Students Demand Starbucks Town Hall, Dean Responds

On a cold afternoon during dean’s hours, students gathered in a circle outside of Hunter West. Two undergraduates unfurled a bright orange banner with Free CUNY’s name on it. At 2 p.m., a student wearing a leather jacket that said “Protect Your Art” on the back started speaking to the burgeoning crowd. 

“Administration will tell you that our school needs more money and Starbucks is great for students,” said Briana Calderón-Navarro, a super senior studying art and co-organizer of the event, in her opening speech. “But I am convinced we deserve better.”

Briana Calderón-Navarro speaking at the anti-Starbucks press conference in front of the Free CUNY banner.
Briana Calderón-Navarro gives the opening speech at the student-organized press conference. Photo by Tatia Kutaladze

A group of activists held a press conference last Wednesday to address Hunter’s plan to lease campus space to Starbucks. Free CUNY, a group working to make CUNY tuition-free; WHCS Radio, Hunter’s student-run radio station; and the college’s chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America co-hosted the event. The college intends to open a branch of the coffee chain on the first floor of Hunter West next to the escalators, confirmed Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Eija Ayravainen in a statement to The Envoy.

The activists called for a town hall to speak directly to administration, where they expressed their opposition to what they referred to as the corporatization of a public institution. Ayravainen said the administration will work with Hunter’s Undergraduate Student Government to address student concerns about the Starbucks. 

USG confirmed it will host a town hall on Tuesday, Dec. 3 from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., which will be live-streamed on its Facebook and Instagram pages. The town hall’s location is to be determined, according to USG.

In the meantime, students continue to state their opinions on the deal through different outlets. At last Wednesday’s press conference, students met near the proposed Starbucks location to voice their concerns with the contract, the shortage of space at the college and what they describe as insufficient transparency from the university. 

“Hunter is lacking a lot of things. Places to get coffee is not one of them,” said Robin Marshall, a junior studying geography, co-organizer of the press conference and Free CUNY activist. “If the Hunter administration believes that students need another one, they’re clearly out of touch with our needs.”

Robin Marshall speaks on behalf of Free CUNY during last Wednesday’s press conference. Photo by Tatia Kutaladze

The campaign against Starbucks began when a group of art students wanted the space for exhibitions, according to Calderón-Navarro. The previous renter, The Canvas by Querencia Studios, lent the room to undergraduate creatives for three shows during the spring semester, said Calderón-Navarro. 

After learning about the Starbucks deal, the art students started a petition for a town hall. During the summer, Calderón-Navarro began a video series called “Hunter College Exposed,” which she describes as an art project to express her feelings on the issues she sees at Hunter College. The videos, collectively, have almost 10,000 views on Youtube. 

After joining Free CUNY, Calderón-Navarro found other students who connected to the cause, and the movement against Starbucks grew. Their circulating petitions have over 500 signatures combined, according to Calderón-Navarro. 

A poster promotes one of the art shows students held in the proposed Starbucks location. Image provided by Briana Calderón-Navarro

As for the contract, Hunter and Starbucks have not set an opening date because the agreement is still in the works, according to the dean.

“While the contract is not yet finalized, we are excited to bring another food option to campus that will have dedicated space for members of the Hunter community to study and socialize, with an entire second level of open seating,” said Ayravainen. 

In 2015, Hunter underwent a “Master Planning Process” in which over 1,500 college community members gave input on their priorities for space usage, said Ayravainen. The results of the survey showed students wanted comfortable seating, more food options and “socially vibrant and productive” spaces, according to the dean. 

The college issued an RFP, or request for proposals, and determined Starbucks as the one viable response, according to the dean. The revenue generated from the rental will fund operating budgets and infrastructure renovations, including roof repairs and renovations of the plaza outside of the Hunter West lobby, said Ayravainen.

Isaiah Halley-Segal speaks at Wednesday's press conference.
Sophomore Isaiah Halley-Segal from Hunter’s chapter of the YDSA speaks at Wednesday’s press conference. Photo by Melissa Lent

Some students who attended the press conference said the coffee chain fails to align with their vision of an ideal student spot. Jake Barr uses the area outside of the proposed Starbucks as a community space, but said he fears those who socialize there will be removed to benefit customers. 

“We want something that reflects our values. We don’t want a Starbucks. That doesn’t reflect us,” said Barr, a senior studying film and theater. “I go to a public school because I want to see public goods. I want to see this be a public institution, and we’re privatizing it.” 

As for Calderón-Navarro, she expressed the campaign’s success lies with the people behind it.

“I’m here to stand in solidarity with students, first and foremost, and defend this space from Starbucks and any other potential interests,” said Calderón-Navarro. 

She confirmed during the press conference that Free CUNY will host a town hall in the spring semester to speak further on the deal “whether the administration likes it or not.” 

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