Bookstore privatization raises alarm bells

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Wall of stationery supplies U of R Bookstore

Universities struggle with Follett

The University of Regina looks to move towards bookstore privatization, which will be placed under the management of the Follett organization.

This move comes with its own set of changes that students could have to face, such as privacy policy changes (like the third-party tracking that occurred at Concordia University under Follett Canada in 2020) and issues regarding online vouchers and book delivery (such as those that had occurred in the Fresno Community College in September of 2019).


With regards to Follett, faculty members and staff from the University of Regina have worked on a letter with regards to the university’s decision to move towards privatization. That letter reads, in part:

“Dear Colleagues

In the interest of promoting collegiality and fulfilling the University’s strategic goals of sustainability and decolonization we are writing this response to the announcement of changes at the UR Campus Store. We are wondering how long this change has been in the works. Has a contract already been signed (we are assuming it has because of the March 2021 opening mentioned)? Will employees still be unionized? Finally and perhaps most importantly, why were we not consulted on this change?

A university bookstore provides a service to students, faculty and, sometimes, a wider community. Moving Follett into this role will be, by all indications, a bad decision. This American-based company has no relevance to the Canadian context.”

The question of whether workers, who are currently covered under the University of Regina Collective Bargaining Agreement will remain unionized, or part of the same bargaining unit, is an important one. Chartwells employees have a different collective agreement, although they are still represented by CUPE 5791. At the University of Brandon, where Follet has taken over the bookstore, workers are paid minimum wage.

An email that was shared in confidence with the Carillon shows the issues that a student (who has Follett in their University) has faced since their bookstore was privatized. Given the subject matter of the e-mail, some of the names have been removed.

“There is a hiccup with sending you a book for course consideration. Your

bookstore is run by Follett. Unfortunately, Follett has stopped paying us

for books sent, and their accounts receivable department no longer answers

our emails. This pretty much means we are not paying royalties (as we

were not paid) to the Indigenous authors of the books Follett has ordered.

 Your bookstore manager ordered two copies of the book, DECOLONIZING

____________.  When we sent an e-invoice to be pre-paid, all conversation

ended.

___________________________, will be an excellent choice.  If you use it,

though, your students will have to order from either the publishing house

website or McNally Robinson¹s in _________.  Will this be a problem for you?”

Issues have also been occurring at Brandon University bookstore in Manitoba, which switched to Follet. These issues were highlighted in a University of Regina faculty email.

“To understand the transition, one of us consulted a colleague at Brandon University. He called the move from a University-owned store to Follett a “complete, unmitigated disaster” noting that he is still waiting for his textbooks for the fall 2020 term; that there was a loss of some unionized positions for former employees and the transition was not smooth; and that their Faculty intends to recommend not renewing Follett’s contract when it comes up. None of this is surprising if you look at the politics of Follett against independent bookstores (see linked article from Inside Higher Ed) and their increased consolidation of the market and elimination of choices for students.”

The email concludes with the following, describing the move as an unwise one.


“If stories emerging from other locations indicate engaging with Follett is not a wise decision, consultation could provide additional insights and build collegial solutions that work well for students, faculty and the University. We have a commitment to excellence in service and to sustainability of the University, but it doesn’t match the big business practices of Follett and other large bookstore managers who push independent stores out of business. We respectfully ask for a more consultative, collegial approach.”

Given the challenges that other universities have faced after partnering with Follett, the challenges the U of R already faces with Chartwells, and the lack of consultation with students or faculty over the move, which is set to take place in March of this year, the administration has a lot to answer for.

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