A change.org petition discouraging Chancellor Howard Gillman and Vice Chancellor Thomas Parham from outsourcing UCI’s independent bookstore, The Hill, began circulating last Tuesday in response to administration’s potential plans to seek a corporate replacement. The petition has garnered 1,718 signatures as of March 6, and has spurred debate over whether the campus bookstore should remain independent in light of declining profits.
In recent years, several UCs, including UC Riverside, have already contracted external booksellers like Barnes & Noble to run their campus bookstores amidst increasing competition with online retailers and the increasing costs of running campus stores internally.
The UCI-based petition states that its goal is “to keep The Hill as a fully-fledged operation which is 100 percent owned by the University.”
“A for-profit corporation does not prioritize the individual needs of the campus,” states the petition. “The main objective of a corporation is to maximize profits for the corporation. The mission of an independent store is to support the needs of the campus.”
The petition gathered support from some current employees of the bookstore who worry that their jobs might be threatened if The Hill is replaced. Additionally, several UCI students commented on the value of the individuality and diversity of The Hill’s services.
“For-profit ownership would take away the public commitment that makes the University of California a unique and thriving institution, and reduce its capacity to serve as a driving agent of diversity, the advancement of knowledge and student engagement,” said Kyle Hill, an employee at The Hill for the past three years, in a comment on the petition. “I can attest that the current ownership’s efforts align with these longstanding goals of the University and have made a significant positive impact on the UCI community.”
However, Vice Chancellor Thomas Parham calls the petition “sensational,” and insists that no students would lose their jobs if The Hill were outsourced, as the petition suggests. He also notes that UCI’s administration is not yet definitively committed to outsourcing. The administration is, however, still exploring the option of outsourcing The Hill after years of serious declining sales.
Parham says that the administration has a history of supporting The Hill, but no amount of rebranding or operational change over the past five years has improved the bookstore’s diminishing profits.
“Five years ago, the campus hired a consultant to look at our bookstore, and the consultant came back with three options to improve it: rebranding the store, making internal operational changes and a recommendation to outsource the store,” said Parham. “For five years, we’ve made all the changes we thought were responsible in maintaining service, but as of March 2016, we’re falling behind. Our store continues to be profitable, but just barely.”
According to Associate Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs and Auxiliary Services Dan Dooros, sales at The Hill are down 15 percent and expenses are up 40 percent since the initial consultation.
“We’ve remodeled the store, we’ve rebranded, improved our web presence, opened up the Hillside Lounge and partnered with Starbucks, but sales just aren’t keeping pace. The recommendations we followed haven’t changed much in terms of profitability,” said Dooros. “Either we look for someone to do this more efficiently, or we have to raise prices at The Hill above market standards.”
Dooros says that if The Hill is outsourced, students can expect “significant discounts” on textbooks and a wider inventory of books available for rent — a targeted 80 percent of books available for rent, opposed to The Hill’s current 35 percent.
Parham adds that current employees at The Hill are not in jeopardy of losing their jobs, regardless of whether the bookstore is outsourced.
“The one thing I do love about the petition is reading the comments where people write, ‘I love my favorite employees at The Hill.’ That just means we’re doing a good job at keeping our employees happy, and our customers satisfied,” said Parham. “I want those students to know that even if the bookstore is outsourced, those great employees will be the same employees. They’re not going anywhere.”
At this point, administration has not finalized plans regarding the future of the bookstore. Earlier this year, administration submitted a proposal to ASUCI’s Legislative Council and UCI Associated Graduate Students asking for student input on addressing The Hill’s declining profits. Suggestions from student government were due to Parham last week, and will be evaluated throughout March before going forward.
ASUCI President Parshan Khosravi noted at a legislative council meeting last Thursday that ASUCI is currently conducting its own investigation into the matter, and will confer with administration once a decision is reached.
“Overall, it is a very complicated situation,” said Khosravi. “There is no decision currently made on my end without discussion with the council first. We have not made any official position and we will let [administration] know once we hold our own investigation.”