Student Influence Seen in Two Dining Decisions

867 dining
Pritchett Dining (pictured here in April 2007) was closed during the summer in response to discontent from East Campus residents who said that dining halls do not gel with east campus culture.
Omari Stephens—The Tech

In the MIT administration’s eyes, eating together builds community, and dormitory dining halls and mandatory meal plans are the best way to get at the kind of community the Institute wants. This analysis explains why when Ashdown House is renovated into the W1 undergraduate dormitory, its kitchens will be replaced with a dining hall.

But sometimes students have a say, too. Students’ influence on dining was seen in at least two events of 2007: fees were not increased for membership in MIT’s meal plan, and the unpopular Pritchett Dining was closed. Additionally, MIT has said that student input within a new committee will help shape the way the Institute thinks about eating on campus.

House Dining prices frozen at $300

In April, the Office of Campus Dining announced that the House Dining membership (previously called Preferred Dining) cost would increase from $300 to $325. But after students showed that the current costs put them at a financial loss, the office agreed to fix the cost at $325 for up to three years. Once Pritchett Dining, located on the east side of campus, was closed at students’ request, the cost was lowered to $300.

Richard D. Berlin III, director of the Office of Campus Dining, said in April that the cost of House Dining membership costs had risen by $25 each year for several years in order to match the increasing costs of wages and food. Students with House Dining membership, which is mandatory for residents of undergraduate dormitories with dining halls, pay half price for most food at dining halls.

In early May, Baker House’s dining committee issued a report showing that the average Baker resident loses $125 per semester because of membership in the House Dining program. Only about 13 percent of residents break even.

According to the committee’s presentation to Campus Dining, Baker Dining loses $100,000 every term, an amount that is almost covered by the money students lose from participation in House Dining. Even though most residents the committee surveyed said they were satisfied with the food, three-quarters did not think the dining membership was worth it.

“We hope that MIT acknowledges that there are serious problems with the current [dining] system,” David Dryjanski ’07, a member of the Baker House Dining committee, said in an e-mail in May. “We understand that drastic changes cannot be made overnight, but would like to see [the Office of Campus Dining] increase transparency, engage the [Undergraduate Association] Dining Committee in its changes, and present a timeline for system-wide changes.”

Baker House residents asked for the fee to be set to $300, and decreased by $25 each year until it reached the original price of the program. Soon thereafter, MIT announced that the fee would be frozen at $325 for up to three years.

In April, Pritchett Dining started a trial run of an “all-you-care-to-eat” buffet in an attempt to get more students to eat there.

Then-East Campus President and current Dormitory Council President Sarah C. Hopp ’08 said that new program was installed without any advance notice to the residents nearby. “Springing things like this upon students unannounced and without input shows what appears to be a lack of respect for students by the administration,” Hopp said.

In a June 18 letter, East Campus residents voiced a deep discontent with Pritchett Dining; they said that students’ kitchens are a major focal point of community-building, and that dining halls do not fit well with the east campus culture.

Pritchett was closed over the summer. The closure reduced MIT’s dining costs by almost $100,000, according to Berlin, and he used this cost reduction to reduce the price of House Dining back to $300. MIT’s contract with food vendor Sodexho lasts for three more years, and Berlin said in June that the space in Walker Memorial is unavailable for student use until the contract expires.

While Pritchett remains empty for now and its long-term fate is uncertain, Dining intends to use it for catered events for the immediate future. “Pritchett Dining was a very large investment for Campus Dining,” Berlin said last week. “We are developing the location for catered event purposes, something that MIT has in short supply.” Berlin has also suggested that Pritchett’s space could hold cooking classes for students who would rather cook than eat in a dining hall.

Students ask for feedback, administrators create committee

In March 2007, rumors circulated that the kitchens of undergraduate dormitory Burton-Conner were going to be removed to make way for additional undergraduate rooms. Although Dean for Student Life Larry G. Benedict stoutly denied these rumors, the Undergraduate Association still passed two resolutions emphasizing that Burton-Conner’s kitchens are “focal points of the suite, floor, and dorm-wide community interactions” and are “indispensable to students.”

The bill also asserted that the UA would only endorse proposals in which residents are included in the decision-making process.

Former UA Vice President Ruth Miller ’07 said in March that she was wary of statements saying that no one intended to remove Burton-Conner’s kitchens. “This seems to happen a lot, where [the administration] tells us there are no plans, then goes ahead anyway,” she said.

While the Burton-Conner kitchens will remain untouched for now, the administration has decided to destroy other old kitchens. MIT announced in December that Ashdown House, which is scheduled to reopen as an undergraduate dormitory in fall of 2010 after renovations, will no longer have floor kitchens when it is reopened. Instead, MIT decided without any significant student input that the new undergraduate dormitory will have a dining hall and dining program.

Students whose opinions were supposed to have mattered — members of the W1 Steering Group committee — were not pleased by this decision. Benjamin J. Bloom ’08, a committee member, said he was concerned that the decision was made even before the W1 Steering Group commenced.

Despite several students’ protests, Chancellor Phillip M. Clay PhD ’75 stood by the Institute’s decisions to install a dining hall in the future undergraduate dormitory. “The president’s committed to dining. I’m committed to dining. Larry [Benedict]’s committed to dining,” Clay said to The Tech in December. “We have not built in recent years a residence hall that does not have dining.”

Benedict, in collaboration with the Office of Dining, gave students a voice when on Oct. 22 he charged the Blue Ribbon Committee on Dining to investigate the structure of campus dining. The committee contains undergraduates, graduate students, faculty housemasters, and staff members, including Wilson and Berlin from the Office of Dining. MIT has also hired a consultant from Envision Strategies, an operational consulting and strategic planning company, to work with the committee.

“The committee was formed with the intention of recommending major reforms to MIT’s dining system,” said Undergraduate Association President Martin F. Holmes ’08. Holmes said the committee should make dining at MIT “financially solvent,” high-quality, and affordable.