By Megan Lupo
The Rider administration’s decision to exclude Chick-fil-A as a possible campus restaurant because of the company’s conservative “corporate values” without student consultation garnered national and local media attention over the Thanksgiving break.
Administrators “concluded that due to Rider University’s values and goals which explicitly include efforts to promote the inclusion for all people, we are uncomfortable pursuing Chick-fil-A at this time in that their corporate values have not sufficiently progressed enough to align with those of Rider,” according to the email sent Nov. 1 to the campus community by Rider’s Vice President for Student Affairs Leanna Fenneberg, Vice President for Facilities and University Operations Michael Reca and Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs Jan Friedman-Krupnick.
According to Fenneberg, the removal of Chick-fil-A as a contender was made at cabinet level because “it was a complex issue and decision. We wanted to make an institutional decision that crossed everybody and all stakeholders of the leadership of the campus. We had a really in-depth conversation about all the benefits and limitations and concerns, and weighed all of the factors to be able to make our decision.”
Despite the fact that no students were present for the actual discussion and verdict, Fenneberg said that students were involved in voicing their thoughts about possible new restaurants through survey data and on food committees, leading up to the final administration meeting.
In addition, Fenneberg said, the administration received contact from students, faculty and staff, expressing their sentiments about having Chick-fil-A on campus, as well as meeting with Spectrum, an LGBTQ+ advocacy organization, to hear their concerns.
“We had informed voices from the campus community before making the decision,” Fenneberg said in a Nov. 27 interview with The Rider News.
Friedman-Krupnick emphasized the importance of ensuring that everyone on campus has a sense of belonging.
“[Chick-fil-A] have come out publicly, and they have contributed to organizations that have been anti-LGBTQ, so that doesn’t align with our wanting to have a place where people feel comfortable and that Rider is a place that’s inclusive and welcoming,” Friedman-Krupnick said in an interview with The Rider News on Nov. 12.
Print and broadcast news outlets that reported on Rider’s decision include Fox News, The Washington Times, The Daily Caller and PhillyVoice. Each media group appeared to criticize the administration’s explanation, citing that it was the students’ first pick in student surveys from previous semesters.
Fenneberg said she did not anticipate the level of scrutiny regarding this decision, yet she said she was dismayed by the information presented.
“One of the misperceptions in the national media that I’ve been frustrated with is that when authors have said ‘Students have demanded this or requested this’ or ‘The survey said it so [the administration] should’ve done it,’ I would just hope that people would understand that it was one of many factors weighed with any decision that we make with a partnership or with a vendor or an institutional decision,” Fenneberg said. “We completely value student feedback — that’s why we seek it but it’s not the only driving factor. There’s always a multitude of things that we’re balancing when we’re trying to make a decision.”
In 2016 and 2017 surveys conducted by Aramark, Chick-fil-A was the top choice of both lists, according to Friedman-Krupnick.
National media interest was sparked by a Nov. 20 Campus Reform article written by junior accounting major and president of Rider’s Turning Point USA Joshua Aminov.
“The reason I felt this article needed to be published is because universities around the country are constantly teaching all of their students not to be biased, yet Rider had no hesitation in saying they disagree with Chick-fil-A’s values and, for that reason, won’t pursue a partnership with them on campus,” Aminov said. “I hope that Rider’s administration learns to respect the majority of voices in our school and will not become a beacon of influence for the few radical leftists on campus.”
Due to the backlash, University President Gregory Dell’Omo and Fenneberg sent out an email in response to the Rider community the day after Thanksgiving, when the university was closed.
That email explained that due to Chick-fil-A’s controversial perception to be in opposition to the LGBTQ+ community, the company was eliminated from the list to adhere to the university’s mission toward inclusion, although the fast food restaurant was included in previous surveys.
Fenneberg explained that the purpose of this email was to address the “misperception and misinformation [that students might have gathered from the brief explanation of the Chick-fil-A issue in the Nov. 1 email] by providing a little bit more detail about what we meant about the values and congruence.”
Acknowledging that the choices made were “imperfect,” the email deduced that the school “decided to lean in the direction of creating a welcoming environment where differences can be appreciated and where each individual can expect to experience dignity and respect,” while recognizing that every organization and person has a right to express their own beliefs.
In response to the media attention, Dell’Omo announced a campus forum would be hosted by the Center for Diversity and Inclusion to allow students, faculty and staff of different perspectives on this complex issue to engage in discourse, according to the email. The date and location were to be determined, but Fenneberg noted the forum would ultimately not change the administration’s decision.
There was no discussion of hosting a student forum prior to the Nov. 1 email, regarding the administration’s reasoning of Chick-fil-A, according to Fenneberg.
“It wasn’t a situation where attendees at a forum could vote on the issue. It was an institutional decision that was going to weigh a number of factors— student desire, price point, fiscal models for the food service, facilities related to food service and, in this case, values that were important to us,” Fenneberg said. “Although members of the community want to weigh in, and we want to value all those perspectives, it wasn’t a situation where that kind of forum at that point of the decision could inform the decision.”
The email stated that “as an institution of higher learning, we believe strongly in the open exchange of ideas and positions — especially around a complex issue such as this one.”
Although this was what was written to Rider’s community, Aminov said that the administration’s actual stance on free speech is hypocritical and limiting.
“In my opinion, the university only encourages free thinking as long as students think the way they want them to,” Aminov said. “Being in a blue state like New Jersey, it is very likely that most of the people who voted for Chick-Fil-A were also left-leaning, which just goes to show that most students don’t take interest in mixing politics with what they eat.”
Although freshman arts administration major Terence Rumer agreed that everyone should be able to hold their views, he said that his personal values don’t match with Chick-fil-A, and he agreed with the administration in their choice to exclude the chain on their list.
Rumer, who doesn’t identify as conservative and vowed to never eat at Chick-fil-A, said, “I think it was smart. I’m not a member of the LGBTQ+ community, but my parents are.”
Although the university had arranged for politicians like Newt Gingrich, who opposed same-sex marriage, and Dinesh D’ Souza, who had a history of anti-LGBTQ remarks, within the past two years for Rebovich Institute events, Rumer doesn’t believe there is a connection between this and the situation with Chick-fil-A.
“There’s a difference between speakers and groups and actual affiliation. Instead of listening [to one set of beliefs at an event], you’re talking about grouping [together everyone’s beliefs into one],” Rumer said. “I wouldn’t even call it welcoming Chick-fil-A, but it’s working with Chick-fil-A.”
Reca echoed this sentiment.
“This is going to a contract with someone for a long-term relationship,” Reca said. “To just come in and have somebody speak about a different view or a different position is one thing, but to get into a relationship, a contractual relationship, with someone that we didn’t feel was aligned with our values is a whole different thing.”
However, not everyone saw the actions as two separate concerns.
John Modica, ‘18, advocated that consideration should be given in every area, as to prevent the erasure of marginalized voices.
“A community needs to consider the space it is creating for its members, whether it is allowing them to feel seen. There is a politics to remaining silent about something that affects the lived experience of others” Modica said. “I don’t have the luxury of going somewhere and not being gay. I don’t think a homophobic anything should be able to go anywhere without being reminded of it’s homophobia.”
As the 2017-18 Student Government Association (SGA) president, Modica was part of a series of conversations last year with the administration about improving food options when the possibility of Chick-fil-A was brought up, which was a popular suggestion amongst students, according to Modica.
Modica said he was originally in support of having the restaurant on campus, as he believed the university was making more substantial strides in becoming an LGBTQ+ friendly institution in other areas, like policy and programming.
“I should have been less concerned with the food and more concerned with the food’s politics,” Modica said.
According to Fenneberg, the intention of the forum is not to bring Chick-fil-A back as an option, as the university is standing behind their decision stated in the Nov. 1 email.
“It’s an educational and conversational dialogue opportunity for people to share different views in a respectful environment and seek understanding or, at least appreciation, that other people have views that are differing,” Fenneberg said.
Rumer was satisfied knowing that the decision to exclude Chick-fil-A would not be revoked.
“I certainly know there would be a lot of Rider students not eating at it,” Rumer said. “I know Rider students will take a stand. There would definitely be a backing of students that would take an offense against Chick-fil-A.”