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Follett fires Highlander textbook manager

The end of last month marked the one-year anniversary of Macalester’s contract with Follett Corporation, one of the largest textbook providers in the country. The decision to use the company’s services came along with the move to the new Highlander store in Lampert, a momentous occasion in the school’s history that marked the first “official” campus store. At that time Follett agreed to hire all of Macalester’s bookstore employees, bringing along student workers as well as one Follett-hired store manager. The staff was led by one of Macalester’s most experienced veterans, textbook manager Carey Starr, who by then had been with the school for 25 years.

Two weeks ago Starr’s position was eliminated without advanced warning. The reason? Staff changes initiated by Follett’s one-year CEO Mary Lee Schneider.

The change came as part of a larger staff shift at nearly 400 of Follett’s 980 campus bookstores across the country. Outside of Macalester, 570 employees were let go after a conference call on Nov. 8 concluded that changes in student shopping trends demanded a new employment model.

A press release that circulated amongst the company’s Higher Education Group the next day stated that eliminating all but one full-time position in each store was “necessary to not only improve the experience of [Follett] customers, but also to allow Follett to continue to grow and invest in the future.” As a result, Macalester’s bookstore now has one full-time store manager who was hired by Follett when the school signed into a contract with the company last October.

“There’s some part of this where Follett is shifting the balance of full-time and part-time employees that they have in their stores based upon the fact that business flows in really cyclical ways,” said Macalester’s Vice President for Administration and Finance David Wheaton. “It’s really busy during rush, reunion, orientation and graduation and then there’s times when it’s pretty quiet. So it’s what they’ve described as trying to get their staffing in a particular way.”

Wheaton emphasized that, though Starr has always been a valued member of the Macalester community, the elimination of her position was one case of many.

“There were 570 people affected at 400 stores,” he said. “This is not about any particular individual. Having said that, those 570 people are people. They’re all individuals.”

For many who worked with Starr at some point in her 26 years at Macalester, it’s personal.

Anthropology professor Arjun Guneratne, along with Philosophy professor Jim Laine, took action quickly when they heard the news.

“When the faculty learned about the termination of Carey Starr’s employment, most people were upset and taken aback,” Guneratne wrote in an email. “I believe a letter was circulated in the Humanities building by Professor Linda Schulte Sasse to protest it. Prof. Jim Laine and I thought that a letter signed by as many members of the faculty as possible to Follett, indicating our concern about what had happened, and our hope that Follett would reinstate Carey, would be a reminder to them that it is the faculty that orders the books, and that a very large proportion of the faculty were upset by what they had done.”

The letter, which both praises Starr’s professional competence and expresses disappointment at the elimination of her position, grew quickly in popularity. In just a matter of days, it boasted 150 faculty and staff signatures. Guneratne attributes this success to Starr’s expertise on the job and importance in the Macalester community.

“Carey Starr is someone who every member of the faculty came into contact with on a regular basis; she is enormously competent, efficient, and extremely knowledgeable about books,” Guneratne wrote. “And she was in charge of book orders for 26 years—that is an enormous wealth of knowledge about professors on this campus, what they teach and the books they need. This explains the outpouring of support for her from the faculty. If someone does their job superlatively well, they deserve to be rewarded, not ‘laid off.’”

Fired without warning

No one at Macalester was warned about the bookstore’s staff changes in advance, which is now a source of significant frustration in dealing with the aftermath of what is still an ongoing situation.

“We at Macalester had no idea that this was coming,” Wheaton said. “We had no information ahead of time, no conversation about the possible changes. And I suppose sometimes that’s the way large organizations work, but it wasn’t what our expectation was. So we were as surprised as everyone else.”

Administrators have since mentioned this disappointment to Follett representatives, but the company has shown no specific response to the matter.

Administrators met with one of Follett’s vice presidents on campus last week and later spoke on the phone with the liaison whom Macalester worked with when first signing into contract with the company in 2012. Both conversations focused on the school’s dismay regarding bookstore staff changes and the process (or lack thereof) that surrounded the incident. So far no noteworthy progress has come out of such conversations.

Reversing the decision

Administrators and faculty alike are requesting that Follett reverse its decision and bring Starr back to the bookstore full time. Both groups sent the company individual letters addressing this possibility and expressing general disappointment in the decision to eliminate Starr’s position.

“I think a majority of those who signed [the faculty letter] are likely to follow up on it; the faculty is still discussing what the follow up might be, and if Follett doesn’t come through, it is quite possible that many faculty members might choose not to use the bookstore for course texts,” Guneratne said.

For now, Follett has ensured that any full-time employees who wish to return to the company can do so part-time, but the decrease in hours will be directly reflected in compensation and employer benefits.

According to Wheaton, the school is hoping to reach a better solution in the near future.

“I’m hoping that we’ll get some clarity about where this is going pretty quickly.”

November 22, 2013

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