The Magic Words: 'Lunch Provided'

Brian Taylor

January 30, 2013

They've got us figured out, whoever it is who needs to persuade faculty members to pick up extra duties on the cheap. Because they know that nothing succeeds like the magical two-word formula, "lunch provided," or the more pedestrian variant (admit it, it's downright plebeian), "free lunch."

A senior colleague in my department routinely takes four to seven business days to respond to e-mail, even when it concerns urgent departmental business. He passes off that delay as an old-timer's struggle to keep up with "all this newfangled technology." He shouldn't get away with this—he's had e-mail access for nearly half his teaching career—but mostly he does.

Not in my book, though, for I have noted how quickly he responds when the admissions office e-mails us to invite representatives from the various majors to speak with prospective students at a noontime "meet and greet." Lunch, of course, is provided. That prompts a reply from my senior colleague just as rapid as my students' Pavlovian response to an incoming text message. I picture him virtually elbowing his way to the fore, lest someone claim his place in the lunch line.

He easily forgets biweekly department meetings, which have been scheduled in the same time slot for years, but he does not miss a free meal, or even a cake-and-punch reception for a departing staffer somewhere on the campus. I confess I've profited from knowledge of his habits. Once, I enticed him to read over the proofs of a journal article of mine on short notice. "I'll be back in an hour with some fries and a Coke. Can you look this over by then?"

I was thinking: I'll get a close reading and detailed comments, for the price of a Sunday paper. He was thinking: "Free food!"

As high schoolers or undergraduates, we were all taught that "there is no such thing as 'free lunch.'" Someone, somewhere, bears the cost of providing it for someone else. That is often trotted out as a gripe against the cost of various forms of public assistance. And it's a valid observation, to a point.

Of course my colleague's editing expertise was not free; he'd given me an hour of skilled labor for what comes out to a fraction of the minimum hourly wage. Had he done it gratis, as a professional courtesy, I would owe him the same thing in return. But in this case he was surprised by the offer of a drink and a side, and seemingly pleased with the exchange. I think we're good.

In most contexts, a free lunch is a bargain compared with what else would have to be offered to achieve the same end. In the absence of food stamps, for instance, we could expect to hear louder demands for more comprehensive social programs, with a heftier price tag.

In academe, I'm not sure what would work as effectively, for as little cost, as a free lunch. The "meet and greet" sessions at the admissions office last nearly two hours, at a cost of a box lunch for about a dozen faculty members, or roughly $200. That is smart money; recruiting students has a direct impact on the financial bottom line of a tuition-driven institution like our own. Compare that to what we pay for two hours of labor from a keynote speaker, typically a professor from somewhere else who collects an honorarium of $1,500 or more. Add in the speaker's travel costs, and we're spending at least $2,000 on something that has little or no impact on attracting students or their tuition dollars, and, thus, no impact on our financial bottom line.

In tougher times, for low-profile speakers, we still pay $200 or so. I got paid that much for giving an hour lecture to an RV-travel club of retirees passing through town. I sure didn't mind when half the crowd dozed through my talk, since I got paid either way. For them, it calls to mind what one wag said about opera: "It's the most expensive nap in town."

In bang for buck, free lunch is hard to beat, unless you can get the faculty to work for free.

There was a time when the faculty helped new students with course selection, cattle-call style, on designated days throughout the summer. We were paid $300 a day, and two days were required, albeit sometimes weeks apart (which could really mess with travel plans). Eventually we had to quit doing that because so few faculty members were willing to participate, payment or not. Now we have new students select courses with their major advisers, who aren't paid anything extra for it.

Sometimes you see the power of free lunch fully developed, but not harnessed. A friend recently took a job at an institution where the cafeteria offers free lunch to faculty members on the last Friday of every month. There's no separate faculty dining room, so professors typically don't eat there, even on a separate half-price day, which isn't much of a draw.

But Faculty Free-Lunch Friday is a big deal: Colleagues remind each other all week long and lock in table arrangements ahead of time. On the day itself, students straggle in to find that their punctual professors have descended like locusts and claimed all the cafeteria tables in prime locations, leaving students to wander the peripheries in search of a seat. They vanish again just as suddenly as they appeared, gone for another 30 days.

What couldn't that institution demand from its faculty in exchange for such a proven, powerful motivator as Faculty Free-Lunch Friday?

Another untapped reserve of the power of free lunch is the book publishers' exhibits at national conferences. I've skimmed my share of free sheet cake and mini-croissants from receptions for authors I may never have heard of, not because I was hungry but because it was there. If the publishers posted the sign, "Free With Purchase," on the refreshments, they might be surprised at the uptick in sales. We can easily talk ourselves out of buying yet another book; we can just as easily talk ourselves into it, if a cupcake is on the line. Alternately publishers could use the lure of free nibbling to lock in a new pool of manuscript reviewers.

When I was a minty-fresh Ph.D. ("newly minted" is so cliché), the end of my visiting-professor position was in sight while the next job had yet to appear. I used to joke with my fellow job seekers about standing in a tweed jacket at the highway interchange with an academic update on the panhandler's sign: "Will Work for PHooD." It sounds like a New Yorker cartoon I probably saw on some tenured faculty member's office door. Perhaps we had on our minds the discomforting implications of the 1997 book Will Teach for Food: Academic Labor in Crisis, edited by Cary Nelson, an English professor and former president of the American Association of University Professors.

Of course our joking was just graveyard humor, whistling in the dark, laughing off the deep-seated and very real fear of being not only unemployed, but unemployable. I applied for jobs at places I knew I would not want to go, wondering how far down the scale of desirability I might descend just to land full-time employment. Adjunct wages were like food stamps: not enough to live on, but enough to sustain hope in the interval. Recalling those lean times underscores how ridiculous is the spectacle of tenured professors drawn across the campus by free food. Ridiculous or not, it's there; watch for it. Maybe it's just ingrained: Many faculty members, no matter how well they are doing careerwise now, never stop seeing themselves as the struggling graduate students they once were.

Lest I sound too superior, I must disclose my own susceptibility to the magic spell of "free lunch." I donate blood regularly; the Red Cross has me down for a standing noontime appointment. Why noon? Because in my book, that pathetic baloney sandwich I'm given after the donation with the jarred applesauce and store-bought sandwich cookies straight out of the plastic tray counts as a lunch. And I was actually bummed when they dropped potato chips from the menu a couple years back.

Lunch is a potent tool; buying lunch for a colleague can buy you a lot of good will. Keep that in mind if you need to ask someone to write a recommendation letter, to serve as department chair, or start a new research project. There's something about doing a small thing like buying lunch for the other person that makes that other person more inclined to agree to do something for you.

Just don't invite them to lunch at the blood drive, or you'll never live it down. Sadly, I can say that from experience. You sure can't ask a favor, because they've already given a precious pint for a lousy sandwich; thankfully I didn't need to. And my colleague insisted we go somewhere else for some real food afterward, and meekly I had to agree.

Probably I do still owe my senior colleague a favor, even if he doesn't think so. I've been bugging him for years to publish an article from research he's kept simmering on the back burner. If he ever writes it, reading it over seems like the least I could do.

He'd just better offer me food.

John Lemuel is the pseudonym of an associate professor in the social sciences at a small liberal-arts college in the Midwest.