Carnegie Mellon opens doors to franchises at expense of culture

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At Carnegie Mellon, we might not have good weather, athletic prestige, or a suitable male-to-female ratio, but — let’s face it — we’re loaded with personality.

As far as I’m concerned, a college campus isn’t successful until it starts to feel like its own little world. And Carnegie Mellon has certainly pulled it off. If you were around for this year’s Carnival, you know what I’m talking about. I don’t think any other schools have birthed a 1200-pound Death Star dome or even know the proper meaning of the word “Buggy.” We’ll always be a little eccentric, but I’m not complaining. Carnegie Mellon isn’t just 100 acres a few miles from downtown Pittsburgh: it’s a culture.

But changes to our campus facilities are threatening that culture. What’s the problem? In a word: chains. Kinko’s recently took up residence in the basement of the University Center, a move that may supplant Printing Services in the future. The UC houses the Carnegie Mellon book, art, and computer stores; Entropy; and staples of campus dining such as Skibo, Andy’s, and Sí Señor. Amid such personal establishments, a Kinko’s seems more than a little out-of-place.

Think that’s bad? Rumor has it that Dining Services is also ready to make room for a franchise. I suppose there’s no sense in starting small: Next year, we might be getting a Starbucks.

And then what? How can we be sure that Starbucks will be the only food chain to invade our campus? Our dining facilities cover a lot of the standard fast-food niches; it would be easy to replace them. Asiana could become a Panda Express; E Street Deli, a Subway; Si Señor, a Taco Bell. Everybody loves fullness from a value menu — how about from a meal block? What happened to the good old days, when the closest thing Carnegie Mellon had to a chain was the ‘O’? When our only franchise was Ginger’s, with its two little siblings in Baker and Purnell?

Not every corporate triumph has to be a tragedy. Chains offer one thing everybody likes: lower prices. But when you’re talking campus dining, the food is going to be a ripoff no matter the server. Carnegie Mellon might make more money, but there will be no financial benefit for its students.

All this worrying might sound a little unrealistic. It’s hard to imagine a Carnegie Mellon flooded with chain eating establishments. Wait — is it? Maybe we’re taking the integrity of our campus for granted. Maybe we’ve been spoiled by a precedent of commercial-free dining. America is loaded with colleges and universities whose food courts all mirror the inside of an airport. On our campus, a McDonald’s would be an eyesore. But students at multitudes of other schools walk by such fast-food restaurants every day without batting an eye.

That would be the worst-case scenario: if corporate restaurants on our campus somehow made their way into the norm. From a business perspective, Starbucks is the perfect gateway chain. It’s less loathsome than most other food franchises. In fact, it seems a rather appropriate addition to an academic environment. It’s conducive to work and even intellectual banter. But once we get used to a Starbucks on campus, other chain restaurants will invariably seem less offensive. It’s hard to un-pop a precious campus bubble.

Let me tell you what I’m not worried about. I’m not worried about corporate chains taking over the mom-and-pop operations of the world. This isn’t about Starbucks vs. Kiva Han or McDonalds vs. the ‘O’. If anything, it’s the world vs. Carnegie Mellon.

We have one thing at stake, and that’s the worth of our campus. A university has the opportunity to be a bit of a sanctuary for its students. If you want a campus that spills into its surrounding commercial neighborhood, try the University of Pittsburgh or NYU. There’s something precious about the Carnegie Mellon bubble, including its charming selection of restaurants that nobody’s ever heard of. Let’s hope we don’t join the ranks of other schools who have surrendered their personalities for profit.