Dining changes a long time coming

New plan draws on student input and moves MIT culture forward

In 2007 the Institute convened a Blue Ribbon Committee to study dining at MIT. Last spring, the students and faculty Housemasters of the House Dining Advisory Group (HDAG) issued their final recommendation for a new dining program in the residences with dining halls. And last week, the director of Campus Dining issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) to food service companies to operate this system.

We have traveled a considerable distance to reach this important milestone, and we are committed to proceeding. Campus Dining will select a vendor, and in September 2011 we will have a new House Dining plan structured according to the HDAG recommendation. This decision has a practical basis: if we are to have a meal plan in place for the start of the next academic year, we cannot delay entering into a contract with a company to run the dining halls.

But this decision is also demanded by the past two decades of dining at MIT. Since 1992, the Institute has convened a major committee to address frustration with House Dining every five years. We noted this embarrassing fact in these pages last winter, but it is worth emphasizing again because MIT must end this unfortunate cycle. For too long, our community has not seized opportunities to create a successful dining program in the residences. We cannot hesitate this time — and we must take a different approach.

We have received many questions and comments from students, and we wanted to address three that stand out:

Was the process inclusive and transparent? For over three years, MIT has studied dining from every angle. We have administered surveys, held focus groups and open forums, and met continually with student leaders. We developed websites to send information out and to bring opinions in. These efforts directly involved thousands of students, who let us know what they think in a variety of ways. Moreover, student participation has been vital to both of the committees charged with this task.

Not every student agrees with the final recommendation, but students were involved every step of the way. Moreover, we remain committed to evaluating and improving House Dining wherever we can without undermining the new system’s fundamental structure. The implementation phase presents many opportunities to shape program details in collaboration with students and faculty Housemasters, especially from the five residences with dining halls. The Phoenix Group, for instance, has offered some compelling ideas for the lunch component of Maseeh Hall’s meal plans, and we are delighted to explore these student-driven possibilities.

Will the meal plans be affordable? We recognize that the forecasted prices call for a greater commitment from students in House Dining. However, two of the three plans for Baker, McCormick, Next, and Simmons are in the range of what their residents report spending on meals for the period covered by the new program — and all offer significant improvement to service availability and options. We have also checked the costs against similar programs at peer institutions. Our projected prices are competitive, and we will not require, unlike many of these schools, for all undergraduates to join the program. Ultimately, MIT students will have the choice — just as they do today — to live in a cook-for-yourself community or an FSILG if they do not wish to participate in House Dining.

Will the new House Dining program undermine “dorm culture”? Some members of our community seem to fear that reinvigorating the House Dining system will somehow diminish MIT’s unique character, culture, and strength. We have more faith in our students than that. There is likely to be some adjustment, but residential life at MIT has never been static. At one time, students dressed for dinner, and women were scarce. In the more recent past, all freshmen moved to campus housing, McCormick reopened its dining hall, and three new residences joined the system — Simmons for undergraduates, Sidney-Pacific and New Ashdown for graduates.

In September, Maseeh Hall will come online as a grand addition to our undergraduate housing stock. Over the next few years we will welcome more students to our community and return to an undergraduate population of around 4,500. We look forward to these developments because MIT remains true to itself by evolving. The meal plans are part of that constant evolution, and we know they will make MIT a stronger and better place to live and learn.

Phillip Clay PhD ’75 is the Chancellor; Christine Ortiz is the Dean for Graduate Education; Costantino Colombo is the Dean for Student Life; and Daniel Hastings PhD ’80 is the Dean for Undergraduate Education.