Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Last Wednesday, the directors of the student-run Paces Café discovered they wouldn’t be allowed to re-open this semester. For now, over 30 Paces employees have lost their jobs. The reason? An audit from the Business Office. The closure? Hopefully temporary. In the meantime, the administration plans to keep a dramatically stripped-down version of Paces running and keep some of its workers employed there.
“Our longer term goal is to work with students to develop a plan to re-imagine a student run café that will be in alignment with the College’s business practices and would be ready to open in the Fall of 2017,” Assistant Director for Student Life Andrew Barclay wrote in an e-mail to The Daily Gazette.
Paces got into trouble because of its previous business practices. The most problematic of these was the café’s acceptance of credit cards, which other campus establishments don’t do. Barclay said that the way Paces handled credit cards carried certain cyber-security risks as well. Paces director Raffaella Luzi Stoutland ’17 said the College had complained about the practice before, but that it had tolerated it. Stoutland said accepting credit cards had been the only way for Paces to make enough money, since students don’t always carry cash on campus. Even so, the café is not self-sustaining and has received over $30,000 each year in college funding.
OneCard was supposed to be a solution. When Paces faced increased competition from local restaurants because students could now use meal points there, Stoutland and other Paces leaders began to argue that getting on OneCard would be the only way for Paces to survive. If Paces could accept OneCard, it wouldn’t need to rely on credit cards to maximize its income, either. Administrators seemed open to this solution, but, according to Stoutland, they made a new demand: if Paces was to get on OneCard, it had to become self-sustaining. That would mean no more $30,000/year College subsidies. Paces leadership began working with the administration to draft a business plan, creating encouraging signals about Paces’ OneCard prospects, according to Stoutland.
Then the trouble started. While Paces prepared to get on OneCard—even hiring more students because it expected more customers—administrators began to audit the café’s finances. They said that the way Paces handled cash, its use of credit cards, and other practices contradicted those of the College in general. So they decided to shut down Paces’ business operations for the rest of the semester.
“In response to the preliminary audit findings Paces Cafe cannot accept any form of payment due to these lack of internal controls,” Barclay wrote. The Business Office will spend the rest of the semester auditing Paces’ finances and accounting practices.
According to Stoutland, who heard about this only last Wednesday, February 8, the decision was unexpected. Paces leadership announced the closure in an email to their staff on Friday. They called it “unfair.” Stoutland said the administration acted wrongly by making it seem as if Paces would get OneCard, and then shutting it down for a semester at the last minute.
It was the unexpectedness that most angered Paces worker Louisa Grenham ’19, who recently moved off-campus and relied on the Paces job to pay for basic day-to-day necessities like food and textbooks.
“It felt literally like the rug was pulled under me,” said Grenham, who is now looking into off-campus jobs like babysitting.
In an email to Paces staff obtained by The Daily Gazette, Barclay said, “I want to let you know that I understand your disappointment about the closure of Paces Cafe.”
For the rest of the semester, administrators hope to keep Paces operating as a kind of shell of its former self: a smaller staff would serve catered food for free. Barclay said he hopes new programming, like open mics and movie screenings, will continue to attract students to Paces while College officials sort through its accounting. The administration is also trying to create other on-campus jobs for students who would be temporarily fired. If all goes according to plan, Paces should re-open in the fall.
But Stoutland is skeptical about Barclay’s hope to re-imagine Paces. She said the closure fits into a larger administrative effort to tighten its control over the independently run café.
“Honestly, I don’t know. I have always suspected that, in part, re-imagining a student-run café [means] having more supervision,” she said.
Featured image shows Paces in 2010. Photo by Treasure Tinsley ’15.