, too, of Edgar H. Carson. Carson died last summer, and I read in the college’s alumni magazine (Stovetop Stuffings -- not one of our best ideas) that Carson was known for his biting sense of humor and creative approach to seemingly intractable problems. No doubt about that, I said to myself.

Though we enjoyed the fruits of his generous gift, he had taken one of our most sacred institutions, tenure, and skewered it like lamb on a kabob. The joke, we all knew, but never admitted out loud, was on us.


Lee Burdette Williams is vice president for student affairs and dean of students at Wheaton College (Mass.), which is a very long distance from Stovetop College.


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