Ithaca College President ignores ethics

By Mark Harrison, TNC contributing writer

Protesters at Ithaca College (in New York State) relinquished control of the Administration Office last December--ending a 39-hour sit-in--when officials agreed to review the school's food service policy and contract with Sodexho Marriott Services (SMS). President Peggy Williams announced her decision to retain the contract with SMS on March 19, 2001 in a statement that ignored the ethical question of forcing students to support the scandal-ridden private prison company, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), with their food dollars.

Students spend $1.2 billion nationwide on food provided by SMS. Parent company Sodexho Alliance is the principle investor in CCA. Low wages and poor training have led to a 70 percent turnover rate in the prison company's security personnel--a new staff every 18 months--that has resulted in prisoner abuse, escape and neglect. Ironically, though not surprisingly, CCA lobbies for tougher sentencing laws and gave $353,106 to 95 candidates in 16 states in 1998 to effect an increase in prison population, according to a report by the Western Prison Project. CCA also has influence in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-wing organization, whose members include almost half the state legislature, that pushes for privatized prisons and harsher punishment for criminals

Dr. Peggy Williams explained in her statement that the Ithaca administration had met the "terms of the agreement" negotiated with the Young Democratic Socialists (YDS), the organization that staged the sit-in. She expressed the students' concerns to Sodexho Alliance CEO Pierre Bellon in a letter approved by the protestors and Bellon responded. "Despite the very low CCA share price, I am personally involved in looking for buyers and committed to divesting as soon as possible." But Bellon has otherwise acknowledged that CCA is too vulnerable financially to sustain a withdrawal of Sodexho support. Kevin Pranis of Not With Our Money!, the organization opposing Sodexho Marriott Services in 400-plus campuses in the U.S. and Canada, believes Bellon has no intention of divesting and is only stalling to diffuse unrest on campuses and more negative publicity. Pranis says that most schools have a 90-day termination clause and that students and faculty should give the world's largest institutional caterer an ultimatum: divest from CCA or terminate the food service contract.

President Williams has studied the issue to her satisfaction. "Ithaca College administration has conducted extensive research on the issue of private prisons and the relationship of SMS and its parent company, Sodexho Alliance, to the private prison industry." The "extensive research" the president speaks of was done "with open minds, in the spirit of academic inquiry, without any predetermined outcome." Independent and objective specialists were consulted. "We engaged outside experts to provide us with objective information on and analysis of criminal justice issues and prison privatization as well as insights into the food service industry and the implications of different possible decisions." Among the "experts" that Williams consulted with were Professor Michael Jacobson of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice; Strategic Communications, a research and public affairs firm; and John Cornyn of the Cornyn Fasano Group, a food service management consulting firm. It's not surprising that these "objective" experts supported President Williams in her decision to continue funding prisons for profit with student food dollars.

The students' call to terminate Ithaca's contract with SMS was rejected, but pressure continues to mount for the food provider on campuses nationwide as rallies and other direct actions are cosponsored by numerous organizations that include Not With Our Money!, Prison Moratorium Project, Young Democratic Socialists, The TEA (Teaching Educational Activism) Society, The African-American Student Union, Food Not Bombs, Solidarity and Unity Now and others.

Ithaca College President Williams reasoned in her statement that she could not justify spending more college funds searching for a new food service provider, yet the Young Democratic Socialists at Ithaca point out that the college spends over $480,000 each year on the president's office.