The University of Connecticut’s administration expects a new corporate operator for its ten college bookstores by June 1.
The administration said it no longer had faith in the 41-year-old Co-op’s financial future and officially announced the Co-op was out of the running March 11, the Friday afternoon before spring break. Administration will now decide between Barnes & Noble or Follett.
“When I got the email (that the Co-op would be closed) it felt like a slap in the face. It was abrupt. It felt like we put in a lot of effort and it hurt a little bit,” said David Anzini, sixth-semester business major and vice chair of the Co-op’s board.
Co-op leadership has campaigned since December for support to keep it open, arguing a non-profit (where students hold a voting majority on the board) would serve students’ needs better than a for-profit corporation.
“At the very least student governance will not be there with a private bookstore, nor will it be student managed or owned,” Co-op treasurer Joseph Sweet said. “Really the question going forward is how student focused it will be, and I hope the university continues to hold the private bookseller to standards to make sure student interests are maintained.”
The Co-op’s not-for-profit model lets it carry products—like art supplies—and offer services—like liberal return policies—that don’t necessarily make it money, Sweet said.
The Co-op supported development of open-source textbooks, which are essentially free textbooks open to the public. They don’t make bookstores money, and a for-profit would have no incentive to support open-source beyond contractual obligations, Sweet said.
In an email sent to the student body on March 30, UConn President Susan Herbst said textbook prices would not increase with the change.
“Language will also be included in the final contract that restricts the ability of the chosen company to increase the cost of academic materials,” Herbst wrote. “So not only will course materials not be more expensive than the Co-op currently offers, they will likely be more affordable.”
Herbst added that profit from a corporate bookseller could make a difference for UConn, considering the $116 million state budget cuts the university has faced over the past six years.
Profits from the new bookstore, Herbst said, would go into financial aid for students.
“But will that amount to a net gain?” Sweet said. “Is this financial aid going to be on top of what they’re already doing, or is the university going to look at this as an opportunity to redirect some of those funds that they had been giving to financial aid?”
Sweet continued that he was skeptical that a new operator could succeed in the same situation that had been so difficult for the Co-op.
“A for profit bookstore has to make a profit to give back to shareholders,” Sweet said. “If our operation had been running losses at our revenue levels, then a for-profit would probably have to make up for those losses at those revenue levels but also go beyond that to meet their profit margin.”
At March 30th’s Board of Trustees meeting, a consultant from Campus Bookstore Consulting (CBC), a firm hired by the university, gave a presentation on broad trends in college bookstores.
“There are very few institutions that still have Co-op bookstores,” said Christine Geary, vice president of CBC.
In the last ten years more and more universities have outsourced their bookstores, and currently, about 50 percent of colleges and universities have an outside provider, Geary said.
“The UConn bookstore business is highly valuable and highly sought after,” Geary said. “Both of these companies are pretty excited to be at the table and to be considered as potential operators.”
UConn’s reputation for both academics and athletics make it appealing to Barnes & Noble and Follett, Geary said.
“They can feature UConn’s bookstore as one of their flagship, premier institutions,” Geary continued. “It could really help them with marketing. It’s just another way to sell their services… That strong brand and the recognition of UConn’s program both locally and nationally really allows some of these companies to hedge their bets a little bit about what’s going on in the textbook industries.”
Geary said that affordability and community involvement were two of the university’s primary interests in negotiations. She said the chosen operator will be required to limit course-book pricing and provide a minimum of community events, such as the jazz nights, poetry slams and author readings.
Most of the specifics of the deal remain out of the public eye so long as negotiations continue.
“I’m not telling anybody anything that isn’t obvious, but we’ve got two candidates that are in competition with each other,” said UConn general counsel Richard F. Orr at the same Board of Trustees meeting. “We’re looking for them to make the best deal and for us to say what our goal is in public would have an adverse effect on our ability to get the best outcome.”
Now, the Co-op must prepare for the changeover.
“I think the next main focus has to be a clean and smooth transition to the new company once that’s chosen… and making sure that students are the priority as the transition happens,” said Adam Kuegler, undergraduate student body vice president.
The Co-op board is currently focused on maintaining its day-to-day responsibilities for its last two months, Anzini said.
“We, the board, we’re trying to work with the university as civilly as possible, and we expect they’ll do the same,” Anzini said.
Sweet added that the Co-op should have no difficulty paying its final bills.
“We’re looking at the transition and moving forward and really looking at strategy and making sure everyone’s taken care of,” Sweet said. “We fully expect our creditors will be paid, that our employees will receive something out of the transition and that we will be able to do something for the student body as part of our transition.”
Sweet and Co-op Board Chair Timothy Dzurilla hope to use what’s left of the Co-op’s resources to start a fund for open-education resources.
“If there’s still money leftover, we thought it was important that it go to the students,” Dzurilla said. “So the thing that made the most sense, we thought, was to support open education resources. That was something that we had been committed to, providing not just affordable but free education resources. Textbooks are not going to get cheaper.”
“The Co-op was a voice for students on campus,” Anzini said. “It wasn’t their main voice, but it was one of many. Now what they can turn to is Undergraduate Student Government and their Board of Trustee’s undergraduate representative. They need to turn to them because that’s who will represent their interests across campus.”
The corporate college bookstore appears to be the future, for better or for worse. The university expects to choose between Follett and Barnes & Noble in the coming weeks.
“In a couple of years people will have forgotten, and will never realize that another way was possible,” Dzurilla said.
Christopher McDermott is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.