Do you have any complaints with the bookstore across from Gampel? Any qualms with the way that it is run? Maybe the prices don’t accurately reflect the true value you are positive went into those 200 pages of printer paper sealed in plastic? Maybe it seems unreasonable to spend half a grand on textbooks for a single semester? Sucks for you. Because the bookstore is owned by a national corporation who could not care less about your voice.
Unknown to this author until weeks after arriving on campus, the bookstore actually used to be managed by a student cooperative instead of a corporation. Students and faculty, democratically chosen, made key decisions about production and finances successfully carried out over a period of 40 years until the University of Connecticut chose to give the space to Barnes and Noble in 2016, rather than renewing the cooperative. A key reason for the disappearance of the co-op was the lack of revenue it chose to give back to the administration, in comparison to Barnes and Noble, reputable for replacing student co-op bookstores around the country. The co-op actually gave some of their revenue back to the student body.
Furthermore, the co-op failed to bring in great revenue for the school because it lacked the profit motive that Barnes and Noble, or any other corporation, could ever have. And herein lies the problem. At UConn, despite being a public university, decisions are still made in the context of profit, revenue and the bottom line rather than the best interests of the student body — the people whom our administration is supposed to serve.
The administration’s rejection of the cooperative in favor of Barnes and Noble highlights a key difference between these different modes of industrial organization. Cooperatives, by design, have completely different incentive structures than corporations or any other type of businesses do. When a business is democratic, such as the cooperative was, workers all have a say in production decisions, prices and management. Particularly when the customers and workers are all students, a co-op is inherently incentivized against the profiteering Barnes and Noble loves and has the best interests of the workers and customers at heart. Comparatively, traditional businesses are run only in the interest of profit, often at the expense of workers, customers, and, on campus, students.
Barnes and Noble is profiting off of the students here at UConn. A large portion of this profit leaves the campus, never to return here. It ends up in the pockets of a small number of wealthy shareholders and executives who work for the company. This is not just “the way things are.” This is not a “sad truth” about the world. It is how we the student body have allowed the administration to structure one of the most important campus organizations with which we are required to do business.
We have this perception that we are only children, incapable of truly overseeing anything complicated and furthermore that corporations and the administration are adults who have everything figured out. This is incorrect. There is no magical essence to Barnes and Noble, or any other company for that matter. What makes them unique is their self-interest and unaccountability to the student body.
We on the other hand are extremely bright, capable and hardworking young individuals. We can do anything that a corporation can do and better. There are entire schools of business and marketing full of talented students, eager to gain practical work experience while helping the school and their fellow students. We are capable of all the organization and management that is currently trusted to corporations and administrators. Shouldn’t we own and control the businesses which we must interact with on a daily basis, and determine so much about the quality of our lives?
Demanding the return of the co-op bookstore is about more than efficiency or humane results. It is a philosophical statement about who we believe should be making decisions here on campus. We the students are responsible for everything of value in Storrs. It is our grades, work and tuition which allows all of this to happen. We, not corporations, deserve to make key production decisions about the business on campus. We deserve to do business with fellow students rather than corporations who only view us as exploitable consumers. It’s time that we realize a campus economy that works for the good of the student body and returns to us the fruits of our labor.
Harrison Raskin is campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.