A thirst for more than knowledge

Refresher course: Concern over Towson University's soft drink deal shows the power of carbonation on campus.

March 14, 2001|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

To the students, it's a matter of taste.

To the administration, it's about dollars and cents.

Guess which criterion matters more in this Pepsi Challenge?

Towson University's exclusive five-year deal with the Pepsi-Cola Co. will end in a year. The university is to choose this month which vendor will enjoy beverage domination over its 328-acre campus through 2007.

The decision is expected to come down to two bidders: Pepsi, which won the university's first-ever "pouring rights" $1.3 million contract in 1997, and Coca-Cola Co., the unsuccessful bidder at the time. But until the winning contract is forwarded to the state Board of Public Works for final approval, all bids are sealed.

Today's Towson seniors cannot even remember a time when they had a choice on campus. But, with the contract on the table again, the issue has bubbled up - in the editorial pages of the Towerlight, Towson's twice-weekly student newspaper, and at lunch tables throughout the campus.

"It's amazing," said Towerlight editor-in-chief Adam S. Reisinger. "We have a lot of serious issues here at Towson - a new president, parking problems. But all anyone seems to care about is Coke vs. Pepsi."

Procurement Director Peggy O'Connell said she can't reveal how many companies are vying for the right to serve their products in Towson's dining halls and vending machines. The university, the second-largest in the state system, wouldn't even release its contract with Pepsi, saying it had to be reviewed for "confidential" passages that may reveal proprietary business information.

Such contracts are now common at colleges and universities. The beverage companies get a monopoly; the institutions receive contributions to scholarship funds and a percentage of the sales. Towson University, which has almost 19,000 students, faculty and staff members, sold 35,522 cases of Pepsi products in 2000, a 27 percent increase over 1999 sales, according to information provided potential bidders.

An online Towerlight poll on the issue drew one of the largest responses this semester, Reisinger said. For the record, students who voted in this random, decidedly unscientific survey preferred a deal with Coke (58.8 percent) or no contract at all (32.4 percent) to another deal with Pepsi (8.8 percent).

"No matter what we do, someone's going to be unhappy," said Joseph Oster, associate vice president for auxiliary services, whose soft drink preferences run to "which one is on sale this week."

But that's one advantage of working on a college campus, he added: The "consumers" change completely every four years. Some students haven't even noticed that the nearest place to get a Coca-Cola is at the High's on York Road. (Selected as best venue to buy an ice-cold Coke in the Towerlight's recent "Towson's Best" issue.)

Several members of Delta Sigma Phi, eating lunch in the University Union's Susquehanna food court, were surprised to find out that a Coke couldn't be bought on campus. Their interest seemed to run more toward beverage companies whose wares can be consumed legally only by those 21 and older.

But once the men of Delta Sigma Phi stopped cracking wise, they were ready to discuss the merits of Coke vs. Pepsi, which broke down this way:

"I want Pepsi because I like Mountain Dew," said Matt Borrison, 20, a psychology major who estimates he drinks 20 sodas a day, largely because they're free at his off-campus job at Papa John's. Mountain Dew is adored by college students for its high-caffeine content, and several students said they down soda largely to stay awake during class.

"Pepsi tastes better as a fountain drink and Coke tastes better in the can," said Tyler Hamilton, 20, a sophomore majoring in computer graphics.

Coke is a better mixer for rum than Pepsi. Or so they've been told.

Coke has its partisans even among those who don't use it as a mixer.

"I care," said Jaime Schuster, 19, who was horrified to discover on move-in day that dormitory vending machines carried only Pepsi. "I like Coke better. It's not as sweet. I really hate Pepsi. When I go food shopping, I buy Cherry Coke."

It is legal, of course, to bring Coca-Cola products onto campus. Then-Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein saw to that when the contract came before the Board of Public Works in 1997, when Towson University was still Towson State. According to transcripts, the discussion went like this:

Goldstein: All right. Now, the next question is: Some of your students live on the campus. Suppose they want to bring their own case of Coke or Pepsi-Cola?

Mary Jo McCabe of Towson State: That's no problem.

Goldstein: You won't prohibit it?

McCabe: No, sir, we will not.

Goldstein: Is that in the contract?

McCabe: No, sir.

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