Dining Reform Set to Repeat History

Dining at MIT has a long and contentious history of student distaste and quarrels with administrators. In lieu of these past protests, what’s surprising now is just how little discussion is occurring over current proposals.

Riots at Baker Dining in 1957 and songs from East Campus in the sixties lampooning Stouffers and the dorm’s then lack of kitchens brought us to last semester, when protests in Lobby 7 and emergency Undergraduate Association meetings followed the leak of the Blue Ribbon Dining Report, the latest in a long line of proposals for changing how MIT students dine. However, since the May release of reports by the Blue Ribbon Institute Committee and student-led Dining Proposal Committee, debate has been contained within the myopic Institute-wide Planning Task Force, which after numerous delays now promises to have its Final Report out before fall term classes end — well over a month behind schedule and suspiciously close to the time when most students leave for Christmas break.

Why the delay for the Task Force? Information and knowledge here is remarkably scarce, and Task Force members failed to return requests for comment. Given the current MIT administration’s past laxness with releasing information though, it is likely that key administrators already have a very solid idea about what the final Task Force report will say. MIT would do well to avoid a repeat of the Blue Ribbon Preliminary Report dustup from last year and release any information on dining as soon as it is finalized, regardless of whether that occurs before the release of the Final Task Force Report as a whole.

While all of this confirms Dean of Student Life Chris Colombo’s statement last month that there would be no changes to house dining for 2009, plans to implement changes to dining for fall 2010 are still very much alive, despite the Task Force delays. Timing becomes the issue to watch in this case; in order to make changes for the 2010–2011 academic year, MIT will need to have house dining and dining-related financial aid completely sorted out in time for the release of regular action admissions decisions for the Class of 2014. In other words, there is a hard March deadline that effectively limits time for open, campus-wide debate to IAP and the first weeks of spring term.

That is an unacceptably short time to amend or alter any large failings in the Task Force’s final proposals on dining, especially considering the number of other potentially controversial proposals that will drop at the same time. While there is certainly a need to expediently change a system that loses $500,000 per year, dining is a student life issue that cannot be given forced deadlines. Unfortunately, since the chartering of the Blue Ribbon Committee on Dining two years ago, word from key administrators has shifted from trying to find the best, long-term solution to dining at MIT to trying to find a way to patch the current system and cut costs now.

Students recently got a taste for what the latter approach may portend for the Task Force recommendations from the postponement of house breakfast programs. Originally intended to open as a pilot this term, budget constraints in Campus Dining were cited as the reason for delaying the program until fall of next year. If the Task Force adopts a similar attitude, look for cuts to services and cost increases without any major new initiatives or programs to serve as replacements.

MIT administrators seem to once again be setting themselves up for a student backlash on dining. While some disagreement between student and faculty goals is to be expected, the lack of an explanation for both the Task Force delays and the criteria currently being used to shape the future of dining is troubling. If MIT’s history on dining is any indication, the final Task Force Report, whenever it is released, will not be received lightly.