Moving MIT forward

Improved house dining will make MIT better, housemasters say

In September 2011, a new dining plan will be implemented in the residence halls where we are faculty housemasters. This new plan will be one of the most positive developments in the residential system in years. It will elevate the quality of dining significantly by providing nutritious, high quality, affordable meals to our residents. Just as important, the plan will provide a platform for the re-integration of house dining with the educational mission of the Institute.

This development is twenty years in the making. It corrects a regrettable decision made in 1993 to close all the residential dining halls, and then to re-open some on a very limited basis. Since then, numerous faculty-student committees have come to the same conclusion — the dining system we have is inadequate, unimaginative, and financially unsustainable. The time to remedy the past mistakes has come, and we have a duty to help fix them and to move forward enthusiastically.

As educators, we support robust dining programs in our houses. It has been well established that such programs provide unique opportunities for the education of the complete person. This is not just the experience of our peers, but MIT’s experience as well, accumulated in years past when the Institute previously supported residential dining to its fullest. While we would be the first to argue that MIT’s greatness rests on the education provided in the classroom and laboratory, this is not where an undergraduate education that seeks to educate leaders ends. The social experience fostered by a well-designed dining program is a valuable complement to the other efforts at MIT aimed at preparing undergraduates for their lives after they graduate.

The House Dining Advisory Group (HDAG) plan that will be implemented was developed with robust input from faculty and students, both those currently at MIT and those who have graduated. The letter recently published in The Tech by Chancellor Clay and Deans Colombo, Hastings, and Ortiz delineated the many ways this feedback was collected. It is simply untrue that the plan was developed in a vacuum without understanding student desires and concerns, or that the plan was pre-ordained by the administration.

Many of the features of the new dining plan are great ideas from our students. Everyone wants nutritious meals. Many want breakfast. In addition, students want opportunities to talk at the end of the day with their friends. They also want, sometimes, to share a meal with a faculty member. (Not too often, but sometimes.) We also know that a large segment of prospective MIT students want a traditional dining program, which is currently unavailable on campus. And, we know that one of the biggest anxieties expressed by prospective students and their parents about MIT is about dining.

The hard question is how to achieve what we want. Like everyone at MIT, we would like a first-rate dining program that is offered below cost and available 24 hours a day, which is, of course, impossible. In the past, MIT kicked the hard decisions down the road by maintaining a bare bones dining program that offered the illusion of choice while covering the deficits by robbing critical student life needs. The mediocre quality of the current dining program is clear to everyone who has studied it in detail. While we understand that some students may prefer a subsidized system to a system that is self-sustaining, continuing to run a deficit in the dining program is unconscionable, especially in light of the painful cuts (including layoffs) made across all of MIT after the financial meltdown of 2008. The decisions HDAG wrestled with were hard, but they had to be made.

We understand that a change of this magnitude, especially one that affects the residential life system, will be disruptive for a period of time. We agree that effort needs to be spent to mitigate the impact on those students, currently sophomores and juniors, who came to MIT before the HDAG plan was announced. However, it is critical to make a distinction between ameliorating the disruptions to the current residents, which is defensible, and delaying the implementation of an improved plan, which is not.

We also understand that the decision to implement the new dining program will have some effect on the cook-for-yourself dormitories and FSILGs. However, the argument that this change amounts to a frontal assault on the culture of the non-dining dormitories or the FSILGs is an exaggeration that underestimates the resilience and vitality of our residential communities. We were all at MIT in the late 1990s when the decision was implemented to require first-year students to live on campus. We can testify to the fact that that decision, which was much more consequential than the plan to strengthen the dining halls, had little effect on the cultures of the dormitories.

Change in residential life is always hard at a university, where the time horizon of students can be short and the experience intense. The HDAG plan has the benefit of stepping back from the myopia of the current crisis to think about how to make MIT great, by improving a critical program that is far from great. Much work remains to implement the HDAG plan. For that reason, it is time for the campus to stop looking backwards, so that we can fix our gaze on the tasks ahead.

John Essigmann is the housemaster of Simmons Hall; Suzanne Flynn is the housemaster of the Phoenix Group; Steven R. Hall is the associate housemaster of Simmons Hall; Dava Newman is the housemaster of Baker House; and Charles H. Stewart III is the housemaster of McCormick Hall.