Howard University is one of the top five Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the country and has a long history of contributing to progressive black movements such as the Civil Rights Movement and the reparations movement.
But a controversial decision by the university to grant an exclusive contract to Sodexho Marriott Services, the largest food service provider to universities across the nation, has raised eyebrows in the black community and prompted criticism by faculty members who believe the university should have given the contract to a black-owned catering company.
Howard University has been accused by faculty, such as Dr. Mary Hoover, professor of education, of paying an undisclosed amount to Sodexho, a catering service they say that is, at best, mediocre. Hoover said that she hired a black catering service for an off campus event for 100 people and paid $500 for a delicious cuisine.
Despite repeated requests, Henry Jackson, Howard’s interim Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer-Treasurer, refused to say how much the university is paying Sodexho for catering services.
“The rates paid are competitive with those in the marketplace, as evaluated during the selection process,” he said.
The university began its relationship with Sodexho on June 1, 2000 when it signed the contract with the catering company after a bidding process in which other food service contractors took part. A selection committee was assembled, which included students, faculty and staff who reviewed the proposals and recommended Sodexho.
“Howard University welcomes and embraces utilization of African-American services in all of its business activities,” said Jackson.
He did not say however why the university did not do so when choosing a catering service.
Jackson and Margo Vickers, Assistant to the Senior Vice President/Chief Financial Officer-Treasurer, stated that Howard pays Sodexho for specific services that vary from year to year.
In addition, Sodexho’s major shareholder is the France-based Sodexho Alliance, which in turn is the largest shareholder of the Corrections Corporation of America, the largest for-profit prison business in the United States.
The CCA is the nation’s largest provider of corrections and detention management services to government agencies, with 65 facilities in 21 states including Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico. More than 53,000 prisoners are currently incarcerated in the company’s prisons, a disproportionate amount being minorities.
Sodexho Alliance has only recently divested itself of the CCA after national student pressure. But Sodexho Alliance still owns prisons abroad, are involved with 91 prison facilities in the United Kingdom, Australia, France and other countries abroad.
“Sodexho Marriott Services has assured us that it has no ownership in any part of the private or public prison industry; that its business is food service and facilities management services,” said Jackson.
Some Howard faculty members are appalled at the relationship between SMS and the university.
“Such a history of prison profit is a disgrace, given the disproportionate numbers of African –American males in prison,” said Dr. Hoover.
Students on campus have mixed reactions regarding Howard’s relationship with Sodexho.
“I don’t see the problem with Howard doing business with Sodexho because it is strictly a business relationship, which has nothing to do with their involvement in the for- profit prison trade,” said Nell Bradley, a senior, public relations major, who is also the president of Public Relations Student Society of America.
Other students on campus adamantly disagree with Howard’s choice.
“Howard University’s initial intensions should be geared towards the black community,” said Priscilla Walker, a chemistry grad student. She added that by doing business with Sodexho, despite its history with prisons, Howard officials are not living up to the university’s long tradition of social responsibility to the black community.
Howard uses Sodexho services every day for various student, faculty, and staff events. The university’s contract with the company expires on May 31, 2005, when a new bidding process will begin.