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PSA descends on Office of the President

Claire Heininger | Thursday, April 15, 2004

Hunger-striking students who approached the office of University President Father Edward Malloy Wednesday afternoon seeking comment about Notre Dame’s contract with Taco Bell were told that it is not Malloy’s “style” to issue a spontaneous statement, but were invited to speak with Counselor to the President Father Peter Jarret on Malloy’s behalf.

About 30 members of the Progressive Student Alliance arrived at Malloy’s office to deliver several copies of a letter asking the administration to issue a public statement against renewing its current marketing relationship with the restaurant, on the grounds of alleged unfair wages and labor standards held by Taco Bell’s tomato providers. After speaking initially with administrative assistant Susan Barnett, who informed them that Malloy was unavailable, several of the students remained outside the office doors.

Chandra Johnson, assistant to the president, said she noticed Barnett having a conversation with Jarret and decided to brief the students about Malloy’s standard practice.

“I know he’s not going to come out because historically he doesn’t do that,” Johnson told the group. “That’s not his style.”

Johnson said later that although the students could not speak with the President directly, their concerns were acknowledged.

“What they wanted was a comment or statement from Father Malloy, and only Father Malloy can speak for Father Malloy,” she said. “But between myself and Father Jarret I wanted them to have someone to talk to.”

On Malloy’s request, Jarret met with representatives from the group to discuss the letter’s conditions for stopping the 3-day, 44-person hunger strike – a public confirmation that the University will not enter into further contracts with Taco Bell and its promise to make Fair Trade coffee available in both dining halls by the fall semester. In total, 100 students will participate in fasts of varying length.

Jarret said Malloy is aware the group plans to continue fasting until the University takes a public stance, but also cautioned the students about the possibility of a delayed statement or no statement at all.

“I was just trying to be truthful,” he said, adding that while the administration is interested in the students’ information and concerns, it must await a response from Taco Bell before making any judgment.

“Out of fairness and prudence we at least need Taco Bell’s side of the situation before we make a statement,” he said.

Taco Bell’s side of the situation should be forthcoming, said vice president and general counsel Carol Kaesebier, who has held meetings with PSA members since the fall 2003 semester and sent a letter to the corporation on March 5.

Kaesebier said students provided her with written materials indicating their correspondence with both Taco Bell and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers – the group involved in the tomato-pickers dispute – and that the general counsel’s letter came as a result.

When she sent the letter, Kaesebier said she explained to the students that the University would “be happy to indicate that we’re reviewing the situation but wouldn’t say we won’t do business with [Taco Bell],” she said. “That suggests that Taco Bell is wrong, and we didn’t have all of the information.”

On the students’ request, Kaesebier also placed a call Wednesday to the letter’s intended recipient, but was unable to reach Taco Bell. Kaesebier said she anticipated a response today about when the University should expect an answer, but stressed there has been no indication by either Notre Dame or Taco Bell of intent to renew the contract, which is up at the end of this semester.

Jarret also pointed out the contract is essentially “dormant,” as all requirements have been fulfilled.

While Kaesebier said she was not surprised by the time it had taken representatives to respond because Taco Bell is a “big business,” students involved in the hunger strike said they hoped the University would renounce ties with the corporation based on its past defenses, such as the letter Taco Bell provided to student protesters on April 2.

“I think if it’s important to [the University], then they should hear Taco Bell’s point of view, but we already know how Taco Bell’s going to respond,” said Melody Gonzalez, one of the students who met with Jarret.

Fellow PSA member Brigitte Gynther agreed, calling the waiting period a “delay tactic” and saying that she expected Notre Dame to take a more active role in soliciting a response.

“The least the University can do is pressure Taco Bell,” she said.

Gonzalez said she and the PSA have been delivering similar letters and e-mails to Malloy for the past two weeks. Kate Kennedy, also on the hunger strike, said Malloy had acknowledged her inquiries.

“He’s responded – so he’s definitely been aware of the situation,” she said.

Though the PSA never made an official appointment with the president, Gynther said the decision to approach Malloy’s office came after exhausting other options.

“We’ve tried non-confrontational methods, scheduled meetings with lawyers,” she said. “He’s had an ample amount of time.”

Gonzalez said that PSA members had realistic expectations of Malloy’s appearance Wednesday, but emphasized the importance of making their presence felt.

“We didn’t really expect him to come out right then and there, but we wanted him to know we’re there,” she said. “We just wanted him to see us.”

Despite students’ initial reluctance to meet with him instead of Malloy, Jarret offered a positive assessment of his conversation.

“Hopefully it’s a very good relationship in terms of we’re trying to listen to their concerns and take them seriously,” he said. “But there’s a difference between listening to them and using prudence in our actions … [and] it may take a little patience from both sides.”