Protesters carry signs as traffic passes a Chick-fil-A restaurant Aug. 1 in Little Rock, Ark.
• Some students, others don’t want the embattled business on campus
BROOKINGS – Starting in August 2013, South Dakota State University will have a Chick-fil-A restaurant inside its student union.
But some people on campus – and off campus – say the restaurant would detract from SDSU’s stated goal of creating an inclusive community, and they want university leaders to reverse their decision to bring it here.
Doug Wermedal, associate vice president for students affairs, said results of two student surveys led SDSU to choose Chick-fil-A as one of three new restaurants to locate in the Union expansion. Students’ No. 2 pick for a restaurant there was a poultry place with a healthy focus, Wermedal said, and Chick-fil-A fits that bill. Aramark, the university’s food service provider, already works with Chick-fil-A as a franchisee on more than 90 college campuses.
Student groups specifically endorsed Chick-fil-A, including the University Food Service Advisory Committee and Student Union Advisory Committee.
But concerns were raised in March by student group Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) and other students and staff.
Wermedal said at that point, SDSU paused its plan in order to address their concerns.
Since then, Chick-fil-A has been targeted by nationwide protests after its owner, Dan Cathy, said during a June radio interview with Ken Coleman, “As it relates to society in general, I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say, ‘We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.’” Speaking to Baptist Press this summer, he restated his company’s support of the “biblical definition of the family unit.”
It has been widely publicized that Cathy and his family have given more than $2 million to organizations that promote the biblical view of marriage; some of those groups actively oppose gay rights.
• Concerns about Chick-fil-A
Josh Sulloway is an SDSU senior and co-president of GSA. He said GSA draws 10-30 students to its bi-weekly meetings and hundreds of members and supporters to its events. The group has three faculty advisers, including Jim Burns. Its stated goal is to “promote equality, education and a safe and anonymous environment for people of all sexual orientations.”
“I think the main reason that we don’t want a Chick-fil-A on our campus is because Chick-fil-A is known for donating to different organizations that obviously are known for taking away from our LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) rights,” Sulloway said.
Rachel Wilson is a junior and vice president for GSA.
“To us, it’s not so much about the fact that it’s any type of political statement that Chick-fil-A is making. It’s about what it actually stands for and how we don’t want our university to have that with their name. We want SDSU to be able to be known as inclusive to anyone,” Wilson said.
Burns, an assistant professor of teaching, learning and leadership, came to SDSU last year from Virginia and said he is quite familiar with Chick-fil-A. At the suggestion of half a dozen faculty members, he created an online petition last spring that speaks against bringing the chicken restaurant to campus (find it at www.change.org).
The petition is meant to inform people, Burns said, and its supporters have not yet planned what to do with the list of signatures and comments.
“The values they (Chick-fil-A) articulate through their CEO, Dan Cathy, really do marginalize members of the LGBT community,” Burns said.
“To me, this is not a First Amendment issue at all. It’s been presented by some people as, ‘Well, if we keep Chick-fil-A out, that’s denying them their First Amendment rights.’ That doesn’t wash with me at all. Dan Cathy is on television almost constantly; he’s in the media all the time articulating these anti-gay positions, positions that oppose marriage equality.
“But also, he speaks with his pocketbook. I mean, he’s donated millions of dollars to organizations that the Southern Poverty Law Center has classified as anti-LGBT hate groups. That’s him exercising his First Amendment rights. I don’t begrudge him that at all. I mean, I celebrate that. I think that he has every right to believe what he believes, to donate money to whomever he wants to donate money to.”
• Create inclusive community
Yet SDSU has said it wants to create an inclusive community that respects everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or other factors, and Cathy’s actions keep Chick-fil-A from being a good part of that community, Burns said.
He noted that SDSU is not the only campus where Chick-fil-A faces opposition: Students and staff at several schools have been either trying to keep it off their campus or asking that already-functioning campus restaurants be removed. According to a July 25 story in the Argus Leader, the University of South Dakota is one of these schools.
This spring, Burns met with Wermedal, SDSU’s chief diversity officer, and Aramark representatives to discuss the issue. He’s also talked with the Faculty Senate and Student Affairs members.
Burns said his goal is to invite people to participate in the dialogue and to learn from each other.
“What we need is some critical dialogue to try and build some consensus on ‘Well, what does this mean? What does this mean for the university community? What are our values and beliefs?’”
• Popular on campuses
In its own search of the issue, SDSU found that of the 90-plus campus Chick-fil-A restaurants, 83 percent are at large, state institutions similar to SDSU. That includes the University of Minnesota, which Wermedal said has a very active LGBT community.
“So, the conclusion is, if it can be successful and coexist with active LGBT communities on a number of other campuses, we should be able to achieve that same balance at SDSU,” he said.
The university also checked into national litigation against Chick-fil-A, Wermedal said, and found no successful lawsuit ever accused the company of discriminatory practices against employees or customers.
Many on campus continue to support bringing in Chick-fil-A, Wermedal noted, including the editorial staff of student newspaper The Collegian and executive officers of the Students’ Association.
• Moving forward
Burns, Sulloway and Wilson said they will continue the discussion this fall.
Sulloway said his cause at SDSU had hundreds of supporters even before the Chick-fil-A conversation became a national once this summer. Since then, more supporters have come forward, he said.
As of Tuesday, Burns’ petition had more than 200 signatures.
Sulloway said once he and other students are back on campus, they’ll work together to develop a plan of action for addressing the issue.
Wermedal said the Union site has been designed for Chick-fil-A, including food prep areas, equipment, storefront materials, support space and product holding spaces. Canceling the agreement with Chick-fil-A would change the timeline for having a restaurant there. But, that doesn’t mean the conversation is over.
“We’re always going to listen, always,” he said. “It’s not going to be one of those things, ‘Well, we’ve designed the facility this way and, because (of that), we’re just done.’ That day isn’t going to come. But, in terms of the ability of the university to move with ease from one outcome to another outcome, there are limitations there.”
As for building an inclusive and respectful community, that is SDSU’s desire, Wermedal added.
“If the emphasis is on inclusion and tolerance, our country has language in the Constitution that talks about those things,” he said, “and it centers in the free speech amendment.
“At its very heart, what inclusion and tolerance means is the ability to hear opinions divergent from your own and respectfully engage whatever debate emerges from that. … For your voice to be heard, the opposition must be as well.”
• Framework in place
Wermedal said a framework is already in place for students and others to voice their opinion on such issues.
The campus governance includes a faculty senate, student senate, professional staff advisory committee and career service staff advisory committee, plus 20-some standing committees that have charges in certain areas of campus operation.
But, the Chick-fil-A discussion has the potential to revitalize the process that allows voices to be heard.
“In fact, those forums were engaged – Student Senate worked with it, Faculty Senate reviewed it as well. That doesn’t mean that we’re done talking. And, what Jim (Burns) is talking about makes perfect sense to me.
“If nothing else, it is a revitalizing of those bodies as a way to engage these issues, and that’s great. And I want to applaud Jim and the GSA students and advisers, because I think they’ve engaged this issue sincerely; I think they have worked to make sure their voices are heard, and I think they have revitalized the notion of a campus introspection into decisions like this, and that’s worthwhile.”
Contact Charis Prunty at cprunty@-brookingsregister.com.