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Proposed Fee Would Offset Dormitory Dining Deficits

By Reuven M. Lerner
News Editor

Stung by criticism of a proposal that would have charged residents of four dormitories about $1,300 per year, the House Dining Committee has revised its plan to include a campus-wide fee of under $100.

Students living in Institute-approved housing -- including dormitories, graduate residence halls, and independent living groups -- would pay the smaller fee, which would help subsidize dormitory dining halls in Baker House, MacGregor House, McCormick Hall, and Next House.

Residents of those four dormitories would pay an additional fee, estimated at about $400, instead of the $1,300 proposed Monday. Those paying this fee would then be entitled to a 65 percent discount on food at any dormitory dining hall.

The fees are intended to offset the losses the Institute has suffered from the dormitory dining halls, estimated by the committee at $500,000 and $750,000 per year for the last five years.

The revision comes in the wake of intense negative reaction to the original proposal from residents of the four dormitories, many of whom said they would rather move out of their dormitory or close the dining halls than pay the fee. Baker President Kenway Louie '93 said that according to a recent survey, only a small number of Baker residents approved of the plan.

"There were a decent number of people who said they would move out of the house," Louie said. "A number of people said they would accept it because they couldn't move out."

Professor William B. Watson, Baker housemaster and chairman of the House Dining Committee, said last night that the new proposal, while based on committee discussions, had not been approved by the committee and was subject to change. Watson plans to submit the plan to Senior Vice President William R. Dickson '56 today, and will discuss it with other committee members early next week.

Presidents praise the plan

Presidents of the affected dormitories were generally happy to hear about the changes, although some said they might feel differently if they lived in dormitories that would be subject to the dining services fee.

McCormick residents were against the original $1,300 plan, mostly because "it's a girls-only dorm, and girls do not eat that much," said Sonia Ensenat '94, president of McCormick. "Basically, they would be paying for everyone else's food."

Ensenat was interested in the new plan, however. "I think people at the [other] dining hall dorms would probably like it more," she said, adding that while the new proposal is "not really fair" to residents of other dormitories, "If it's only $100, they might not complain."

Next House President Kathleen A. Bergeron '93, who served on the committee, was also positive about the plan. People were a bit concerned about the original $1,300 proposal, she said. But if it were possible to reduce the cost, "they'd be willing to do a fair amount to keep it open.

"The fee doesn't really solve the long-term problem," Bergeron added. "Somebody has to come up with a long-range plan. As far as making this work for the next year or two, I could be happy with it."

Jay M. Goodliffe '92, former MacGregor president and a member of the committee, said, "If they're going to try to make these dining halls not lose money, somebody's going to pay." He also said the fee was the best way to make this cost easier to bear. "We wanted to do the best we could for the students while operating under the constraints that the administration gave us," he added.

The committee's proposal points to a bigger problem, Watson said. "There are not enough customers to justify keeping open four dining halls on a profit-and-loss basis, charging near-competitive prices." The solution, he said, was to amortize the loss by charging a "bearable cost" to the entire student population.

ILG residents upset

Many students who would be affected by the fee were against the new plan, however. In particular, students living off campus said that they should not have to pay for the dining halls.

"The MIT cost is quite enough as it is," said Erik J. Abernathy '93, president of Beta Theta Pi. "We have our food program, as most ILGs do, and therefore we as a whole would probably be a bit unhappy with having to pay $100 to subsidize food."

Markuene Sumler '94, a resident of the Women's Independent Living Group, had mixed feelings. "I think everyone should be able to have the convenience of having meals at a location that is close to them," she said, adding that "If we don't chip in, those people would have to pay more."

But she wondered whether the committee had thought about why the dining halls were losing money. "They haven't even considered whether these people aren't eating in the dining halls because they aren't satisfied with the service."

Bergeron said that students in other dormitories did not have to think that their fee would be used to subsidize the dormitory dining halls. "It depends on how you look at it: If you say that the dining halls are the only things that are losing money, then yes, you are subsidizing the dining halls." But, she said, students could think of their money as going toward Lobdell Court or Morss Hall in Walker Memorial.

Dormitory residents disapprove

Residents of dormitories that would be affected by the dining fee were also opposed to the plan. One East Campus resident thought that the fee would be fair if financial aid would compensate for the increase. But as a general rule, she said, the fee would be "just more money out of my pocket."

Even one Next House resident was opposed to the new proposal. "I'm a big eater, so I think the plan would help me. But it doesn't seem to be the best thing for everyone," said John E. Chow '92.

"The best thing to do would be to close down the dining halls altogether," said Christie S. Nelson '94, a MacGregor resident. "It's probably not too fair to make people living in fraternities across the river pay. You might as well close everything down."

However, Louis, the Baker House president, thought that many other students would be upset by the proposal. "It sounds like a good plan for us, but I'm not sure if it's going to fly around campus."

Closing not an option

Many of the students interviewed felt that closing at least one dining hall would offset some of the Institute's losses, but members of the committee defended the proposal, saying that they were charged by the administration to develop a plan that would keep all four dining halls open and profitable.

"The idea of closing dining halls didn't even enter the picture. Perhaps that was a mistake; I would say that that was not the charge of the committee," Goodliffe said.

Committee members also agreed that closing one or more dining halls would mean even longer lines at Lobdell Court, already stretched beyond capacity at lunchtime. A similar situation would occur during dinner, they said.

Watson also pointed out the social and educational value of dormitory dining halls, which he said was a great concern of the administration. They are an important part of the MIT educational philosophy that students should be able to sit, socialize, and discuss whatever is on their minds in a relaxed environment. "I would prefer [dormitory dining halls] for educational reasons, for convenience reasons, and nutritional reasons," he said.

"But if students don't value those dining assets, then maybe we should close them down," Watson said.

Misinterpreted data

Watson said the original proposal, which would have charged residents of dormitories with dining halls $1,300, was based on a bad interpretation of data collected in a survey earlier this year. In particular, he said, the committee overestimated the average amount of food that students consume in one year. According to the survey, Watson said, students spend an average of $2,100 on food every year.

"I thought, looking at the survey, that the system we set up was a reasonable one, but it turns out that there is a significant number of people that don't spend that amount of money," he said. "Maybe I shouldn't have included snacks," which account for several dollars worth of food in a typical student's day, Watson added.

But Watson noted that MIT has one of the cheapest and most flexible dining systems of any high-caliber university. Harvard University, for instance, charges about $2,700 per year for meals, none of which is refundable.

Students should not expect to have complete control over their meal plans, Watson said, adding that tuition is non-negotiable. However, he said, "Any administration is foolish if it doesn't listen to student wishes."

Watson added that he favors letting students from other dormitories join the House Dining System by paying the $400 fee, which would entitle them to the 65 percent discount on food purchased there. He said that it might also be possible for students to buy and sell membership in the system, although this would require additional negotiation.