Emory University has been popping up in the news quite a bit lately. First, it was the rankings data scandal, then it was for the tradition of discrimination against Jewish students in the now-defunct dental school. And let’s not forget the most recent bout of controversy over President James Wagner’s comments on the Three-Fifths Compromise.

Now, my school has hit the internet again with the announcement that the Emory Chick-fil-A location will be removed from campus over this summer. I first heard the news yesterday afternoon in my car, listening to Erick Erickson on Atlanta’s WSB Radio. (The station later released a news story on the subject.) I was incredibly surprised. I knew the Chick-fil-A issue was controversial after the Student Government Association passed a resolution opposing its presence on campus in December.

Dean of Campus Life Dr. Ajay Nair responded with a statement denouncing Dan Cathy’s views, but refusing to remove the restaurant from campus on the grounds that competing viewpoints must be heard. He later issued a second statement, arguing that any removal of Chick-fil-A should only be done in the context of Emory Dining’s larger mission on campus, and not based solely on politics. I had thought that would eventually be the end of it, but apparently I was wrong. Having just been in the food court that morning – and seeing Chick-fil-A alive and well in person – I did not know they would be removed until I heard Mr. Erickson’s segment. After I got back to my computer that evening, I started doing some research to figure out exactly why this had happened. It appeared that the first online revelation that Chick-fil-A was getting the boot was a single March 8 tweet posted by the Emory Wheel, the independent student newspaper (to which I also contribute). As it was a Friday, and Emory was just starting its spring break, the tweet didn’t get too much play until it was picked up by numerous sources on Monday. Other sources also picked up the story today, and it has continued to spread from there.

A key point: all these stories were posted based on the single tweet and previously available online content. No new information was released by the University or the Wheel until today. After personally inquiring into the matter, I was sent the following statement from Emory University’s Senior Communications Officer:

Emory Campus Dining has not made final decisions regarding the redesign of its Cox Hall venue. 
A strategic review process is continuing with final plans for a new lineup of food vendors expected to be announced this summer. The student Food Advisory Committee at Emory (FACE) has offered extensive comment and input about student preference over the past several months as it has worked in consultation with Campus Dining officials.
The committee’s advisory work has largely supported past surveys showing that global cuisine and flavors, health conscious offerings, and competitive market pricing are all important considerations, along with sustainability. Scenarios currently endorsed by the student committee do not include a chicken restaurant or a traditional meat-and-potatoes “homestyle” station among their desired food categories.
A year-long business planning process also includes such considerations as preferential surveys, strategic planning, campus master planning, sales trends, contract requirements, and brand re-imaging.
Final decisions will be based on all the above considerations.

According to the statement, the not-yet-finalized decision to remove Chick-fil-A was handled solely by Emory Dining (which is contracted through Sodexo) and is based on student preference surveys. This is largely consistent with the statement made by the Dean of Campus Life Dr. Ajay Nair, who argued that the Emory administration would not remove the Emory Chick-fil-A based on Dan Cathy’s statements.

But what exactly went on with the student group, FACE, that contributed to the decision? FACE is an advisory committee that was recently created to work with Emory Dining to address ongoing dissatisfaction with campus dining options. The Emory Wheel released this abbreviated online story today that provides more background.

Food Advisory Committee Emory (FACE) presented three proposed floor plans for Cox Hall at a student feedback meeting on March 7, none of which contained the Chick-fil-A currently present in the building. Chick-fil-A will be eliminated as a food option in Cox Hall as part of a facelift the food court will undergo during the summer, according to David Furhman, the senior director of Emory’s Food Service Administration.
The adopted floor plan will place a pizza and pasta venue where Chick-fil-A currently resides.

FACE evaluates food offerings based on six criteria (according to the same article): 1) menu variety and “flavor profiles”, 2) quality, 3) commitments to sustainability, 4) “brand ethos” and consistency with the University Department of Campus Life’s core values, 5) survey data on Emory University community preferences, and 6) other business and financial considerations. While it’s interesting that FACE simply removed Chick-fil-A from consideration outright, the Wheel did attempt to provide some justification:

Furhman said the decision to remove Chick-fil-A from all three of the proposed floor plans was based solely on student feedback that his office has received through a series of surveys and focus groups. The removal of Chick-fil-A was not a politically motivated move, nor was it spurred by the outcries against it that have taken place on campus, Furhman said.
“What we learned was that there was no great affinity or love for Chick-fil-A,” Furhman said. “It was more of an affinity or love of the convenience, and what students also told us was that they didn’t really love Chick-fil-A.”

Chick-fil-A did not meet Campus Life and student values, according to College sophomore Karoline Porcello, a FACE co-chair. She also specified that Chick-fil-A’s values were not the deciding factor in the removal of Chick-fil-A, though she said they were a contributing factor.

Fuhrman again cites community preference (criteria 5 above) as the major factor: Emory community members who ate there didn’t really care about the restaurant itself, but just wanted to grab a quick sandwich and go. While the controversy played a role (under criteria 4), it wasn’t the final deciding factor.

But the argument that Emory community members were simply looking for fast sandwiches, and didn’t really like Chick-fil-A anyway, doesn’t seem to stand up to scrutiny. Emory Dining offers a range of pre-wrapped sandwiches, salad, sushi, cheese and vegetable cups, and other healthy grab-and-go options. All one must do is walk to the opposite side of the food court to find them. You don’t even have to go to the physical food court location – there are over half a dozen other food locations all over campus that offer similar grab-and-go items. (Some options are more expensive, but surely a dollar or two more is a small price to pay for upholding one’s principles.)

This leads me to believe that if people were eating at Chick-fil-A, they had to make an intentional decision to go there. If Dan Cathy’s statements were in fact something that soured the Emory community’s opinion of Chick-fil-A, that opinion certainly wasn’t sour enough to stop everyone from eating there – it is not uncommon to see lines form near their food court counter during meal hours with people waiting for the next batch of sandwiches or biscuits. And the material culture of Chick-fil-a – bags, wrappers, and containers – is still frequently seen in the hands of students and staff.

The protest culture against Chick-fil-A has been extremely strong on campus. The Chick-fil-A issue has made regular (largely negative) appearances in the Wheel since Cathy made his statements last summer. Protests were held on campus, and the restaurant’s presence attained a level of pervasive awareness even among the students least engaged with LGBT issues. Further, in February, the Wheel released this story that highlighted the ongoing Chick-fil-A controversy as new food options were first being considered:

College junior and Emory Pride President Dohyun Ahn, though, said he feels confident Chick-fil-A won’t appear on the list of food venues because the chain doesn’t meet Emory’s values.
“[Nair’s letter] restates our values and what we believe in, and how certain vendors really just don’t fit,” Ahn said.
Nair’s statement acknowledges that Cathy’s public positions don’t reflect Emory’s goals of access, inclusion and equity, though Nair further notes that the University also supports Cathy’s freedom of expression. Still, Nair wrote in his statement that some differences in opinion are truly irreconcilable, and the University must acknowledge opposing views.
The stance of the LGBT committee, though, remains the same. “Chick-fil-A has made their hostility toward gay people clear,” said Andy Ratto, a fourth-year student in the Laney Graduate School and a member of the committee. “It will be a victory for the Emory community … when they are removed from campus.”

NewDavidGiffinIconThe crux of the issue is the FACE organization’s six criteria for evaluating dining options. Specifically, the criterion that food vendors on campus must be aligned with the values of the Emory University Department of Campus Life (which is openly supportive of LGBT individuals and groups) created a huge opening for student leaders to push for the restaurant’s removal through the FACE committee format. The other stated argument – that Chick-fil-a is not preferred by the community – seems to fail on closer analysis.

The group could make any other plausible claim – that the food was unhealthy or not of sufficient quality, for example, or even that the foil-lined sandwich bags are not environmentally sustainable – but thus far they haven’t seemed to do so.

The ultimate takeaway is that the Emory administration, for all it has been critiqued this past year, actually has its hands clean on this issue. It was the input of the FACE student advisory group that prompted Emory Dining to slate the Emory Chick-fil-A for removal. If the proposed changes are finalized, then it will be the student body culture that is ultimately responsible for the loss of the Emory Chick-fil-A location – for better or for worse.

David Giffin | Emory University | @D_Giffin