Aramark Corp. CEO Joseph Neubauer’s recent $25-million donation to the U of C should be welcome news to everyone on campus. However, while we commend the Neubauer Family Foundation’s generosity, the gift further complicates a relationship between his company and the University’s main governing body that is already too close for comfort.
As a member of the Board of Trustees, Neubauer sits on the Student and Campus Life Committee, which, among other things, oversees campus dining issues. For the executive of the company that is the sole provider of food services for the U of C, this constitutes a conflict of interest.
Neubauer joined the board in 1992, two years after Aramark was first awarded the food services contract. In 1996, in the midst of a campus debate over whether to replace Aramark, Neubauer made a much publicized $1.5-million donation to the GSB. While both sides vehemently denied any connection between the donation and the contract, the timing raised eyebrows.
Since then, his foundation has made gifts of $10 million in 2002 and now $25 million. All of this casts serious doubt on the University’s ability to guarantee fair competition when Aramark’s current contract runs out in 2009.
As any student who has tasted Pierce’s Chicken Kiev or cringed at the exorbitant prices at Bart Mart understands, the current campus dining system is far from perfect. The contract’s expiration, along with the construction of the new dormitory, provides an opportunity to make serious changes to a flawed system—changes that might involve opening the dining system to other competitors. Ideas such as the creation of a more open dining system, in which students can use flex dollars at neighborhood establishments and student-run coffee shops, should be back on the table for discussion. While commonplace at many schools, such a setup is prohibited by the terms of the current contract.
Neubauer’s business expertise makes him a valuable contributor to the board’s stated goal of providing “financial support, as well as leadership in fundraising, to sustain the University’s progress.” But as the Board’s statutes acknowledge, sometimes the appearance of impropriety is just as dangerous as impropriety itself.