Dining ignites campus controversy
Despite loud opposition, new plan still slated to start this fall
Few topics caused as much tension on campus in 2010 as the ever-changing House Dining Plan, scheduled to go into effect Fall 2011. In March 2010, the Division of Student Life (DSL) formed the House Dining Advisory Group (HDAG), committed to the creation of a new dining plan with the hope to eliminate the $600,000 deficit from House Dining and to offer more options for student dining.
HDAG consisted of presidents and dining chairs from the five dorms with dining halls (Baker, McCormick, Simmons, Next, and the planned Maseeh Hall), DSL staff, the UA Dining Chair, and other relevant MIT faculty, such as housemasters (including the upcoming Maseeh housemasters).
Throughout the spring, an online Idea Bank collected students’ opinions on all-you-care-to-eat (AYCE) service, breakfast offerings, food allergies and other relevant dining topics, while forums across campus invited students to talk about what they wanted directly to members of HDAG.
On May 19, HDAG released its initial recommendations, introducing AYCE dinner and breakfast to all of the dining dorms seven days a week, including Maseeh Hall, set to open in Fall 2011. Costs for the 10, 12, or 14 meals-per-week options were projected to be $2,900, $3,400, and $3,800 per year, respectively, and the number of meals per week were required to be equally split between breakfast and dinner. Maseeh would also offer lunch Monday through Friday. Freshmen would be required to buy the 14-meal plan, while sophomores would be permitted to choose between 12 and 14 meals, and juniors and seniors would decide between any of the three plans. As with the current House Dining Membership, students in the dining hall dorms would be required to participate in this dining plan.
With the exception of a student protest in Lobby 7 during Campus Preview Weekend, the campus remained relatively quiet in terms of dining discussion as the first semester of 2010 came to a close.
UA survey voices students’ concerns; the petitions begin
As the class of 2014 arrived at MIT in the fall, conversations about the new dining plan began again, and concerns about the plan’s potential impact on dorm culture and high prices were often mentioned. In the first week of October, the UA distributed a survey to all undergraduate dorms, asking for feedback on several student life topics such as printing, Greek life, shuttles, athletics, and dining, receiving 655 responses. Various comments received in the survey about dining ranged from indifferent — “Dining plan doesn’t affect me” — to dissatisfied — “New dining plan is too expensive; too much food, most people don’t eat that much” — foreshadowing some of the upcoming tension. As The Tech reported on October 12, “out of 222 [survey] respondents who said they lived in a dining dorm, only 98 said they had heard or read specific details about the plan. Of those 98 students, only 8 supported the new dining plan.”
The survey results sent a spark through campus, igniting the first of several petitions to be distributed by undergraduates last fall. Next House resident Andres A. Romero ’14 initiated a petition against the new dining plan, collecting over 200 signatures, mostly from other students living in Next House. He submitted the petition to the UA, insisting that the petition, which was signed by more than 5 percent of the student population, necessitated an emergency meeting of the UA, according to the UA bylaws.
Within the required 96 hour time limit after a petition submission, on October 13, the UA held its emergency meeting. The UA passed 42 U.A.S E1.1, “Bill to Reform HDAG Dining Proposal and Process in Light of Overwhelming Student Opposition,” which called for Chancellor Phillip Clay “to intervene by halting” the approval process for the new dining plan. HDAG representatives claimed they were unable to stop this new plan because the Request for Proposal process, in which a dining vendor would be chosen, had already begun. To stop the process would mean starting over, losing months of work, and rushing to find a new plan in time for implementation in the next academic year.
Changes to HDAG membership
As the noise increased on campus, two of the key students involved in the dining conversations resigned from their positions. On October 26, Paula C. Trepman ’13, who represented the UA in HDAG, resigned as UA Dining Chair. In her letter of resignation dining submitted to the UA, a “very frustrated” Trepman claimed “HDAG has this sense of paternalism and feels that it is their job to regulate and ensure that students eat a normal three meals every day.”
Andy Wu ’12, who served on HDAG as president of Baker House, followed suit. In a November 29 e-mail to Baker House, Wu stated, “HDAG has regularly dismissed my opinion to the point where I have been unable to contribute to any positive changes for Baker residents.”
Student representation, in the form of other dorm presidents and dining chairs, still existed within the HDAG despite these absences.
Fact sheets and petitions fly
In an effort to highlight students’ options within the new plan, HDAG released organized fact sheets that covered several topics such as pricing, hours, and other specifics within the new dining plan. These documents, which were released in late October and early November, were available on the House Dining Review website designed specifically for HDAG, http://studentlife.mit.edu/house-dining-review .
Throughout November, The Tech’s Letters to the Editor and Opinion pages flip-flopped arguments for and against the new plan, starting with a Nov. 9 letter from the administration (Phillip L. Clay PhD ’75, Christine Ortiz, Costantino Colombo and Daniel E. Hastings PhD ’80) itself. Then, housemasters from the dining dorms (John M. Essigmann PhD ’76, Suzanne Flynn, Steven R. Hall ’80, Dava J. Newman PhD ’92, and Charles H. Stewart III) chimed in with their support a week later. “Not every student agrees with the final recommendation, but students were involved every step of the way,” the administration’s letter argued.
“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,” they said, adding, “residential life at MIT has never been static.”
In the next issue, Tyler Hunt ’04 challenged the housemasters’ letter, claiming that the administration “must understand that when half of Next House signs a statement of opposition, that it has designed a program that is profoundly unpalatable.” DAPER coaches then submitted their support of the plan, right next to Professor Alexander H. Slocum ’82’s advice for what the plan should be like.
Increasing student concern raised the volume of dining talk, starting with another petition from Next House residents Hannah L. Pelton ’12 and Austin D. Brinson ’13 on Nov. 8. This document, signed by 63 percent of Next House residents, was submitted to President Susan J. Hockfield, claiming HDAG’s proposed dining plan was “wrong for us, wrong for Next House, and wrong for MIT.” The petition claimed that the “expensive” plan would encourage Next House residents to move to dorms without dining halls, “making it more difficult to develop long-standing culture.”
That same week, one of HDAG’s own student representatives started a similar petition at Baker House. Despite supporting HDAG’s proposed plan, HDAG representative Cameron S. McAlpine ’13 reasoned that as Baker Dining Chair he needed to “accurately represent the opinions of Baker residents.”
Then came the largest petition yet. Keone D. Hon ’11 started writing blog posts on the popular missed connections site, http://isawyou.mit.edu, calling for a more organized student response. On November 17, Hon’s http://sayno.mit.edu went live, claiming that its perceptions of expense, poor economic sustainability, negative impact on dorms, clubs, and FSILGs, and apparent disregard for student opinion were the main reasons for student dissatisfaction with the new plan. Within 24 hours, the petition had more than 1,400 signatures from undergraduates and others affiliated with MIT, more than all other petitions combined. As of December 2010, 1,570 of the 1,838 signees were undergraduates, 568 of whom were from dining dorms.
From petitions to protests
One day later, roughly 25 students participated in a Baker Dining sit-in, bringing their own food to eat in the dining hall. Two freshmen, Burton Conner resident Michael L. Pappas ’14 and East Campus resident Christopher W. Tam ’14, organized the protest. Newman, the Baker housemaster, and Senior Assistant Dean of Students for Residential Life Henry J. Humphreys were there to discuss students’ concerns, allowing for “civil dialogue,” as Pappas described, between students and administration.
As students arrived back on campus after Thanksgiving break on Nov. 29, HDAG released an updated version of the House Dining Plan, introducing a “transition plan” for the classes of 2012 and 2013. This plan would cost $2500 for the year, the cheapest yet offered, allowing those students to choose any 7 meals per week. Students are also able to increase their flexibility in the transition plan by choosing any dining combination of breakfast and dinner “at a modest cost,” according to the House Dining Review website. Since news about the new dining plan was available to the Class of 2014 before they came to MIT, DSL said that they must participate in the full-fledged campus dining plan.
On December 3, Hon organized students one more time, this time hosting a protest outside the Media Lab as members of the MIT Corporation walked in for a quarterly meeting. Around 20 students attended to distribute copies of the SayNo petition and to talk briefly to Corporation members attending the meeting. This would be the last organized event concerning dining for 2010, as finals began ten days later. For the first time since October, talk about dining came to a hush.
Although the campus-wide battle of words died down over IAP, only time will tell when the noise will return. As The Tech reported this January, MIT Corporation member Harbo P. Jensen ’74 said that the members of the Corporation “all agreed that … there is a lot of emotion and energy behind this,” acknowledging “it’s impossible to make everyone happy.” Indeed, the past year has shown that it’s the unhappy students who are capable of making the most noise.