Demands for More Student Input Characterize Year in Dining Reform

2009 marked a continued push for greater transparency and student involvement in the dining reform process. Proposals maintained a delicate balancing act between the need to address student concerns and to slash the rising deficits of the dining system.

Leaked report

The year opened with a student’s covert discovery of the preliminary report from Envision Strategies — the consulting firm hired by the Blue Ribbon Dining Committee. The Blue Ribbon Dining Committee, comprised of students and administrators, was formed in October 2007 to analyze MIT’s dining situation and make recommendations for improvements.

The report was observed on the desk of an administrator before most members of the committee had received a copy.

Students offered a mixed response to the actual contents of the report: all you can eat (AYCE) dining halls, expanded service hours, higher minimum contributions and mandatory meal plans. A vocal minority opposed the mandatory meal plans, while some anticipated the introduction of AYCE dining and a breakfast option.

However, the concealment of the report led to unabashed criticism from the Undergraduate Association, culminating in a demand for the dissolution of the BRC.

Karen A. Nilsson, the Senior Associate Dean for Residential Life, defended her acquisition of an advance copy, citing the need to ensure that the consultants adhered to the committee’s instructions. Nilsson and fellow administrators Donna M. Denoncourt, the Associate Dean of Residential Life, and Costantino Colombo, the Dean for Student Life, didn’t wish to waste the committee’s time by presenting members with a report which failed to meet the requirements, she said.

New dining committee

In the bill calling for the dissolution of the BRC, the UA also established the Dining Proposal Committee (DPC) in an attempt to give students greater say in the decision-making process. The UA intended to keep the committee more attuned to student concerns by focusing on the results of a 2008 survey of the student body; they emphasized that the consultants failed to do this in recommending a mandatory dining plan.

The DPC managed to release a final proposal in early May along with the BRC. The groups agreed that MIT needs to abandon the current dining plan ($300 a semester for a 50 percent discount on meals in dormitory dining halls, required for students living in dorms with a dining hall), replacing it with a declining balance program. They also concurred on the necessity of increasing breakfast options and allowing students of non dining hall dorms to opt into the declining balance program.

However, the proposals differed on the costs of the declining balance program. The DPC advised a minimum deposit of $300, whereas the BRC proposed $600. Furthermore, the BRC proposed allowing residents of dorms with dining halls to opt out of the plan by paying $500.

The committees also expressed contrary stances on alterations to dining infrastructure. The DPC advised immediately shutting down the McCormick dining hall and eventually phasing out operations at Baker and Simmons dining. A large, central dining hall, constructed in either the Student Center or the Kresge parking lot, would supplant them.

The BRC did not recommend the closure of any dorm dining facilities. It did recommend the construction of a central dining hall, but not one of the magnitude proposed by the DPC.

DPC committee members said it was difficult to prepare their proposal because MIT and third-party vendors did not disclose all of the necessary financial data. In particular, this affected their ability to evaluate whether MIT might benefit from running its own dining operations rather than relying on outside vendors.

Task Force results

Further discussion of these proposals was put on held pending the publication of the final report of the Institute-wide Planning Task Force. Released in mid-December, the report focused on two changes to dining at MIT.

The first involved increasing the current $300/50 percent dinner plan to a $600 declining balance program, reducing a $500,000 annual shortfall in the dining system. This fall, that recommendation held a 12 percent approval rating on the UA website.

The Task Force also advised adjusting financial aid to reflect the real amount students spent on food. For students on the meal plan, the board estimate would remain at $4460. This sum would be reduced to $3000 for those who opted out of the meal plan, leading to significant savings in financial aid allocation.

Tangible changes

Though none of the proposals have yet been acted upon, several campus dining locations underwent major transformations.

MacGregor terminated its experimental dining program due to low participation and a rising deficit. Initiated in 2006 to promote easy access to food and an increased sense of community, the program suffered from lack of a large on-site kitchen. This contributed to declining food quality, which ultimately discouraged resident participation.

Ashdown discontinued its novel meal plan, $600 a semester for AYCE dinner five nights a week, in favor of the prevailing $300/50 percent plan.

The final Task Force report did not mention any further changes to existing dining facilities.

Relying on the committees’ proposals and the final report of the Institute-wide Planning Task Force, Colombo told The Tech that he plans to minimize financial loss while maintaining student choice. To ensure the latter, he intends to consider the needs of the different dining communities at MIT (cook for yourself, house dining and self-sustaining communities like FSILGs). There is no deadline for dining decisions, but Colombo hopes to have a plan completed by the end of the academic year.