OSU breaks faith with students (again), ignores unanimous student government resolution, renews Wendy’s lease…

Students at the Ohio State University protest outside the Wendy’s at the Wexner Medical Center calling for the removal of the fast-food chain from campus as part of a coordinated national Week of Action in April 2021.

Ohio State University students, in open letter to University leaders: “… it has become increasingly clear that to the Ohio State administration, student voice means absolutely nothing… Ohio State has betrayed students once again and chosen to be complicit in the exploitation of the farmworkers who feed their entire campus, and this country, for up to five more years.”  

As long-time readers of this site know, we have chronicled the countless twists and turns of the Wendy’s Boycott — celebrating the campaign’s many victories, and making sense of its occasional setbacks — for over five years now.  The news out of Ohio State University last week falls into the latter category, of course, but, as you’ll see below, we join the students there in struggling to make sense out of what seems, by any measure, to be an arbitrary, and unnecessarily callous, decision by the OSU administration.  

Two weeks ago, after many months of mounting student, alumni and community pressure not to renew the lease for the Wendy’s restaurant on campus due to Wendy’s refusal to join the Fair Food Program  pressure that included the unanimous passage of an Undergraduate Student Government resolution just last month — Ohio State University released a perfunctory statement announcing its decision to extend the lease for up to five more years.  The announcement, the latest entry in a disconcerting track record of the university’s refusal to take students’ demands for human rights seriously, was made abruptly, on the brink of an ongoing dialogue on the issue among OSU Student/Farmworker Alliance members, student government leaders, and administration representatives, and a full month before the Wendy’s lease was set to expire. 

In response to the University’s decision, OSU SFA penned a powerful letter to OSU administrators, thoroughly capturing the students’ profound frustration at the administration’s utter disregard for student participation in important procurement decisions at their University.  But perhaps most importantly, the students’ letter doubles down on their unwavering commitment to hold the administration  and Wendy’s  accountable for the fast-food giant’s refusal to join the Fair Food Program, the universally recognized gold standard for human rights in the food industry, next semester.

Below is the students’ letter, in full: 

Ohio State University Betrays Students, Renews Wendy’s Lease

Last week, in an unconscionable move OSU blindsided students with the announcement of its decision to renew its lease for the Wendy’s at the Wexner Medical Center. The announcement  — eerily similar to Ohio State University’s cowardly betrayal of students four years ago —  cemented the University’s complacency in farmworker exploitation and complete disregard for the voice of the entire undergraduate student body. 

The renewal, which took place less than a month before the lease for the Wendy’s on-campus at Ohio State was set to expire and extends it for up to another five years, came just after a unanimous Undergraduate Student Government resolution calling for the administration to not renew its contract due to Wendy’s ongoing refusal to join the award-winning Fair Food Program (FFP). What’s worse, OSU admin broke the news on June 1, one day before their scheduled meeting with student government representatives and OSU SFA about the Wendy’s contract.  Rather than facing students and their elected representatives, in the same email OSU administrators informed students of the lease renewal they canceled their planned meeting.

Though brief, the official University’s statement on the matter paints a clear picture of what OSU truly values most, and it certainly is not popular student opinion or the lives of essential workers. Yet, while the administration may have slammed the door in students’ faces over our concerns for farmworkers’ human rights, we refuse to let them have the last word. Below, we break down the statement, sentence by sentence, to better analyze exactly what kind of decision Ohio State made last week: 

“Ohio State is committed to social responsibility and actively supports fair treatment of workers.” 

In stark contrast to the overwhelming number of academic studies and expert testimony that demonstrate the unique efficacy of the Fair Food Program, OSU’s claim is supported by virtually no evidence. The FFP was cited in 2020 as the emerging “gold standard” in social responsibility programs in a 10-year, independent study by Harvard-incubated NGO MSI Integrity; was awarded the “Presidential Medal for Extraordinary Efforts to Combat Human Trafficking” by the Obama/Biden administration in 2015; and in 2017 was counted among the 15 “most important social-impact success stories of the past century” by the Harvard Business Review. 

However, Ohio State continually chooses to ignore the clear superiority of the FFP when it comes to protecting protecting farmworkers from grave abuses ranging from slavery to sexual assault. We would think a University that prides itself on “creating and discovering knowledge to improve the well-being of our state, regional, national and global communities” would jump at the opportunity to support such a program. Instead, OSU drags behind its peers – our longtime rival University of Michigan, for example, removed Wendy’s from campus in 2019 – and continues to hitch its wagon to a corporate partner that values profit over people.

The university believes strongly in free speech and respects the rights of our students and others to voice their opinions.” 

The audacity of University administrators to make this statement after canceling their meeting with us within 24 hours before it was to occur, is frankly infuriating. Perhaps Ohio State defines the “rights of students to voice their opinions” differently than we do, but to us this involves actually listening to students. “Respect” does not look like suddenly canceling a meeting for which we had been preparing for a month in advance — a meeting that we had asked repeatedly to be scheduled earlier — and then rejecting students’ requests to go forward with the meeting. In no part of this lease renewal process were our opinions as students ever heard by the University, and given the decision the University made, our opinions certainly were not respected. We can only conclude that even OSU doesn’t see their decision or their process as defensible, given that the University did not even have the courage to face students after renewing the contract.

In fact, if anything, it has become increasingly clear that to the Ohio State administration, student voice means absolutely nothing. This March, the Undergraduate Student Government unanimously voted in support of removing Wendy’s from campus, a resolution which represents the 46,000+ students at Ohio State. This builds upon generations of Ohio State students who have demonstrated, marched, and even fasted for 7 days to demand OSU cut its Wendy’s contract. Our very own Student Body President and Vice President have stated it is a high priority for their cabinet to end Ohio State’s relationship with Wendy’s. It is important to note, our USG Vice President and President, as well as the senators, are elected democratically by the student body, which is not the case for a single administrator or President Kristina Johnson. Instead, choosing the President of the University is the responsibility of our University Board of Trustees, themselves chosen by the Governor of Ohio. Nowhere in this process do students have meaningful decision-making power. Therefore, for Ohio State University to hear and “respect” student voices, it is essential they listen to the students themselves and those whom the students have elected to represent them. Yet, when the administration decided to renew the Wendy’s lease on June 1, it did the complete opposite of what students have been asking them to do since 2014. 

“The Student Farmworker Alliance is aware of Ohio State’s position and efforts, and university officials have met with the group numerous times over the years.”

OSU SFA was not aware of OSU’s position on the current lease renewal; we were notified about it in an email the same day this statement was published on Ohio State’s website. Not only did Ohio State presume to speak for OSU SFA after canceling a meeting with us, but the administration has the nerve to say that they know exactly what we, as current students, think, and where we stand–they don’t, nor could they, since they cancelled their meeting with us. In fact, in the last year, OSU administration has met with students on this issue only one time for 30 minutes, in which OSU officials spent a majority of the time attempting to derail the conversation and convince students to pick a “different strategy” aside from removing Wendy’s from campus, rather than discuss the urgent human rights issues at stake. Further, past meetings were all characterized by the same attempts from administration to dismiss, belittle, and silence students’ legitimate concerns. 

In the last three years, the Ohio State administration has changed, and we were hopeful that change would bring with it a real respect for both student voice and human rights at OSU. However, If this new set of University leaders, including President Kristina Johnson, think a single 30-minute meeting is sufficient to adequately hear students’ voices, this paints a disturbing picture of how little value the administration places on student voice at OSU. 

“Since 2017, the university has worked closely with Wendy’s to review its sourcing and labor practices and confirmed that Wendy’s existing supplier code of conduct meets or exceeds requirements for assurance that our lessees actively support university values.” 

The best response to this statement comes from a former professor at Ohio State, James Brudney, professor of labor law at the Moritz College of Law from 1992 to 2011, and a member of the Ohio State University Labor Advisory Committee for the final ten years of his service. In his op-ed published in the The Lantern a few years ago, he skillfully breaks down the difference between the Fair Food Program and Wendy’s voluntary Supplier Code of Conduct. 

“By contrast [with the Fair Food Program], the 2017 Wendy’s code for its suppliers—many operating in Mexico—is entirely voluntary. The document is filled with hortatory statements that carry no consequences for non-compliance: what Wendy’s “expects” of its suppliers (e.g. “our suppliers are expected to fairly compensate” their employees; “we expect our suppliers to provide a work environment free of discrimination and harassment”) and how Wendy’s thinks its suppliers “should” treat their workers (e.g. “our suppliers should not utilize” forced labor; “our suppliers should ensure all employees work in compliance with applicable laws and regulations”).  

The Wendy’s approach — a voluntary corporate code of conduct, backed by corporate self-monitoring — has for many years been dismissed as inadequate with respect to supply chain production.  Countless studies and reports—by human rights specialists, international organizations, and scholars—confirm that internal corporate monitoring effectively invites suppliers to engage in deceptive practices… Sadly, voluntary codes like the one promulgated by Wendy’s are too often little more than a sham.” 

Also, it is absurd that OSU claims to have “worked closely with Wendy’s to review its sourcing and labor practices” The idea that the Ohio State administration views themselves as the right entity to conduct sufficient audits or systematically evaluate Wendy’s supply chain makes no sense–especially when farmworkers, the true experts about their own rights and dignity, disagree. OSU’s stance is even in contrast even to a recent letter published by Wall Street investors representing $1 trillion in assets who, alongside six elected state treasurers, sent a letter to Wendy’s demanding the company join the Fair Food Program because Wendy’s own supplier code of conduct cannot provide the same level of protection as the FFP. It is an insult to students and farmworkers that Ohio State thinks its own unqualified assurance is sufficient to satisfy growing demands to boot Wendy’s from campus, especially when the lives of real people are at stake. 

“The Wexner Medical Center decided to renew its lease with Wendy’s for up to another 5 years.”

With this statement, any semblance of OSU’s façade of caring about student voice, or its own self-professed values of creating “distinctive and internationally recognized contributions to the advancement of fundamental knowledge and scholarship and toward solutions of the world’s most pressing problems” and “integrity, transparency, and trust,” evaporates.

 Extending the lease for five years is an obvious tactic to try to delay the next contract renewal until all students currently attending OSU have graduated, in the hopes OSU can continue to ignore their students in favor of this corporate partnership.  

The University administration cannot spin this decision as anything else but what it is: Once again choosing its corporate partnerships and profits over its own students, and over the right and moral choice readily available to OSU. Though the entire statement is full of shallow attempts by Ohio State to trick students into thinking it cares about their voice and social responsibility, the truth is irrefutable. Ohio State has betrayed students once again and chosen to be complicit in the exploitation of the farmworkers who feed their entire campus, and this country, for up to five more years.