MSU asking faculty to volunteer in dining halls amid staffing shortage

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Michigan State University is so short-staffed in its dining halls that it is asking its professors to volunteer and help, especially during evenings and on weekends.

The university is also requiring 132 full-time staff members employed outside of its dining service department to work in the dining halls eight hours per week through Thanksgiving to help feed the thousands of students who have moved back into MSU's 26 dorms.

The situation emerged earlier this week when Vennie Gore, MSU's senior vice president for residential and hospitality services, sent an email to university deans, directors and chairs. He informed them of the staffing shortage that he said is affecting food service departments at universities across the country, and explained the efforts that MSU is taking to mitigate the situation made more challenging by competition from restaurants and bars in the regions.

In spite of the steps that the state's largest university has taken, Gore said more help is needed.

"Faculty and staff from around campus are invited to sign up to assist in the dining halls!" Gore wrote. "We have special needs during evenings and weekends."

Some faculty members are dumbfounded by the request.

"I am a little shocked that was a solution that folks came up with," said Marcos "Danny" Caballero, an MSU associate professor in physics education. “We are a land grant university, and in that mission is our job to provide a real service to the citizens of the state and that involves us doing really important research but it involves contributing to Michigan citizens and the economy through that. What is so surprising and frustrating about this is I don’t see how the decisions align with our land grant mission.”

Volunteers Kylee Tobey and Cheryl O'Keefe of MSU Residential Hospitality Services serve up a meal for student Luke Elden, 19, at the Brody dining hall on the campus of Michigan State University in East Lansing on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021.

Kat Cooper, spokeswoman for MSU's Residential and Hospitality Services, said the idea to ask faculty and staff to volunteer came from the faculty. All are invited every fall to volunteer and help students move in. MSU hoped that faculty and staff would respond similarly to a call to volunteer in the dining halls for one or two four-hour shifts.

"We're flexible," said Cooper. "If people have two hours to give, we'll take it."

The lack of people in dining services is rooted in the COVID-19 pandemic, Cooper said. Last year, the on-campus population sunk to 3,000 students when in a typical year the university houses about 16,000 students.

“MSU has one of the largest on-campus living populations in the nation,” said Cooper, adding that most students who live in the dorms are required to buy a meal plan.

In a typical year, the university retains 4,000 students who work for the university with efforts to recruit 6,000, Cooper said. But this year, only 400 students were employed by the university, and hospitality businesses in the region have been trying to get help, too.  

The lack of student labor collided at the same time the university is grappling with a full-time culinary staff that shrunk by 70 people due to retirement or other reasons.

It was unclear how many staff members remain, but Cooper said MSU at one point this semester needed 90 people outside the culinary department to get through the day. Now, it needs 50 people per day outside of the department to come in and help.

Students at Brody dining hall on the campus of the Michigan State University in East Lansing on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021.

"Things are improving," said Cooper. "We are steadily hiring. This is a big ship to turn around. To go from the lights out to lights on with 16,000 students living on campus, that is a really difficult feat. So it is taking longer than we'd like."

Cooper said many strategies are being tried to improve the situation including wage adjustments for student positions. Jobs in culinary services that used to pay $10 to $12 an hour have since been hiked to $13 to $15 an hour.

Cooper did not reveal the salary range for staff working in culinary services, and union officials could not be reached. According to MSU's job postings, a dining service worker I position, which requires one year of food service experience and assists cooks with food preparation, pays $16.21 an hour. A posting for a cook I position said it pays $18.44 an hour. 

Michigan State is not the only university to to see hospitality staff shortages.

University of Michigan Dining is facing shortages similar to those seen more broadly in the restaurant and hospitality industries, said Heather Guenther, spokesperson for U-M Division of Student Life.

UM residence halls are 98% occupied, and the university's nine residential dining facilities have remained open throughout the fall semester though the persistent staff shortages have resulted in shortened hours at some retail locations, Guenther said.

"Currently, Michigan Dining is assessing multiple strategies to attract new staff and help alleviate pressures within our dining halls," Guenther said. "Changes made earlier this semester include raising the starting wage for student workers to $12 per hour, providing flexible hours to our student workers, and providing a free meal during each shift. "

Richard Davila, a research specialist in MSU, said he found the Monday email requesting volunteer service from faculty and staff to be "strange" and "tone-deaf."

“It was presented to us as some exciting opportunity," said Davila. "The labor shortages that are happening are happening everywhere. MSU is having a hard time competing to get people to come work in culinary services. But that isn't the fault of regular faculty and staff. If they want to be more competitive, they need to make their compensation and benefit package more competitive."

But Amy Martin, MSU assistant dean and chief of staff to the associate provost for undergraduate education, plans to be among the 30 faculty and staff members who have volunteered so far to pitch in with some of the meal service shifts. 

Martin began her college career working in food service at the University of Michigan and sees the volunteer position as an opportunity to be among students and people working in a field that inspired her to be in higher education.

Volunteer Toni Douglass of Residential Hospitality Services cleans tables at the Brody dining hall on the campus of Michigan State University in East Lansing on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021.

She also said she wants to be among the many people who have come together during the pandemic to work together, support students and get through it.

"This seemed in line with all the other things that we have been trying to do to support each other," said Martin, who plans to volunteer on a couple different shifts.