“One of the reasons I came to Georgetown was because of the Corp,” said Stephanie Wolfram (MSB ’13). “I came here during a random weekend, someone was showing me around and showed me the Corp, and I thought it was awesome that students were running this business.”
Even though a concussion prevented Wolfram, who is the Corp’s incoming Chief Operating Officer for 2012-2013, from making the application deadline in her first semester, she still maintains, like many Corpies before her, that her time at Georgetown has been defined by Students of Georgetown, Inc.
Founded in 1972 by then-student body President Roger Cochetti (SFS ’72) as a way to protect the rights of students, the Corp has grown from a few small co-ops in the 1970s to a veritable corporation, offering seven services that bring in over four million dollars in revenue per year. In 2011, Corp Philanthropy donated over $40,000 to student programs and initiatives.
Calling itself the world’s largest entirely student-run business and non-profit, the Corp acts as one of the University’s flagship organizations—Blue & Gray tour guides prominently feature the Corp to prospective students. But while the Corp is genuinely a business enterprise, the fact remains that it is run by undergraduate students. The Corp inhabits a unique space—as a multifaceted business, it copes with health inspections and day-to-day operations; as a student organization, it is a social outlet for its employees. Emails forwarded to the Voice anonymously by Corp employees reveal that the organization sometimes struggles to internally balance these roles and its status as a non-profit that must answer both to the University and to the District government.
As a non-profit unaffiliated with the University, the Corp is subject to inspection and regulation by the District government. When the D.C. Department of Health sends an inspector to campus, the Corp triggers a lantern system to make sure its employees are on guard and health-code compliant.
According to emails obtained by the Voice, when a health inspector was on campus, at least from a period from Apr. 28, 2011, to Oct. 13, 2011, the senior management would declare “Code Black,” during which health regulations were to be more strictly enforced.
During a “Code Black” on May 2, 2011, outgoing Chief Operating Officer Brooke Heinichen (COL’12) wrote in an email that “All employees on shift today must wear closed-toed shoes and have their shoulders covered. All coffee employees must wear hats. No scoopers in chai buckets, ice machines, or left on counters. No standing water (put the spoons under running water).”
“Code Black” was called at least three times in 2011. From the emails, it appears that coffee employees were only required to wear hats during these periods. Consequently, Heinichen requested that Corp employees collect any extra hats: “Any Corpies who can bring hats to any Corp service will save the day! As many hats as possible, as soon as possible.”
When initially asked whether there was a special protocol during health inspections, both outgoing Chief Executive Officer Alex Pon (COL ’12) and Heinichen responded negatively. “People are just supposed to stay clean on shift,” Pon said. [Full disclosure: Pon was formerly the Voice‘s Director of Technology].
When the Voice asked Heinichen about her “Code Black” email, she said the Corp inherited the term from previous classes “as a way of saying be on your game, the health inspector is here.” Heinichen insisted that all Corp establishments are always health code compliant.
Available inspection records did not reveal any major health code violations.
In the same interview, Heinichen said that hats are not required attire for coffee-shop employees. However, the Voice received an internal email to the Corp’s senior management sent after the interview when the hat question was asked. In it, Heinichen wrote, “Hats are the only thing that we technically do wrong.”
According to D.C. Health Code (Subtitle B, section 502.1), as long as employees serve unpackaged foods—like muffins and bagels—they are required to wear hair coverings. In fact, in anticipation of this feature, the Corp instituted a company-wide policy requiring all employees to wear hats. During the Voice’s investigation, former Vice Chair of the Corp Service and Outreach Committee Andrea Wallach (NHS ‘13) notified Midnight Mug’s staff of a new Corp-wide policy. “Everyone is required to wear hats on shift,” the Feb. 27 email to the Midnight Mug listserv reads. “[T]he health code demands it. There is no excuse for not wearing a hat on shift (and this includes people working outside the hours of usual health inspector visits) … THIS CORP-WIDE POLICY STARTS IMMEDIATELY.”
In a recent email to Corp senior management, Heinichen abolished the term “Code Black” from the Corp’s vernacular: “Let’s get rid of the term Code Black—eradicate it from use,” she wrote.
As one of the biggest and most visible institutions on campus, the Corp acts as a support group and a social outlet for its employees.
“What I found in the Corp is a family,” Wolfram said. “I got here and I really was struggling with the adjustment coming so far from home…I just had the hardest time making friends and finding my place. And I got in [the Corp]and I found a support system and people that supported me and helped me through all of my problems.”
The organization’s social ties are strengthened by the parties it throws for its employees, including welcome parties, a Christmas party, and a yearly blowout at the Georgetown Holiday Inn.
In celebration of the Corp’s “victory against the Department of Health”—the receipt of a nearly perfect health inspection certificate—Heinichen wrote in a May 2011 company-wide email that “I’ve arranged a huge party at the Holiday Inn on Wisconsin tonight with an open bar just to celebrate.”
At the beginning of the Voice’s investigation, Heinichen and Pon were asked in interviews if company funds were ever used to buy alcohol for official Corp parties. “The money comes primarily from tips, and employees contribute to the purchase of alcohol,” Pon said. “The Corp does pay for limited amounts of food and things like that. We also have an employee appreciation party at the end of every semester, and that’s sort of like room rental, and that sort of thing.”
Later, when asked about the mechanism through which employees contribute to buy alcohol at Corp-sponsored parties, Heinichen said “it’s informal.”
“There is an allocation in HR to pay for the venue and the catering. If people drink before or have alcohol, it’s not anything we have jurisdiction over or fund,” she said. “It’s not something that I regulate. It’s something that some social leader in the store decides to organize completely independent of our stores’ operation.”
According to internal memos obtained by the Voice, the Corp’s human resources budget was almost exclusively devoted to parties in the past. However, in recent years, management has rethought its HR budget, with an eye towards boosting legitimacy as a non-profit.
In an internal memorandum dated Jul. 6, 2009, entitled “Human Resources Budget,” then-Chief Operating Officer Phillip Goodman (SFS ’10) explained how the main office HR fund was expanded to be more than a party fund. “Traditionally, the human resources (HR) budget has primarily funded solely alcohol-related activities; very few line items on the fiscal year 2009 (FY 2009) budget covered expenses that were wholly non-alcoholic,” Goodman wrote. “In FY 08 we spent approximately $29,000 on HR and $35,000 on philanthropy.”
In large part, the memo describes changes Goodman wanted to make to the Corp’s financial structure. To him, these changes were important for improving the Corp’s legitimacy as a nonprofit: “When the IRS looks at our tax filings that are based on the prior year’s accounting records, it may investigate spending on HR versus living up to the organization’s mission; the mission that enables the organization to be a not-for-profit company under US tax code.”
He explained that such a substantial but otherwise unspecific HR budget would look odd to auditors. “A larger HR budget will draw more attention from the IRS than a smaller one or one clearly aligned with philanthropic contributions; our philanthropy budget and spending in a given year should well exceed our HR budget and spending.”
In Goodman’s view, decreased scrutiny from the IRS was just one potential benefit of expanding the function of the HR budget. “An HR budget that incorporates more than just spending money on parties would: (1) facilitate the realization of our new focus on professional development; (2) make our HR budget less of a ‘party slush fund’; and (3) reduce the rather controversial nature of our current HR budget,” the memo reads.
Outgoing Chief Financial Officer Scott Munro (COL’12) wrote in an email to the Voice that all event- or party-related expenses are and have been filed under the Human Resources expense for the Main Office and Accounting. The Main Office HR expense was $31,847 in 2010 and $27,294 in 2011, according to the Corp’s Annual Report 2011, the most recent available report.
In response to the 2009 HR budget memorandum, Munro recognized that Corp funds are and have been used to purchase alcohol. “I will level with you and say that a portion of our budget ends up getting used for alcohol,” he wrote in an email.
Yet Munro said much of the Main Office HR Budget is used for food and venue at the Holiday Inn. “In terms of the 27,000 dollars in MO [Main Office] budget. Like I said, a large portion of that goes towards the Holiday Inn rental charges, which do include alcohol fees, but they also include a substantial fee for space, DJing services, and other auxiliary services that the Holiday Inn provides us.”
Although acknowledging that company funds are used to purchase alcohol, Munro emphasized that the money used to purchase alcohol has been decreasing since the memorandum in 2009.
“The Corp has changed a lot over the past 4 years,” Munro wrote. According to him, the amount used on alcohol “is immensely minimal compared to the overall HR budget, and in those cases it’s not designated for alcohol use ONLY. Each service is allotted…maybe 20-60 dollars a party [not including the Holiday Inn party], depending on the size of the service. This money can be used for food, decorations, and a small amount of alcohol. If you’ve ever hosted a party 20 dollars is barely enough for anything BESIDES food and decorations. This money is not designated for alcohol, in any way shape or form.”
A significant portion of the Corp’s party funds are allocated towards the Holiday Inn—“well over 60 [percent],” according to Munro. The Corp’s public position has consistently been that the Holiday Inn checks participants for identification during their employee appreciation parties and welcome parties for new hires. “They card at the Holiday Inn,” Heinichen said.
Victoria Gamlen (COL ‘12), a two-time Holiday Inn attendee and former Corp employee at Hoya Snaxa, corroborated this policy. “Everyone, including myself, was carded before entering the ballroom and then given a wristband if they were able to drink,” she said. “I was never encouraged by my managers to bring a fake ID.”
Some managers, however, do encourage their employees to subvert Corp carding with fake IDs. The then-Hoya Snaxa Director of Personnel, addressed the carding issue in a December 2011 email to his staff: “Bring your fake, open bar at the Inn.”
Another email dated December 2008 shows the then-Director of Personnel for Vital Vittles encouraging Vittles employees to come with fake IDs in tow: “Bring your ID that says you’re 21 (wink wink) or find a Corpie that looks like you.”
Neither Pon nor incoming CEO Michael West—who replaces Pon as acting CEO today—responded to a request to comment on encouraging underage Corp employees to use fake identification.
The organization caught flak from the University last semester for one of its initiation parties.
Earlier this year, the Office of Student Conduct contacted the Corp about dangerous levels of alcohol consumption at a Corp event. Director of Student Conduct Judy Johnson sent an email entitled “Alleged CORP Initiation” to a group of senior Corp members regarding incidents on Sept. 25, 2011.
“According to the information forwarded to the Office of Student Conduct from the Department of Public Safety (DPS), a student was discovered in [a New South bathroom]in need of medical attention due to excessive alcohol consumption,” the email reads. “According to the DPS report, the student was allegedly involved in an off campus CORP ‘initiation.’” Later in the email, Johnson requested that the recipients meet with Student Conduct to discuss the Corp’s “possible connection with this incident.”
By all accounts, Corp management changed its party policies in response to the incident. “Last semester we dealt with Student Conduct in an annoyingly serious reprimand about hazing,” Heinichen wrote in a Jan. 12, 2012 email. “[A]nd we cracked down by separating any party content off of our store-sanctioned listservs and by banning the term initiation.”
Heinichen went on to enumerate what this no-initiation policy would look like from then on. “Don’t, under any circumstances, force or pressure a new or old hire to drink, and actively stop others from doing so. In every email that contains an address for a party, include a message that no one will be forced to drink,” the email reads.
“This is annoying, and I recognize that. You can write it off by saying, ‘Mom wants to remind you that no one is forced to drink alcohol at X event,’ or ‘Brooke needs you to know that…’ Put the fun-killing on me. That’s fine.” Later in the email, Heinichen referenced two new hires who were put under Georgetown Emergency Response Medical Service’s care, calling it “unacceptable.”
New CEO Michael West emphasized that the Corp takes allegations of hazing very seriously and builds disclaimers to that effect into their interview policies. “The Corp does not engage in hazing of any kind. There is absolutely no pressure to drink at any event,” he wrote in an email to the Voice. “We begin every New Hire Interview with this disclaimer, and we hold true to it.”
According to West, the initiation in question was essentially a misunderstanding. “Previous to this incident, The Corp did not engage in hazing of any kind,” he wrote. “We welcome, we don’t initiate…It’s a party that got the wrong label attached to it.”
When asked about what they wished for the University at large to know about the Corp, employees consistently respond about how much time and energy they spend trying to serve fellow students.
“What I wish that people saw more is how every decision we make, we obviously think about the wellbeing of the company and the employees,” Wolfram said. “Georgetown students are at the forefront of our minds.” Whether it’s opening Uncommon Grounds at precisely 8 a.m. every day to serve the regulars, or moving thousands of boxes from the path of a hurricane, Corp employees emphasize the company’s motto of “students serving students.”
Munro said he thinks the student opinion of the Corp—and the attendant press coverage—should focus more on the Corp’s relationship with the University. Although the Corp does a service by training future business people, it still has to pay rent. “If you want to know the real travesty about The Corp, it’s that even though we give so much back to the community, teach 264 Hoyas how to run a business, and attract potential students to Campus, we still pay the University upwards of $270,000 in rent every single year,” he wrote in an email to the Voice.
“That’s the real story in all this, but nobody ever bothers to comment about it, because it doesn’t make The Corp look bad,” he wrote. “Just a thought from someone who will be graduating soon, has seen too many stupid articles written, and would like to see one that actually makes a difference written.”
Author’s Note: The names of the then-Hoya Snaxa Director of Personnel and the then-Director of Personnel for Vital Vittles have been removed at the latter’s request. The Voice initially reported that the 2008 quote was by the then-Director of Vital Vittles, which has been corrected. The quote, however, was accurate. Other slight corrections have been made.