HDAG got lost in groupthink

The dining reform group’s plan is not what students want or need

In fall 2008, Chris Colombo became dean of student life of MIT. He was an experienced administrator, having worked at Johns Hopkins University and Columbia University, but he did not understand MIT. He did not understand how the cultures of MIT dorms support students through a challenging undergraduate experience. He did not understand the independence of MIT students. Most importantly, he did not understand the profound financial plunge many MIT undergraduates take when they enroll. But he did have an idea when tasked with fixing MIT dining.

MIT dining has always lost money. In 1986, the system was losing several times more money than it is today, when you adjust for inflation. There were simply too many costly options for students and not enough demand, so suppliers couldn’t make a profit. Providing house dining at MIT has never been easy because it is inherently expensive.

Fast forward to 2010, and the problem still is that MIT dining halls (Baker, McCormick, Next and Simmons) are operating at a deficit. Students living in dining dorms subsidize the dining system by paying $600 a year for half price dinners, but it’s not enough. In order to make the system break even, they’d need to pay $500 more, a change that would be unpopular considering nearly everyone already loses money on the $600 plan. Colombo envisioned a more drastic change. He knew how Columbia University provides three meals a day to all freshmen. He knew how colleges have expensive all-you-can-eat plans and happy customers. Looking at this evidence and forgetting what money means to students, it’s clear that MIT should expand its dining. If one conveniently forgets about a lack of demand for expensive meals, it’s clear that one should charge students several thousand dollars a year for all-you-can-eat dining.

So in March 2010, Chris Colombo created the House Dining Advisory Group (HDAG), made up of administrators and a few students. With skilled politicking, Colombo’s vision became HDAG’s baby. It was HDAG’s baby because the idea came from within, not from the requests of students. As HDAG nurtured the baby, it grew bigger and HDAG’s love for it grew fonder. And soon HDAG would do anything to protect its dear baby from attacks.

In an organization without external checks, groupthink develops. The aims of the organization seem to become the most important priority and require more and more money. This is why government agencies always want more money, and why companies must hire independent contractors to lower costs in their organizations. HDAG was no exception. HDAG forgot about the astronomical, rising costs of college and decided that the possible benefits of its cute baby were far more important than the financial costs: They began to think that having morning pancakes available downstairs is more important than the thousands of dollars that service would cost a student. Conveniently ignoring how students can easily and cheaply eat a healthy breakfast of milk and cereal, HDAG decided to expand dining hall services to cover breakfast. Ignoring how ensuing fees would deeply hurt students, HDAG decided to require students in dining dorms to prepay breakfasts and dinners for every school day. For the average student, the costs of HDAG’s plan amount to thousands of dollars more than what he/she currently spends on food. Students, being familiar with their lifestyles, see how ridiculous the plan is and overwhelmingly oppose it. But, to HDAG, the baby they cherish is far more important than rationality.

HDAG kept its baby away from criticism. HDAG released details of their plan in spring 2010 during finals week, when students were taking exams or leaving MIT, and slowly leaked more information during the summer, in order to keep students as uninformed as possible. They were not transparent, even though they were supposed to be working in the interests of students.

HDAG used surveys to nurture its baby. For instance, one survey question asked students how often they would “purchase” a breakfast if it were offered at their dorm. Most students said they would occasionally buy breakfast, so HDAG incorrectly concluded that there would be strong demand for in-house breakfast at a cost of thousands of dollars a year.

HDAG vehemently defended its baby against contrary opinions from students, no matter how reasonable they might be. One student asked Colombo whether breakfast service would be stopped if demand were below a certain point during the first semester of operations. Colombo was not willing to consider such a deal, saying demand could take years to build. Apparently the dining plan will be good, if you give it a few years.

This paternalistic attitude towards students, similar to how Sarah Palin might talk to liberals (“you’re too liberal to understand”), morphed into HDAG’s justification for their dining plan. Administrators on HDAG believe that students, despite being adults, are unable to and should not learn how to feed themselves properly, so prepaid all-you-can-eat (AYCE) dining is required to ensure student nutrition. HDAG fails to realize that AYCE dining makes students eat whatever they want, not what is healthy. HDAG’s favorite statistic, a statistic they love to repeat to end discussion, is that during an AYCE dinner trial in Simmons students got several times more milk and twice as much juice than normal. But this ignores the bigger picture. With a la carte dining, students often get free water with their dinner. On the other hand, with AYCE dining, students will get juice and soda and pile desserts on their plate. One of the unhealthiest meals I have eaten was at an AYCE dining hall, because I took everything that looked tasty.

HDAG’s paternalistic attitude, growing with a desire to protect their baby, is strongest for the most hated part of the dining plan: breakfast. Morning pancakes, waffles and eggs produced by a catering company entice students and feed HDAG’s baby, but they are less healthy than milk and cereal and don’t make financial sense, especially when one considers how often students sleep in.

HDAG is so steeped in selection bias that their members often seem idiotic. For instance, at an emergency Undergraduate Association meeting on the dining plan, HDAG member Cameron McAlpine said that student reaction to the proposed plan is being “blown out of proportion” because “financial aid will adjust to cover it.” If one does the math, it is clear that most of the costs will be borne by students. Any costs covered by the financial aid office would still be a loss to the school, a loss perhaps exceeding the original dining deficit HDAG sought to eliminate.

HDAG never considered scaling back house dining in order to line up supply with demand and cut costs. Consider McCormick dining. It is the principal money hole of the dining system because McCormick residents often like to cook in their kitchens or eat at the less desolate Baker dining across the street. Ending McCormick dining would cut MIT’s dining deficit. Far apart from this solution, HDAG did not even consider simply increasing the cost of the current dining plan, showing HDAG had an agenda that was not to be disagreed with. If MIT does not stop this dining plan, it will be worse off than in 1986, because students will hate living in a dining dorm.

Nils Molina is a member of the Class of 2014.