In June 2009, after Luther College students had left for the summer the administration announced they were outsourcing the college’s Dining Services to Sodexo, a French-based multinational food service provider. Students were understandably dismayed by the seeming secrecy behind the decision and my son, Ben, has been a year-long leader in giving voices to student (and other campus community) discontent. You can read a more complete story about this here and you can reach Ben’s online petition here. Below is my letter to the College.
An Open Letter to Luther College: A Slightly Bitter Sense of Gratitude
April 29, 2010
Dear President Torgerson, administrative officers, and members of the Board of Regents,
First, a word of thanks. Four years ago I entrusted you with my son, hopeful that his time as a student at Luther would be as rewarding to him as were the fours years I spent there teaching. I think I can say that this has been true. Ben has grown academically and matured in character—and exceptionally so on both counts.
So I am grateful.
But I must confess to a measure of bitterness over the final lesson you are teaching Ben: that his voice is not needed or wanted, that his insights are without merit, and that his passion for justice is not welcome around the issue of Sodexo.
In the summer of 2006, as Ben readied himself to begin classes at Luther, along with the rest of his entering class, he read Tracy Kidder’s moving portrait of Paul Farmer’s work in Haiti (Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World). Perhaps some of you have read it, too.
Kidder recounts Farmer’s own description of his work as “fighting the long defeat.” Farmer’s point is that, in full recognition of the systemic forces that will almost surely render his efforts for the people of Haiti futile in the long run, he chooses, nonetheless, to “make common cause with the loser.”
Ironically, it seems that four years later you have taken it upon yourselves to make certain that the persistent efforts of Ben (and certainly others) allow him to participate firsthand in “the long defeat” regarding the future of dining services at Luther. Perhaps I should be purely grateful that you so effectively bring his education full circle in his last months at Luther, but my feelings are mixed.
I will be the first to admit that situations are always more complex than they seem on the surface. But when it comes to the world of multinational corporations those complexities, whether seen or unseen, typically take their greatest toll on the planet and its less powerful inhabitants.
As a liberal arts college—and doubly as a college of the church—Luther has an obligation to model not just clarity of thought in its decisions, but also a wideness and depth of thought that goes beyond the bottom line. And a commitment to listen to the voices so often silenced throughout human history.
To be frank, a commitment to sustainability rings pretty hollow when offset by an alliance with a company based in France employing a third of a million people worldwide and with a well-substantiated reputation for paying poverty wages, settling multimillion dollar lawsuits for racial bias, engaging in union-busting activities, and creating a pervasive climate of fear in the workplace.
And that doesn’t even begin to address the strange disconnect of bringing Michael Pollen and his message about the intrinsic dignity of food and the imperative of sustainable eating to campus just weeks before renewing the contract with Sodexo. Forgive my view from the outside, but the timing of that decision seems determined foremost to close off any community conversation and to insure that the commitment to outsource the food on Luther’s plate, unsustainable and unjustifiable though it be, can outlast the initial year of discontent and take its place as simply status quo.
A short jaunt around the cleanupsodexo.org website will give you plenty to think about. But only if you remember that when “complexity” is invoked as a defense by those who hold great power (as it surely would be by Sodexo’s spokespeople), it is almost always intended to silence truth and perpetuate injustice. Luther actually teaches that pretty well in the classroom; are you equally ready to model that in the boardroom?
I am proud as any father can be of Ben’s persistence this year in raising important and critical questions (“critical” in the best sense of any liberal arts tradition) about Sodexo’s place in the Luther community. His capacity to raise those questions is a testament to the quality of education he received at Luther. And his willingness to “fight the long defeat” on this issue is a testament to the character that Luther helped evoke in him.
So, I am honestly thankful for all that you have taught Ben over the past fours years, but I do need to add that right now that gratitude is leaving a bitter taste in my mouth.
David R. Weiss
Luther Religion faculty, 1998-2002