Process is key for dining

For all undergraduates, including the majority who don’t live in dining hall dorms and have no direct stake in the costs of meal plans, MIT’s house dining program impacts more than just how they eat; it impacts their cultures, friends, and social habits. Changing house dining, a financial necessity, will alter or eliminate some long cherished traditions and replace them with new, potentially better ones.

This is why it is vital that the process behind dining reform be logical, open, and understandable. Two weeks ago, the House Dining Advisory Group (HDAG), a committee composed of student representatives and housemasters from dormitories with House Dining, released a final set of recommendations for the future of House Dining at MIT.

However, despite numerous, well-intentioned efforts on behalf of DSL, it does not appear as if student input had any meaningful effect on HDAG’s decision. According to the “House Dining Review” website, HDAG from the beginning was working with three predetermined frameworks: essentially cheaply-priced, moderately-priced, and expensive options. Ultimately, HDAG seems to have taken months to simply pick one of the options laid out to them by the Division for Student Life. While the final recommendation makes some references to the “high end” food quality desired by students and the need to accommodate athletes’ schedules, among other things, these details are trivial compared to more important questions. Was HDAG willing to diverge at all from the frameworks laid before them? Did the students on the committee have an adequate grasp of the situation to propose alternatives, and would they have been considered at all? What if there were more than three good options; where was the creative synthesis we usually see when MIT students get involved in a process? Where was the analysis, the interesting alternative choices? For that matter, was student input that looked incompatible with DSL’s initial guidelines even considered? Without detailed minutes, it is impossible to know whether HDAG asked themselves these questions.

There is reason to suggest that failure here may have sprung from the students appointed ex officio to the committee. Though it was reasonable for DSL to assume they were natural choices, dining chairs in dorms should not have been automatically appointed to HDAG, for the basic reason that they already have a bias toward institutional dining plans rather than an openness toward others’ suggestions. Their primary job is not to represent the dining opinion of their dormitory, but to improve the dining hall at which they probably eat regularly. Furthermore, it is not evident that dining chairs or even dorm presidents would be sufficiently prepared by the experience of their post to manage a complex relationship with faculty and administrators and faithfully represent their constituencies in a committee environment. This is precisely why, for other committees, the Undergraduate Association has a careful interview process for selecting student representatives to policymaking committees. In contrast, the students on HDAG were very optimistic about their input on the committee, but did not match their optimism with the details of their roles or the specifics of reform plans.

The picture is not entirely bleak, however. Compared to last year’s student life decisions concerning varsity sports cuts, it is clear that DSL and HDAG went to significant lengths to open their process to significant, albeit not necessarily utilized, student input. The HDAG committee itself boasted a one-to-one ratio of student to housemaster voters. An online “Idea Bank” was opened for students to submit dining concerns, and at least some of these were specifically addressed in a public document. The Dining Reform website was impressively navigable and featured an extensive archive of formerly published dining-related documents. In short, there is no denying that HDAG’s process was significantly more open than prior student life decisions, and we hope to see these improvements applied to future DSL decisions.

As The Tech wrote in an April 2009 editorial concerning the varsity sports cuts, “there is a difference between having a chance to provide input and having a chance to provide meaningful input.” It is still unclear whether MIT administrators have learned to make this distinction. Most disappointingly, HDAG delayed the publication of their final report from an original May 3 date to May 18 — the midst of finals week — with no stated explanation. This minimized the importance of the dining reform and made it difficult for students and student groups to respond to the report’s recommendations before they left campus for the summer. And as The Tech pointed out in a May 11 editorial, HDAG’s meeting minutes were useless for getting any genuine insight into what was discussed at a meeting.

Looking ahead, DSL should take the student criticism of HDAG and the dining process from all parts of campus as genuine, and resist the urge to simply defend decisions they have made. MIT students are hesitant about someone who says “trust me, this will be good for everyone” without proof, and it is the job of the Division of Student Life to provide that proof. While HDAG has done far better than most in their communications with students, they still have a long way to go.