Hunter’s Undergraduate Student Government hosted a town hall last Tuesday that addressed, among other issues, students’ concerns regarding a possible Starbucks on the first floor of Hunter West. USG spent more than half of the meeting answering questions about the deal after discussing plans for the North building elevators and the fifth floor of the library.
“To start off with, USG had no idea about the Starbucks deal until everyone else found out as well,” said Kamalpreet Kaur, USG’s president. “So, one thing to keep in mind is none of this has been with our say. We’re just informing you of what we’ve been told, but we are trying our best to get a say in this.”
The town hall occurred two weeks after a group of students organized a press conference raising questions about a potential contract between the college and the coffee chain. Kaur read a statement similar to the one Dean Ayravainen gave to The Envoy explaining that the contract is not finalized yet, but the proposed location has always served as a retail space.
The student government will form an internal committee to act as a liaison between students and the administration, said Kaur. That committee will attend meetings with school officials, share meeting minutes with the public and bring students’ ideas directly to Hunter representatives working on the deal, according to Kaur.
“So we speak to the people directly in charge and see what we can do,” said Kaur, a senior studying community health.
Members of Free CUNY, organizers of the campaign against Starbucks, joined other Hunter students at the USG town hall to ask questions. Briana Calderón-Navarro, a super senior studying art and a Free CUNY activist, asked how students could change the proposed Starbucks location from a privately-owned retail space to a public space like a student food pantry.
USG can discuss ideas students have for the proposed Starbucks space with President Raab and other Hunter officials, said Elise Wang, USG’s finance commissioner. Wang referred to past instances where USG negotiated more mental health counseling sessions and the inclusion of the Fresh Food Box program, which distributes fresh food and vegetables to students at a discounted price, as examples of how the student government advocated for students in the past.
However, New York State regulates different zoning laws for selling food versus distributing free food, said Gillian Blanco, USG’s vice president. CUNY and Hunter designated the proposed Starbucks location as a retail space, which is why the coffee chain can set up shop, but not a pantry, according to USG’s vice president.
Blanco, a senior majoring in human biology, also addressed a question about whether students need to buy something to sit in the proposed Starbucks. She said USG will advocate for students so they can stay there without paying. Blanco made it clear that no tuition money would finance the retail space.
Kaur also mentioned some ideas Hunter and Starbucks have discussed, but not finalized yet: discounts, potential job opportunities and student artwork in the space.
Some students said they thought USG answered questions as best as they could.
“Going forward, I would like to work with them [USG] about making sure there is more food and space and to stop the privatization of Hunter College,” said Alex Pellitteri, a sophomore studying history and a Free CUNY activist. “But something I would like to know more about is how there can be student input. It does seem now that this decision is being made for us as opposed to this decision being made collectively by the students.”
Kaur said students can message USG on Facebook or Instagram, submit concerns on forms it circulates online or walk into the student government office in Thomas Hunter 201 to talk to a representative.
Other Free CUNY members said they are interested in how USG will work with students in the future and that they will continue their campaign against Starbucks.
“We’re going to keep up the fight,” said Henry Fernberger, a senior majoring in Ancient Greek and Latin and a Free CUNY activist. “We’re the watchdogs. We’re out here just trying to make sure that students are being heard.”
Kaur said USG will attend the town hall Free CUNY will host in the spring about the Starbucks deal to share any updates that student government obtained from Hunter’s administration.