Three weeks before Thanksgiving break, Macalester’s textbook manager Carey Starr was fired from the Highlander by Follett, the textbook purchasing company that Macalester contracted to provide the college’s textbook services in 2012. By Thanksgiving Day, Starr was reinstated into her former position, which she held for 26 years, with little communication from Follett and no change in her job description or compensation. The company gave no confirmed reason for the reversal in its decision, though professors and administrators alike were quick to take action against Starr’s termination in ways that are speculated to have played a role in the final outcome.
Within the few days between when Starr was let go and rehired, the Macalester administration and nearly 150 faculty members sent two letters to Follett in protest of Starr’s termination, urging the company to reconsider the decision that was one of 570 firings at 400 Follett Higher Education Group stores across the country. According to Professor Paul Dosh, both of these letters were sparked by an initial email from Assistant Registrar Addy Free, who emailed then-Acting President Kathy Murray and Vice President for Administration and Finance David Wheaton upon hearing of Starr’s termination. In his email Free expressed his dismay towards the situation.
“It was a really courageous move by a staff member and it was really well done,” Dosh said. “I really think that Addy’s letter was the spark, because then me and other people began spreading the word and someone had taken the first step. So myself and several other people began following Addy’s steps… had he not done that, there would’ve been action but I’m not sure that Carey would have her job today.”
Professors Arjun Guneratne and Jim Laine were quick to follow with a letter directly to Follett, urging the company to reconsider its decision to fire Starr. The letter, which cites the relevant role Starr has played at Macalester for 26 years and the close connections she has developed with the faculty, was circulated amongst the community and signed by 150 members of the faculty and staff before being sent to Follett’s Vice President of Sales and Operations, Suzanne Stegeman.
“We [the faculty and staff] came to rely on Carey’s excellent service: on her willingness to help with late orders, on her advice on alternate editions that could save our students money, on her willingness to bring texts to book signings, indeed, on her willingness to step up whenever the faculty needed anything from her,” the letter reads. “It is the presence of colleagues like Carey Starr on the staff that has made this college a congenial place to teach and to do research.” The letter discusses confusion regarding the reason for Starr’s termination, citing her experience and familiarity with specific faculty requirements as skills deeming her “precisely the sort of employee who [Follett’s] website references” as well-suited for a career with the company. A separate letter was sent to Follett on behalf of the administration, penned by Wheaton. The letter similarly requested that Follett reconsider its decision, though Wheaton emphasized that differences between the two letters were relevant.
“The letters were similar but not identical, and that’s what I would expect,” Wheaton said. “It offered Follett two different perspectives…the faculty obviously have an interest in course materials, and we [the administration] have an interest in how the store is run. There’s no way to tell how Follett’s decision was influenced by one or the other.”
In the days that followed the administration had some contact with Follett regarding Starr’s employment status, but ultimately Starr was reinstated into her position without significant exchange between Macalester and Follett representatives.
“We talked to [Follett representatives] twice in the week after the position was eliminated,” Wheaton said. “Then the two letters went and after waiting for a few days we reached out to them and said ‘we’ve given you a few communications, we’re interested in what you’re doing with them.’ They called us the following week and all of a sudden they were going to reinstate the position… They weren’t very specific about [their reasoning].”
Faculty, Staff consider the larger picture
For some, Starr’s quick return to the Highlander feels like one small victory when considering the 569 other Follett employees let go in November. For Dosh, the issue is reflective of deeper problems with the company’s business ethics.
“The short term gain was getting [Starr’s] job back, but I feel like Follett basically got away with murder,” he said. “What about the other 569 Carey Starrs? I’m really happy for Carey, that was my number one goal in the moment, but I view the whole episode overall as an episode of failure. There was a moment of possibility of challenging Follett as a really unjust employer, and that moment passed.”
In the meantime the school has no plans to walk away from the five-year contract with Follett that was signed in 2012. A committee of faculty, staff and administrators was created at the time with the sole purpose of choosing a third party provider to supply the college’s textbooks. Where Dosh hopes to see improvements is not so much in how the college moves forward with its textbook purchasing decisions in the near future, but how members of the community understand the power of their own actions in similar situations. For Starr, Dosh says, it was easy for the school to “target an outside enemy.” But the ability to bring justice through action, he says, is a form of power the Macalester community ought to recognize in itself more often.
“I’m proud of Macalester community members for rising up to support Carey,” Dosh said. “One of the reasons why I think that happened with such swiftness and such strength is that Follett was an easy target, an outside target… I think how Macalester staff and faculty acted with respect to Carey Starr is how we should act with respect to that happening to a Macalester employee as well.”