The Hospitality of HDH Director Mark Cunningham


There are very few accessible public photos of AVC Cunningham. Photo courtesy of The UCSD Guardian, April 1, 2002.

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Keeping In Context

“Students are lazy and they don’t really want to commute, so it’s a real big challenge.”

That’s what Housing*Dining*Hospitality (HDH) Director Mark Cunningham said to a panel of around 100 developers, builders, and architects last November.

Apart from picking up traction on Reddit, his comments, published in the Business Section of The San Diego Union Tribune, flew mostly under the radar.

At the panel, Cunningham also gave his take on graduate students’ housing needs, saying that they choose to live in specific areas for the quality beer.  

“Graduate students live in the Hillcrest and North Park area because they want expensive IPAs,” Cunningham said.

Students online were incensed.

“Good to know our administration is taking our problems seriously I guess,” said the student who posted the article on Reddit.

Another commenter took issue with Cunningham’s dismissal of graduate student needs.

“Graduate students can’t afford expensive IPAs,” said one commenter. “This is really a grotesque character assassination of the workforce that the University depends on in order to hide the University’s own culpability for mismanaging its resources.”

When the The Triton reached out via email to Cunningham about the quotes several months ago, he disagreed with how the article presented his quotes and took a different tone. “I want to be clear: students are the antithetical of lazy,” he said.

Cunningham also said that his words were taken “out of context.”

They were not.

“I would never put a quote in the paper that wasn’t true, and I don’t see how it could be ‘out of context’ considering he only spoke for five minutes or so,” said Phillip Molnar, the author of the article and a veteran journalist at The San Diego Union Tribune. Molnar told The Triton that UCSD staff members emailed him the day after the story came out to ask him to make a minor correction: “the number of UC San Diego students that [HDH] houses is 15,000 – not 1,500.” Molnar said that they never corrected him about anything else or mentioned the quotes were taken out of context in any way.

“It’s clear Cunningham didn’t know there was a reporter in the room, but that happens more than you’d think,” Molnar said, expressing regret that he did not follow-up on the story right after Cunningham made the comments.

“I’m kicking myself now because a student at UC San Diego contacted me after the story [was published] and was like, ‘Did he actually say that?’”

The Palace by the Sea

Despite having one of the most influential jobs at UC San Diego, most students have no idea who Mark Cunningham is or even what he does.

As of 2015, his responsibilities included housing over 14,987 UC San Diego students, staff, and faculty; managing over 5.3 million square feet of facilities contained in 400 buildings; and employing over 600 career staff and 1000 students. More officially and unbeknownst to many of the students government members that do know him, he is also an Associate Vice Chancellor.

From his office at the top of the Housing*Dining*Hospitality (HDH) Administrative Complex, Cunningham oversees all housing and dining services, as well as the custodial staff that maintain them.

Outside the HDH office windows, parasailers glide over the La Jolla coast. The occasional fly-by plane advertisement greets his morning routine. His office is several stories above Chancellor Khosla’s, which is situated in a single-story repurposed wooden barracks by the Price Center Bookstore.

Cunningham, who was there before the HDH administrative building was built, who advocated for its construction, and who has worked in it since, has been on campus for nearly 40 years. The building itself is unmistakable: a multiple-story complex located in Revelle College and off of Scholars Dr. that, with it’s distinctive exterior blue paneling, reflects the San Diego sunset and overlooks the La Jolla coast.

One UCSD staff member said that Cunningham only looks at the university and students from a bird’s-eye view. This description is both literal and figurative: his interactions with students are few and far in between.

Connor Gorry / The Triton

Connor Gorry / The Triton

To his credit, Cunningham has done a good job keeping HDH financially solvent. By his account, HDH “provides one of the lowest board options in the UC system while providing the most dining options for our residents.” The organization is also completely self-funded; it takes in no money from student tuition or the state.

However, Cunningham is also in charge of an organization that faces frequent student criticism. On a campus plagued by food and housing insecurity, many students see HDH as uninterested in meeting students’ needs. His salary, although consistent with other administrative increases, only compounds this. In 2011, Cunningham made $174,366.68. By 2015 his salary increased $32,785.32 to a total of $207,152.00.

“We pledge to meet the needs of our customers with the highest level of professionalism, social responsibility, and service using all of our available resources,” Cunningham said in a 2016 email to The Triton.

Instead of simply saying “students,” Cunningham also likes to call students “customers,” the  same language used by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. This attitude is made clear in his emails and is reflected in all HDH communications.  

Cunningham’s language begs several questions. While he is not the sole representative of HDH, Cunningham is the organization’s director. Who is the “we” that Cunningham is talking about? How do his actions reflect on our university and what should the student body expect in terms of accountability? And what has he done for the students — or “customers” — who he works for?

“Often Misunderstood… Often Misunderstands People”

In order to afford housing near the UCSD campus, former Associated Students (ASUCSD) President Dominick Suvonnasupa chose to eat two meals a day instead of three.

Because he was late looking for housing, Suvonnasupa said that for the entire first quarter during his term as ASUCSD President, he was essentially homeless.

“During first quarter, I just kind of couchsurfed for a while,” Suvonnasupa said. During this time, he said that he quickly found that the burden of being AS president could be a significant drain on one’s personal well-being.

“The entire first quarter, I think I just crashed with my friends… I slept in my car… I definitely slept in my office,” he said. “I can assure you I wasn’t the first president to have done that.”

As president, Suvonnasupa was instrumental in forming the Basic Needs Committee, the predecessor to The Office of Food and Housing Resources. Suvonnasupa said that he felt a serious disconnect when talking to some administrators on campus about food and housing insecurity.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to different administrators that asked me, ‘Is it really like that for students? Are students really living like this?’” he said. “And I’d be like, ‘Yes… Because I’m living this.’”

Daniel Lee / The Triton

Daniel Lee / The Triton

Suvonnasupa said that, despite these conversations with most administrators, two were critical in providing him with a support system: Vice Chancellor Juan Gonzalez, whose office provided the initial support for The Triton Food Pantry; and, perhaps counter to the narrative that he doesn’t care about students, AVC Mark Cunningham. Suvonnasupa said that on an individual level, he felt a lot of support from Cunningham, but he also said that he had a hard time conveying that his problems of food and housing insecurity were not just his own — they are systematic.

“Mark is actually a great guy,” he said. “I think he’s often misunderstood and he often misunderstands people.”

In the 2014-15 school year, former All Campus Commuter Board Chair Esperanza Gutierrez attempted to address the fact that some single rooms in the dorms had been converted to “mini-doubles,” housing two students instead of one. When she attempted to address it, Gutierrez felt that Cunningham was “kinda dismissive” and “kept saying the housing situation is complex.”

While other UC’s like Berkeley and Los Angeles were built in walkable communities with access to transit, La Jolla is a coastal community with few practical transportation options. Local commuter busses are often crowded and infrequent. In La Jolla, the average rent per month for an apartment as of 2015 was $2,039. A student parking permit is $183 per academic quarter. Yet, Cunningham sees a long wait list as indicative of a successfully run program.

“Last year alone, we had nearly 1,000 single UG [undergraduate] students on our wait list to live and dine on campus that we could not house,” said Cunningham. “So we see that as validating that our customers see the value of our program.”

While Cunningham does emphasize that HDH is a “not-for-profit enterprise,” he contends that “the overall savings compared to living off-campus [are]to be about 20% in current market conditions, along with intangible value associated with convenience.”

Suvonnasupa said that if you can explain things the right way to Cunningham, he may be more willing to listen. He described the gap between Cunningham and students as generational: from his perspective, Cunningham has a set way he likes to do things from which he never deviates.  

“He definitely really tries,” he said. “He tries to be more collaborative and he tries to be more open minded. But he was raised in a different era. He’s kind of from this old school mentality.” Ultimately, Suvonnasupa believes that Cunningham “has his heart in the right place;” he just thinks that Cunningham sometimes misses the mark.

“He is a staunch advocate for students,” said Suvonnasupa. “The problem is, I’m not sure he knows what kind of advocacy students need.”

The Hand That Feeds

In response to the growing needs of students on campus, ASUCSD created The Triton Food Pantry in 2015 with initial funding from the Office of the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs. The pantry, also initially funded by the University Office of the President, the San Diego Food Bank, and Vice Chancellor Juan Gonzalez, serves as a resource for student community members who are in need of food.

Former Food Pantry Manager and current ASUCSD President Lesly Figueroa has spent much of career at UCSD focusing on food and housing insecurity. However, like many other students, her relationship with AVC Cunningham has not been a supportive one. Figueroa said that one UCSD staff member told her directly: “Good luck with Mark. We know he doesn’t like the pantry.”

However, Figueroa feels that this attitude isn’t representative of the entire HDH organization — just Cunningham.

“People have this idea that HDH does not like that pantry, for whatever reason,” Figueroa said. “Not all of HDH feels that way.”

In several meetings with campus representatives and student government officials, AVC Cunningham has argued that we shouldn’t have a food pantry on campus, but proposed no alternatives.

In 2016, 68 percent of students skipped or cut the size of meals because there wasn’t enough money for food at least once at UCSD. Across the entire UC system, four in 10 students do not have a consistent source of high-quality, nutritious food.

Urban Studies & Planning student Katie Hosch was appointed to the new role of Associate Vice President of Food and Housing Resources in 2016, a position created to advocate for and oversee new campus infrastructure related to food and housing insecurity, like the Triton Food Pantry.

Photo courtesy of Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego Publications.

Photo courtesy of Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego Publications.

“We see time and again that there are many folks who live on campus who utilize the food pantry, which means either financial aid isn’t doing enough to cover the appropriate amount for students, or HDH’s prices are so absurd that folks run out of Dining Dollars, so they need another way to feed themselves,” said Hosch.

From last year to this year, the pantry saw a 60 percent increase in visits from undergraduate and graduate students. In the 2016-2017 school year, the pantry saw over 3,000 visits each during both Fall and Winter quarter. Close to 600 of these visits were from graduate students, who likely cannot afford “expensive IPAs.”

“I personally disagree with Mark, because no matter how much we try and no matter what additional services we provide, there will always be a need for emergency food relief,” Hosch said.

On October 26, 2017, Cunningham spoke to ASUCSD about housing solutions and future housing opportunities. In his closing remarks, he made unprompted comments about the food pantry that upset several ASUCSD Senate members.

“Cunningham told the Senate that the Triton Food Pantry was ‘wrong’ and that we should not have students who should be starving,” said former ERC Senator Sabira Parajuli. ”But he did not offer any solutions on what he or HDH would do.”

Parajuli said that Cunningham’s behavior and dismissal toward students is infuriating to see from such a high level administrator.

Outgoing Muir Senator Sima Navid feels much of the same way. She said that Cunningham phrased everything carefully, but he suggested that ASUCSD should find a way to get rid of the pantry or at least make it unnecessary within the next two years.

“He was asking the students to get rid of food insecurity, when part of his position is [managing] dining on this campus,” she said. “His inability to address food insecurity is to the extent that he thinks students have the ability to get rid of it themselves.”

“He’s Relentless!”

In addition to employees that work in the administrative office and dining halls, Cunningham is also in charge of a vast number of custodial staff that maintain HDH’s residential complexes and dining halls. A 2012 qualitative study by UCSD Masters Candidate Nancy Madrid on the working conditions of custodial workers at UCSD found that nearly half were female and approximately 57 percent were of Latinx origin.

When asked if they could participate in the study, several custodial workers said that they would “rather not get involved,” with one worker saying that she was “outright scared” to speak her mind.

“Some even preferred to meet at a separate location than the area where they usually had lunch, for fear of being seen by their supervisors and facing possible consequences for having spoken about their working conditions,” wrote Madrid.

She focused her paper on the working conditions and treatment of custodial workers, digging into a 2010 incident involving the use of a steam machine called the “Karcher DE 4002.”

In 2010, HDH ordered custodians to make use of the machine in order to more effectively clean dormitories and housing. Management said that the steam machine would be more effective at cleaning areas and more environmentally—friendly; it was neither.

Connor Gorry / The Triton

Connor Gorry / The Triton

Over the period of four months that workers were required to use the machine, nearly thirty workers were inflicted with injuries including “steam burns, nerve damage, chronic neck pain and back pain.”

When ASUCSD and local unions started advocating against the use of the steam machines, HDH prepared a staff member to advocate for the steam machines during a student government meeting. For the entirety of this process, AVC Mark Cunningham could not be reached by student media for comment.

“I feel like I don’t belong here most of the time,” one anonymously-cited custodial worker told Madrid. “The treatment is very inhumane, I’m ignored. I give my best and only end up stressed out or physically hurt. I sacrificed a lot to be here and I thought I would be better off as a university worker, but I’m so far from that.”

“I just feel the poor salary is one thing, but I think what hurts the workers more is that we are not being treated with respect,” said another member of the custodial staff.

In 2012, ASCFME 3299, the University of California’s largest employee union, ended its list of demands by asking Cunningham and Director of Building Services Jeff Wadel to follow the UC Code of Conduct and UCSD Principles of Community in relation to the rights of their workers. On Friday June 8, custodial workers held a protest outside of the HDH Administrative Building, demanding better treatment. Staff inside did not interact with them, and AVC Cunningham did not directly address them.

After no small period of conflict, the union’s demands were met that year.

In 2010, the same year Madrid’s qualitative study came out, Cunningham won a “Safety Award For Excellence,” for other commendable, but unrelated initiatives. The description for his award begins with one short sentence describing his commitment to staff safety:

“He’s relentless!”

The Customer

Since his arrival in 1979, Cunningham has worked at the University for almost 40 years. In the early 1980’s, he was the Warren College Residence Dean. And in 2001, Cunningham replaced his former boss, HDH Director Larry Barrett, who served in the position for 36 years.

Before he retired, in a letter to the editor praising Barrett, UCSD alumnus Paul A. Trevino opined: “May we, as alumni and current students, be so fortunate to find someone to replace Larry that is as genuine and devoted as he has been to this university.”

University administrators make decisions that shape the student experience and their ability to obtain an education. For students, especially those who are traditionally underserved, access to resources can be the key to being retained at the university and earning a diploma.

At a university where students face increasing food and housing insecurity and where some custodial staff feel uncomfortable speaking out against their working conditions, does HDH use all of their available resources to meet student and staff needs, especially those who are underserved?

Cunningham might argue that he has done a fantastic job in striving to make HDH’s available resources available for customers.

It is apt to wonder, though, if the old idiom remains true; if custodial staff are scared to discuss working conditions and students are consistently asking for changes due to food and housing insecurity… Is the customer always right?

Gabe Schneider is the News Editor of The Triton.