The independent news organization of Duke University

Quirky Wulforst

Back when I was University Editor of The Chronicle, my co-editor Cindy Yee and I met regularly with most major administrators. Some were smart, some were savvy, some were strange. But no one ever matched Dining Services Director Jim Wulforst.

Meeting with Wulforst was a total trip—you never knew what he was going to come out with. One day he showed us a picture of him brandishing a marlin that he had caught that week. Another time, we entered his office to discover he had recruited a youthful sidekick, seemingly plucked right off the quad, who offered us piles of bewildering statistical reports.

Wulforst liked to talk, and he liked to tell stories. More specifically, he liked to tell the same stories; a meeting never passed in which he did not breathlessly intone that “Good is the enemy of excellence” and that credit belonged to Coach G of the women’s basketball team. Sometimes, he would good-naturedly drone on for an hour about something we had already discussed, cheerfully concluding the meeting before we could get to our first question.

But he was a reporter’s dream. He prefaced his statements with lines like, “I might get fired for this, but…” and seemed to lack the careful self-censorship mechanism that can make Chronicle interviews so trying. Moreover, he always told us the truth, even when it didn’t reflect well on his operation, and that is the greatest demonstration of respect you can make to a reporter.

As time has passed, I have come to realize that Jim Wulforst is more than a reporter’s dream—he is every student’s greatest ally. He has turned his little corner of the school into one of the most flexible, rigorously analyzed, cost-effective operations in the country and, amazingly, has done so while making students his top priority.

Most of us don’t realize this. We are more concerned with issues like the poor quality of the Marketplace food, the closing of the venerable Oak Room and the “mean wraps lady” in the Great Hall.

Wulforst hears all of this and has done something about each of these legitimate complaints, because unlike your average administrator, he loves hearing from students and doesn’t put himself above them.

He has also institutionalized student feedback as part of his Performance Assessment for Culinary Excellence ratings, which he developed last year to “toughen up” on on-campus eateries. Like most Wulforst ideas, this one has a quirky backstory: He went on a tour of Air Force dining operations and was impressed by the rigorous standards he saw, then proceeded to implement the military regime at Duke.

The PACE ratings are a complicated collection of somewhat arbitrarily weighted factors, but if you put faith in their consistency, they have worked. Rick’s Diner went from dead last in the fall 2003 rankings to a respectable showing in the spring after owner Rick Lynch vowed not to stay in the (figurative) cellar. And many managers have reported that with clearer expectations, they are able to better fall in line with the Wulforst program.

Granted, Wulforst has an easier task than some administrators because his operation is easily quantifiable. George McLendon would have a tough time rating Arts and Sciences professors on cleanliness, friendliness and speed of service—and if he did, most would be out of a job.

But where are the surveys and true responsiveness in other areas of the school like Residential Life and Housing Services, Parking and Transportation Services and other auxiliaries? It’s one thing to pay lip service to students and then pursue policies that counter their desires and, arguably, interests. But that is not the Wulforst style.

Nutty though he may be sometimes, Wulforst personifies the responsive and proactive agility that sets Duke apart from its staid Ivy peers. If more administrators were to follow his benevolent and rigorous PACE, Duke would be an immeasurably better place.

 

Andrew Collins is a Trinity senior and former University Editor of The Chronicle.

Discussion

Share and discuss “Quirky Wulforst” on social media.