By Nick Jacques, News Correspondent
The Student Government Association (SGA) has been working for the past four years to bring Chick-fil-A to Northeastern, even after it became apparent that the fast food chain’s presence on campus might be a contentious issue.
“We did talk about [the potential controversy] for some time,” said Ryan Fox, 2009-2011 SGA president. “We didn’t think it would be an issue.”
The debate over Chick-fil-A, a company which has been accused of being an opponent of the LGBT community, erupted last week after Vice President for Student Affairs Dr. Laura Wankel announced that the university is in negotiations to include a Chick-fil-A as part of a larger plan to renovate the food court in the Curry Student Center.
When asked if SGA addressed potential controversy in the weeks before the announcement, SGA President Michael Sabo would not comment.
“I don’t really have an answer for that,” he said.
After the announcement last week, students began advocating against the proposal. A Change.org petition entitled
“Northeastern: Don’t allow Chick-fil-A to operate on campus,” has gained over 300 signatures in the past week.
Sabo said SGA was “assessing all sides” of the issue and working with both the graduate student government and the law student government, but refused to elaborate on the process.
Devon Branin, the SGA’s special interest senator for NU Pride, Northeastern’s LGBT advocacy group, said he hoped NU Pride could have an open dialogue with the SGA and administration regarding the issue.
“It’s an ongoing discussion,” said Wankel in a phone interview earlier this week. “I think it’s important to understand the selection of vendors for the space is a student driven process.”
President Joseph Aoun spoke at last night’s SGA meeting, where he took questions from SGA officials for about 30 minutes. No one mentioned Chick-fil-A at the meeting. Before the larger Senate meeting, Dr. Laura Wankel, vice president for student affairs, held a private meeting with with the SGA executive board. Wankel told The News in a Tuesday interview that the meeting would be about Chick-fil-A.
Taylor Cotter, senior journalism major and SGA senator for the College of Arts, Media and Design, helped spark the debate last week with a letter to the editor in The News. She did not raise the issue with Aoun last night.
“I feel as though I’ve exhausted my opinion on the topic,” she said.
According to Fox, who was SGA President from 2009 to 2011 and SGA Vice President of Student Services from 2008 to 2009, this idea was a subject of discussion in SGA since a student survey in the spring of 2008.
Fox said the purpose of the survey was to compare current on-campus vendors with possible replacements. The survey pitted Chick-fil-A against the Mondo Subs location in Ryder Hall that has since been replaced by Subway. A majority of students, Fox said, supported Chick-fil-A. He said the most important part of the survey was the comments section.
“A lot of the comments were ‘Chick-fil-A, Chick-fil-A, Chick-fil-A,’” he said. “We saw the passion there and people were crazy about it.”
Neither Fox, the administration nor SGA could locate the survey or its results for The News.
The survey results, which were made available to the News after press time by former Resident Student Association (RSA) and SGA member Matthew Soleyn (class of 2010), show 44 percent of respondents favored a Chick-fil-A in Ryder Hall, versus 40 percent who favored Mondo Subs and 16 percent who responded “other.” The results provided to The News did not include the student comments from the survey.
Fox said SGA believed Chick-fil-A would not make any future donations to anti-gay groups, based on a January 2011 press release written by Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy that said “We will not champion any political agendas on marriage and family.”
“They’re not perfect throughout, and I think Chick-fil-A admitted that and they’ve made changes,” Fox said.
In the press release, Cathy also wrote “We will continue to offer resources to strengthen marriage and families, to do anything else would be inconsistent with our purpose and belief in Biblical principles.”
The Georgia-based fast food chain sparked a national controversy in 2011 for its support of anti-gay interest groups. According to the LGBT advocacy site equalitynow.org, the WinShape Foundation, which was created by Chick-fil-A founder S. Truett Cathy and receives millions in support from Chick-fil-A, contributed more than $1.7 million to anti-gay causes in 2009.
Cotter said SGA’s Executive Board largely ignored the issue. Cotter said she first brought up the issue in January 2011, and has been “passive aggressively” reminding E-Board members ever since.
“It sucks to be on the Executive Board of the most powerful student organization and be totally ignored,” said Cotter, who was SGA’s executive director of communications during the 2010 to 2011 academic year. “If the SGA didn’t want Chick-fil-A on campus, Chick-fil-A wouldn’t be coming to campus.”
Members of Northeastern’s LGBT community said they believe bringing a Chick-fil-A to Northeastern will undo recent strides the school has made on LGBT issues.
“When I came here, I saw there was a [web]page about LGBT issues with a bunch of broken links and there wasn’t an LGBT center,” Branin said. “Both of those things have been fixed and I’ve seen a change of commitment, but now that I see this Chick-fil-A is coming in, and I think that’s a step backwards.”
Frank Marino, a senior human services and international affairs major, said bringing the chain to campus would be a step backward for Northeastern.
“An ally doesn’t stop at tolerance, an ally fights for equality and strives for celebration,” Marino said. “Northeastern has an opportunity now to prove it’s an ally to its LGBTQ students, faculty and staff.”
Marino, who is gay, said his main concern with Chick-fil-A is how the company views the LGBT community.
“I see a company that doesn’t view me as worthy as their heterosexual customers,” he said. “It makes me feel less than, and I don’t think we deserve to feel less than on our campus.”
Fox said he is worried that if the opposition is successful in keeping Chick-fil-A off campus, it may create tension between the LGBT community and the rest of the school.
Fox said it could “ultimately send the campus in the opposite direction where uninformed people are taking out their discontent and dissatisfaction on someone without really realizing the issues and why it was a concern to begin with.”
Branin expressed similar concerns.
“I’d like to urge people not to think of this as gay students versus people who want good food, because I’m worried it’s going to turn into that and I don’t want that kind of thing to happen,” he said.
Fox said he hopes the issue can be resolved in a way that makes everyone happy.
“I started a lot of this, this wasn’t started to breed hatred or any of that,” he said. “My hope is the two sides can come together and find a resolution that gives people their chicken sandwiches and makes sure that people feel comfortable with it being there.”
Similar debates have risen on university campuses across the country including Duke University, Mississippi State University and Texas Tech University. In January 2011, Indiana University South Bend shut down a Chick-fil-A location from their campus over a similar controversy. The location shut down for several days, but administrators reinstated it after reviewing the decision.
If the plan is finalized, Chick-fil-A will join UBurger and other new vendors in the Curry Student Center this September.
Updated 4:55 p.m. Feb. 23: An earlier version of this article was published with no information about the survey’s results.