When a group of Ohio State University students interrupted an OSU Board of Trustees meeting on April 7, the timing was perfect for causing maximum embarrassment to the university’s administration.
While 22 members of the of the Student/Farmworker Alliance and Real Food OSU waited in the back of the conference room at the Longaberger Alumni House, board members and students gave glowing reports of OSU’s philanthropic programs. The College of Dentistry gives free care to underserved communities with the Ohio Project. The Buckeye Civic Engagement Connection provides tutoring for student athletes at East High School.
Then university president Michael Drake gave his annual report to the board, waxing eloquent about OSU’s service to the community and connecting it to swelling enrollment in recent years. But before he finished, PhD student Henry Anton Peller interrupted him.
“President Drake neglected to mention an important issue on Ohio State’s campus!” Peller shouted. “The university leases a space in the Wexner Medical Center to Wendy’s, a fast-food corporation profiting from human rights abuses of farmworkers in their supply chain.”
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has been asking Wendy’s for four years to join its Fair Food Program. Fourteen of the largest U.S. food corporations have joined to ensure fair wages and better working conditions for farmworkers. By ending the lease contract, OSU would add to the pressure on Wendy’s to join this program.
“Instead, OSU continues to be complicit in Wendy’s exploitation,” Peller said. “Two years ago OSU added a clause to the contract stating that Wendy’s must meet the concerns of the Student/Farmworker Alliance. However, the contract was extended this past November, even though our concerns have not been met. Our concerns will only be met when Wendy’s signs on to the Fair Food Program.”
“Keep your word!” the protesters chanted as they were escorted out of the building.
Undergraduate student Reyna Lusson said that she finds the administration's refusal to cut the Wendy’s contract “deplorable and inexcusable. I challenge President Drake to imagine a world where the foods that we eat are harvested with dignity and justice,” she said.
Philanthropy is a useful tool for wealthy, powerful institutions. The Ohio Project and the Buckeye Civic Engagement Connection cost OSU very little; most of the work is done by unpaid student volunteers. But these programs fuel the university’s public relations machine to promote OSU to donors and prospective students as a “socially responsible” university.
Philanthropy is easier (and more profitable) than promoting the kind of systemic change that would make philanthropy unnecessary. In recent years OSU has relentlessly pursued neoliberal policies that reduce wages for its own workers. A shameful example was laying off its janitorial staff — who received a living wage and good benefits — and replacing them with low-paid contract workers with no benefits.
Wendy’s, the corporate ally whose interests OSU is protecting, does the same thing: touting its charitable programs to boost its public image while continuing to exploit its own employees and the farmworkers in its supply chain.
OSU’s administration is not interested in terminating its lucrative contract with Wendy’s and severing those corporate ties. Wendy’s was a corporate sponsor of OSU athletics for over 20 years until 2007. No doubt the university wants to keep its options open for renewing that relationship.
The Student/Farmworker Alliance and Real Food OSU are determined to keep exposing the university’s real priorities to the public consciousness. “Ohio State is on the wrong side of history,” Reyna Lusson said. “If Ohio State continues to conduct business with Wendy’s, instead of addressing the needs and rights of farmworkers, we will not be going away. We refuse to stand idly by while our university president can get a raise and lifetime benefits for condoning human rights violations!”