Last February, a rather intense controversy erupted at New York University over the menu offered by one dining hall as part of a Black History Month celebration. “Black History Month Menu at N.Y.U.: Kool-Aid, Watermelon and Controversy,” went the memorable New York Times headline. As reporter Maggie Astor explained, students were offended that, for a special theme menu, the Weinstein Passport Dining Hall featured “barbecue ribs, corn bread, collard greens, and two beverages with racist connotations: Kool-Aid and watermelon-flavored water.” The story was soon picked up by other large outlets, including CNN and the Independent.
Within 24 hours, Andrew Hamilton, the president of NYU, issued a stern apology. The decision by Aramark, the food-services corporation that ran the dining hall, to serve those dishes “was inexcusably insensitive,” he wrote. “That error was compounded by the insensitivity of the replies made to a student who asked Aramark staff on site how the choices were made.” Aramark was similarly decisive: “Employees at NYU who acted independently and did not follow our approved plan for the celebration of Black History Month have been terminated and are no longer with the company.”
From a publicity standpoint, the immediate action worked: The story largely left the headlines, preserved in memory as a tale of insensitive dining-hall employees and an embarrassed but ultimately righteous institution. But according to a lawsuit filed by one of the fired employees — a lawsuit backed up by convincing documentation — Aramark and NYU themselves were responsible for most aspects of the Black History Month fiasco. It appears that Aramark management, with NYU’s approval, asked managers at multiple dining halls to ask their black employees to submit menu items for the Black History Month promotion, explicitly approved the food items they chose, and then, when controversy erupted, blamed the whole thing on two staffers. Moreover, Aramark had good reason to expect the promotion would generate controversy, because a very similar one already had, at another university, less than two weeks prior. But, looked at closely, NYU’s Aramark fiasco should be seen less as an aberration at a modern, tolerant institution of higher learning — and more as a case study in what gets lost when universities behave like corporations.
By the time he was fired by Aramark in a two-sentence letter delivered to his home, Tim Hoben had been in the food-service industry for decades. The 53-year-old Hoben, who lives in his birthplace of Newburgh, New York, with his wife and daughter, first worked as dishwasher at age 14, and for the last seven-plus years had been making the four-and-a-half-hour round-trip train commute down to the Village every workday. He had served in various roles for Aramark-NYU, as the company’s NYU branch is known, and at the time of the controversy he was general manager of operations, overseeing daily operations at Weinstein dining hall and making $103,000 per year.
Aramark, a facilities, food-service, and uniforms giant which racked up $14.4 billion in sales in 2016, has earned a bad reputation over the years as a result of corporate misbehavior, both alleged and acknowledged in settlements and fines. As a major campus meal services operator, the company has also been a frequent target of criticism by student activists around the country. At NYU, this activism has often focused on Aramark’s role in the private-prison system and has been particularly intense and high stakes — there, some students have pushed university administrators to sever ties with the company altogether, as NYU decides whether to re-up its Aramark contract.
This broader controversy didn’t seem to concern Hoben much. During an October interview at the midtown office of his lawyer, Daniel Szalkiewicz, he spoke with evident pride of his tenure at NYU, where he says he spearheaded an initiative to make sure NYU’s dining services are responsive to students with special dietary needs. In May, though, he filed a lawsuit suing both Aramark and NYU for defamation, claiming that both institutions actions will, in the long run, cost him more than $5,000,000, between lost earnings, his life insurance policy, and his employer-provided health care.
Aramark and NYU both turned down opportunities to respond to Hoben’s specific claims. “This is a matter in active litigation, but the bottom line is this: these individuals were Aramark employees, not NYU employees,” said NYU spokesman John Beckman in an email. An Aramark spokeswoman said in an email: “We strongly reject this baseless claim and will vigorously defend ourselves.”
The controversy that would end Hoben’s Aramark career and spark his lawsuit began unfolding on February 14 of this year, when he was included on an email from Vincent Gentile, a senior district marketing manager at Aramark:
As some of you heard at our meeting yesterday, we are adding a more comprehensive Black History Month event to the calendar. It will be three days, lunch and dinner, with one meal at each of your locations. The calendar is attached. The idea is to have some of your employees suggest menu items (not recipes- we need to stick to Prima [the meal-planning software used by Aramark-NYU] recipes), and we will highlight these items with signage at the stations. This is designed to be an employee driven event. Please send me a menu, and information about the employee(s) who suggested these items, by COB on Friday. My apologies for the quick turnaround, but I just got approval from the client to run this event as is.
In Hoben’s complaint, the email is described as showing that the Black History Month was planned “in tandem with NYU administrators,” and that appears to be backed by the text of the email itself, which mentions the last-second approval of “the client,” which in context can only really mean NYU (and which Hoben said in our interview was a reference to NYU).
Hoben — one of 17 people to receive the email — says he didn’t pay a huge amount of attention to it, because scheduling the daily menu at Weinstein wasn’t his job. He handled other responsibilities, from administrative tasks like payroll to various “front of the house” duties at the dining hall. Meal scheduling fell to Kenny Paz, the head chef, who was also on Gentile’s email, who responded to Gentile two days later with a menu. (Paz didn’t return requests to comment for this article.)
HERE IS THE MENU FOR BLACK HISTORY MONTH.
- BBQ Ribs
- Butter Beans
- Black eye peas
- White Rice
- Braised Cabbage
- Mac & Cheese
- Mashed Yams with Marshmallows
- Corn Bread
[three lines, each with an employee’s name, redacted]
This is traditional food that we grow up in the south, that our great grandparents has passed down to us.
“FOOD FOR YOUR SOUL”
Less than an hour later, Gentile replied: “Great. Thank you.”
Another document included in Hoben’s complaint, produced once the event had been planned fully, lays out the full scope of the promotion at NYU, and supports two of Hoben’s most pivotal claims: that employees were asked by their supervisors to choose menu items, and that Weinstein was just one of many dining halls participating.
Weinstein was scheduled to be the first dining hall to participate in the Black History Month event, kicking things off with lunch on February 20. At each of the six participating dining halls, there was going to be a flyer advertising the promotion, naming the employees who chose the items, and, in at least one case (one of the menus is blank in the complaint), including a blurb in which that employee explained why she made the choice she did:
(None of the employees listed on these menus agreed to comment for the article. We’ve redacted their names to respect their privacy, since they are likely not in a position to comment openly on the controversy.)
There was reason to suspect this promotion might not go over well: As Hoben’s complaint notes, just two weeks earlier, at another Aramark campus, Loyola University Chicago, students had expressed disbelief and anger about a Black History Month dining-hall promotion. “On the menu in Damen Dining Hall: fried chicken, maple mashed sweet potatoes, collard greens and ‘black eye peas salad’ was served,” noted an article in the Loyola Phoenix. “Grape-flavored Kool-Aid was offered early in the night, but was later replaced with water and its sign hidden from diners.” One of the menu signs read “Black History Month: Try our African American cuisine popular in the African American community.” This eventually resulted in an apology posted to Facebook by Dine Loyola on February 9: “One of our core values is integrity and respect always,” the apology, which is included in Hoben’s complaint, reads in part. “The attempt to recognize and celebrate Black History Month at Damen Dining Hall was an official part of our food service promotional activities. We apologize … This is an isolated incident and we can assure you that it will not happen again.”
Since Weinstein was the first dining hall to host the promotion, it’s not a surprise that that’s where the first issues arose. At lunch service, a black student approached Hoben and asked who was responsible for the signs promoting the menu items. “He was upset about the menu,” Hoben recalled. Another Aramark-NYU employee approached to inquire what was going on, and the student indicated that he was offended by the food items on the menu. After then pointing out the items being served at the dining hall’s “hydration station” — water with watermelon floating in it and a mix of concentrated fruit punch and water — the student left, angrily. Hoben said that he repeatedly tried to engage with the student but “he didn’t want to discuss it with me — he was upset by it.”
After another complaint made to another NYU-Aramark employee, Hoben said he asked a staffer to discard the beverages, and notified Edward Gomez, his immediate supervisor. Hoben said that Gomez, in turn, told him he had done the right thing in dumping the drinks, and instructed him to send an email to Gentile, the Aramark manager, and to Tucker Flake, resident district manager for higher education, which Hoben did.
The story laid out in the text of Hoben’s complaint doesn’t address how the beverages were chosen. And that’s not a small detail: “The poor choice of beverages, which may or may not have been approved, is what caused most of the uproar,” Suzy Eubanks, one of the students who helped raise awareness about the meal online, said in an email. “Prior to that day, (during my two years) I [had] never seen watermelon infused water or koolaid at any NYU dining hall.” Hoben says he knows for a fact that the red drink some students believed to be Kool-Aid wasn’t (“We would never, ever have Kool-Aid”) and believes it was more likely a common hydration station item — water mixed with leftovers from a punctured bag of fruit-punch mixture. As for the watermelon, Hoben says that he understood completely why students were angry, but that Paz told him that “it was requested by one or two or three of the employees” who chose the items for the specially themed menu.
At the end of his shift, Hoben met with Paz, Gomez, and an executive chef at Weinstein to discuss what had happened. One of the female students who had complained, Gomez explained to the group, had sent an email that had gotten “all the way up to President Hamilton.” But, Gomez assured Hoben and Paz, according to Hoben, they hadn’t done anything wrong. “Ed, right out the loop, [said,] ‘You guys didn’t do anything wrong,’” said Hoben.
After Hoben got back to Newburgh that evening, he said he received a call from Flake informing him that he was suspended pending further investigation. “Just like that,” said Hoben. Before hanging up, Flake told Hoben that the next day, he’d receive a call from an Aramark human-resources employee, who would conduct a full interview as part of an investigation into what had happened. He didn’t hear from Aramark until two days later, when he received a letter authored by an Aramark employee at the corporate headquarters in Philadelphia, reading, simply, “Effective immediately, your position as Food Service Director with Aramark at New York University” — a title Hoben claimed he never actually held — “is terminated. If you have questions, please contact me.”
Hoben argues that he has been scapegoated. “In my opinion, someone was trying to cover their own butt at some point.” The Aramark employees truly responsible for the controversy by having planned it, he said, “needed a target, and I was the easiest one.” Hence the lawsuit, which centers on the statements Aramark and NYU made in the wake of firing him, which he argues are false and irreparably damaged his reputation and career prospects. (Hoben said that he had not been able to secure employment since getting fired by Aramark — he brought a thick binder with copies of all the applications he had sent out, to no avail, to his lawyer’s office.)
As the Weinstein controversy spread, so did confusion about the specifics. One of the main vectors for several apparently false rumors about what happened, other than the press releases and President Hamilton’s statement, was a high-ranking NYU administrator speaking at a meeting with NYU’s Governance Council of Minority & Marginalized Students, or GCOMMS, on February 23 — three days after the incident. Lisa Coleman, the NYU chief diversity officer and senior vice president of global inclusion and diversity, told the students that “part of the reason that management at Aramark decided to fire the head chef and the manager is because they sent out a correspondence to all Aramark employees, stating that you cannot and must not change the menu based on arbitrary decision-making processes locally. You have them [the menus] vetted through whatever institution and through head corp. They did not do that. The management on site made a decision to frame this soul food menu, so that is why Aramark decided to fire them.” The emails and dining-hall flyers provided in Hoben’s complaint suggest this is false — that the decision-making occurred higher up, and that other dining halls had planned to participate. (Coleman did not return an email I sent her.)
But in one strictly strategic sense, Aramark’s strategy of firing two employees and remaining vague about the other particulars worked: Mainstream media mostly moved on, with little discussion over the nitty-gritty details. While student journalists did cover Hoben’s lawsuit after it was filed in May, it appears there was little off-campus coverage of this twist in the story other than a very brief New York Post write-up and a Daily Wire article. The last that most members of the public probably heard of this story was that the two staffers personally responsible for this offensive incident had been fired.
Firing someone and moving on is a classic corporate move, and part of the story here is that NYU handled the Black History Month controversy like a corporation, not a university. Some customers — students — had complained, and the university’s brand as an effortlessly tolerant, multicultural bastion of learning was at stake. Hence, the speedy press release. Hence, the embrace of an Aramark story line that seems, with the benefit of the information provided by Tim Hoben’s lawsuit, to be misleading at best. It can be seen as a strikingly clear example of what Freddie deBoer once called “University, Inc.”: “Bent into place by a small army of apparatchiks, the contemporary American college is slowly becoming as meticulously art-directed and branded as a J. Crew catalog. Like Niketown or Disneyworld, your average college campus now leaves the distinct impression of a one-party state.” In this critique, echoed by plenty of other commentators and academics themselves, universities are sanding down the rough edges of young adulthood, childproofing the college experience to an unwarranted degree.
What would it mean for NYU to have responded to this controversy more like a university than a corporation? “I just think that institutions that want to have these celebrations need to engage the black student groups and say, ‘This is what we’re thinking,’” said Adrian Miller, a former lawyer and special assistant to President Clinton who is now a frequent speaker and writer on the subject of African-American food and its history. “Do a lot more up-front advance work.” Miller, the author of The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, From the Washingtons to the Obamas, said he viewed the NYU controversy as a wasted opportunity. “I think that it could have been a beautiful teaching moment,” he said of the NYU controversy. “I hate that it got lost because of a few menu items.”
Miller’s an educator — he sees it as his job to communicate a rich culinary legacy steeped in a complicated mix of oppression, joy, creativity, and cultural exchange in as open, honest, and unvarnished a manner as possible. That’s what universities are supposed to do, too. Had NYU responded to this controversy more like a university, perhaps it would have entailed acknowledging the fact that what happened at Weinstein can’t neatly reduced to good guys and bad guys, and that the dynamic at play is more complicated. In one particularly widely shared Facebook post, a student named Nia Harris accused the “head cook” at Weinstein — presumably Paz — of trying to shift the blame by pointing out to her that the menu had been developed by African-American employees. “He was clearly diverting the blame from himself as to put it onto black people to assure me that it was not racially insensitive because black people thought of it,” she wrote. It can simultaneously be true that Harris’s skeptical and offended response is perfectly reasonable in light of the situation, since she believed Paz to have been in charge and But black people chose the items! to be a tone-deaf response — and that Paz was telling the truth. The missing context — a corporation asked its black employees to craft “representative” menus that were served to a school whose student body is only 9 percent black — doesn’t make the experience any less disturbing for the black students who went through it, but it does suggest that it was unfair to condemn a middle manager to unemployment as, arguably, a corporate fall guy. (Hoben said Paz had been able to find another job.)
To be fair, many NYU students understood that this controversy was about more than a couple (alleged) bad apples as they responded to the crisis — there is, after all, an ongoing effort to sever the university’s relationship with Aramark — and much of what they had to say on those subjects was thoughtful and empathetic. But their university was missing in action during those angry days — it didn’t help them figure all this out, didn’t treat them like the young adults they are. If NYU had responded to this controversy like a university, maybe students would have been encouraged to grapple meaningfully with these questions. Some of that grappling would have been tense and uncomfortable, sure, but it would have helped a bunch of young, intelligent students better work through and understand their values, as well as their their beliefs about power and politics and representation and fairness — not to mention what they wanted their university to look like.