The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

Letter to the Editor | The Illini Union has transformed into a hub for discrimination

Mehrdad Mohammadi

In 1941, the Illini Union was established with a noble vision: to serve as a home for student organizations, meetings, programs and activities. However, this once-vibrant hub has regrettably transformed into an unwitting advocate for discrimination under the recent management of the Illini Union director, coupled with an undisclosed exclusive contract — memorandum of understanding — with University Catering.

The saga began with a disheartening five-month ordeal imposed upon the Iranian Heritage Foundation, a registered student organization steeped in tradition, culture and art. 

Despite meticulous adherence to Office of Business and Financial Services policies, compliance with insurance requirements of the Risk Management department and acknowledging University Catering’s incapability to provide quality authentic dishes — along with several negative experiences with their services — IHF’s endeavors to celebrate a cultural tradition featuring authentic cuisine were callously thwarted. 

The culprit? The unwavering loyalty of the Illini Union to University Catering, a decision seemingly motivated by financial gain.

According to “Memorandum of Understanding / Partnership Agreement for Catering Services,” an official agreement between University Housing and the Illini Union, Section G holds that “University Housing agrees to transfer a commission in the amount of 10% net sales of all Catering functions provided by UH within the Illini Union” — a 10% sales commission flowing back to the Illini Union.

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“The main concern is that if we allow you (IHF) to use a caterer other than University Catering, then others might also want to do so in the future,” said Rebecca Salzman, director of the Illini Union. The Illini Union would lose profits if other RSOs used outside catering for outside events.

Lowa Mwilambwe, the associate vice chancellor for Auxiliary, Health & Wellbeing, callously dismissed our efforts, stating, “ … this is our policy, why bother yourself and us for having your event on campus? Why don’t you go off-campus to have your (cultural) events?” 

This blatant disregard for cultural values and diversity, in favor of monetary incentives, raises serious questions about the Illini Union’s commitment to its professed principles. The Illini Union, funded almost entirely by direct student fees, seemingly prioritizes these small profits over the cultural enrichment it should provide.

Undoubtedly, food is more than sustenance; it is a symbol of culture and diversity. While many campus divisions boast about their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion on their websites, actions speak louder than words. The Illini Union, supposedly representing all student activities, has failed to live up to its promise under this management. Even the cultural centers under student affairs avoid hosting events featuring cultural cuisine showcases there, opting for alternative venues such as the ARC. 

This brings forth significant concerns about fostering diversity within a student union, and it is perplexing why the vice chancellor for Student Affairs is seemingly overlooking this issue. A significant factor in this divergence is the hegemony of University Catering adopting an attitude of, “It’s either my way or the highway.” 

Take their exorbitantly priced and lackluster diverse international menu. Couple that with subpar dishes and an event planning approach with an insistence on preparing dishes their chefs have no expertise in. Add an ethos toward monetary gain despite their own acknowledged inability to deliver quality, resulting in a tarnished reputation for cultural event planners on campus.

Undeniably, this approach has stifled genuine cultural representation on campus thus far. It is crucial to recognize that this building belongs to “students” and is intended to serve them, not to cater exclusively to the interests of University Catering. 

It is crucial to recognize that forcing RSOs and units to work exclusively with University Catering if they want to use the Illini Union, with no alternative options, is discriminatory and lacks meaningful justification, other than to maintain their monopoly at any cost.

Despite IHF’s consultations with Student Success, Inclusion & Belonging and the Office for Access & Equity, it appears that only one value is truly honored by the Illini Union’s director: money. 

This troubling trend undermines the diligent efforts on campus to promote diversity and inclusion through cultural programming. The above policies have nothing to do with “success,” “inclusion,” “belonging,” “access” and “equity” — words that only appear on the websites, not in practice.

The Iranian community, one of the largest ethnic groups on campus and boasting one of the largest RSOs and cultural units in the history of the campus — annually investing more than a hundred thousand dollars in cultural programming — has a storied history dating back to 1961.

Despite decades of hosting cultural events on campus and at the Illini Union, we assert that the current attitudes of key figures, including the associate vice chancellor, student housing director, University Catering director of dining and Illini Union director, have metamorphosed the once-revered University unit into “The Office of Discrimination” for the campus community.

I am Mehrdad Mohammadi, a graduate student in statistics. The undisclosed exclusive contract between the Illini Union and University Catering can be downloaded here.

For further inquiries, you can contact me at [email protected], and all FOIA responses and email communications related to the aforementioned incident are available to the public.


[email protected]

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