When Trent’s founding president, Tom Symons, visited my third-year public history course last summer he shared an anecdote about instructions he once gave to famed Canadian architect Ron Thom. Symons recalled that back in the early 1960s he told Thom that before any new buildings at Trent were designed, Thom needed to first take six months to consult with the students, faculty, and the wider community in order to better understand their a values, visions, and expectations.
As incredible as this sounds, these instructions can be taken as an example of Symons’ commitment to fostering “governance through consensus building” at Trent University, an ideal that has historically distinguished Trent from other Canadian universities.
Fast forward 50 years and many have accused more recent Trent administrations of abandoning these principles in favour of a more authoritarian, top-down approach to governance.
This cannot be said, however, of the process to develop the university’s recently released foodservice Request for Proposals (RFP). In this case, Trent administrators and faculty chose to adhere to, as former Trent vice-president Dennis Smith calls it, “the time consuming, sometimes repetitive,” process of consultative planning. Members of the Foodservice Review Committee deserve credit for helping revive the ethos of community collaboration and consensus building at this university in regards to a major policy decision.
The RFP process is one which the Trent administration could have easily botched. With university coming to the end of its frustrating 15-year contract with Aramark Canada, how simple, dare I say cost-efficient, would it have been to simply revise the old RFP and put out a tender for another stable, low risk, long term contract? Thankfully, this was not the chosen path. Instead, the Foodservice Review Committee launched a process that succeeded in involving students and community members in the decision making process.
In addition to sitting both college and TCSA student representatives amongst its membership the review committee also sought input from the wider student population by holding open forums, information and tabling sessions throughout the planning phase of the project. While not always well attended, these sessions were well-publicized and productive as community members were encouraged to share their own foodservice visions for Trent.
Furthermore, the process saw the creation of two exceptional student-led research documents, the Trent Central Student Association’s Raw Deal document and OPIRG Peterborough’s Food Policy Proposal, both of which were given significant weight in the RFP discussions. Speaking with review committee member and former TCSA executive Tessa Nasca, she noted that not only were those documents given consideration during the planning of the RFP, they were also distributed to the prospective bidders as a way of familiarizing themselves with the expectations of Trent students.
In addition, the review committee seemed to be aware of the sheer magnitude of the Trent community’s desire for change in the foodservice arrangement. The recent report by consultant Mark Murdoch indicates that there was real interest shown by the committee in investigating the feasibility of an ‘in house’ model, a desire brought up time and time again by students during the consultations.
Unfortunately, as indicated by Murdoch’s report, Trent is not currently in the financial situation to pursue this model. Nonetheless, this option was given serious consideration, coupled with the fact that the university has wisely opted not to shackle themselves into another longterm contract— the RFP sets the contract term at five years, plus possible extensions— means that the ‘in house’ model may well become a viable alternative sometime in the not-so-distant future.
Was the process perfect? No. The initial third-party report prepared by Toronto-based consultancy firm fsStrategy drew a barrage of well-deserved criticism from student groups: first for being needlessly withheld by the administration, then for inaccuracies in its portrayal of Trent’s current foodservice situation (a fact which might explain why it was withheld in the first place). Following this criticism, however, the committee chose not to shrink away from the spotlight and instead responded by reaching out to the community. Furthermore, it chose to commission a second consultancy report, from a different firm, which provided analysis and recommendations more in line with the expectations of the Trent community.
There is no way to predict whether the upcoming contract will give students and community members everything that they want from their foodservice. However, it is clear that the RFP represents a significant step forward in terms of embodying the values that Trent students see both in themselves and in their university. While only time will tell whether the contract will be considered a success, the RFP process was conducted in a way that reinforces the ideas of collaboration and consensus building envisaged by Tom Symons in 1964. Given that it’s almost 50 years later, this should be taken as a victory in and of itself.