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House Dining Proposal Ignores Needs of Students

Column by Bill Jackson

Opinion Editor

The problem with the House Dining Hall Proposal you've been reading so much about is very simple. The committee went to much trouble to gather data and analyze it carefully. Yet somehow they've managed to miss the point entirely.

The plan was formulated because the house dining halls are losing too much money, and MIT wants to guarantee they will break even next year. The basis of the plan is that some or all undergraduates will pay MIT a certain amount to subsidize the operational costs of the dining halls. In exchange, some students will be able to buy food at or near "cost" to make up for the initial investment. Who would get discounts on what food, where, and when, are all very hazy details as of late.

First, you have to swallow the insipid idea that students aren't already paying to cover the losses of these dining halls. Where do you think the money is coming from, a magic tree in Killian Court? But no, the problem is much more basic than that.

Next, you have to catch the timing of the announcement -- less than one week before house-to-house change requests are due. Today is the last day for these cards to be turned into the housing office. Simultaneously, today is the day of the final report of the House Dining Hall Committee. This leaves students weighing options and trying to second-guess the administration, which is kind of like playing a game of blackjack where you are only allowed to take one card. You aren't even going to come close.

All variations of the plan have one central feature. They try to entice students whose houses have dining halls to go back to their houses to eat. The committee knows that many students aren't at their dorms between 5 and 7 p.m. Those students are eating at some other dining facility or off campus.

To update those of you who have been under the delusion that you're attending a big state party school, this is MIT. And at MIT we -- hang on to your seats, this one's going to bowl you over -- have a lot of work to do. Work that can't all be done in one's room, either. We have to be over at the Institute, in lab, at Athena, or at a library.

Don't worry, though. The House Dining Committee is sensitive to this problem. We can see how sensitive they are by quoting from their electric orange Fact Sheet, distributed to affected dorm residents early this week. The actual proposal presented on this sheet is now being changed in the face of angry student response, but the phrasing itself reveals a lot about the attitude of the committee.

"Q. Will [this new system] cost more than the present system?" asks the sheet. "Yes and no," begins the answer. "Yes, if you are unwilling to take advantage of the food-at-cost prices charged in the house dining halls."

Unwilling to take advantage. I like that phrase a lot. Let it never be said that I don't gladly admit when I'm wrong, and this is one of those times. I've just been stubborn, unwilling to stop working before 7 p.m. to make it to a house dining hall. Unwilling to walk fifteen minutes each way to get the same limited entree selection I can get near the Institute at Walker. Once I overcome this unwillingness and learn to adjust to this New Food Order, I'll be able to afford the new system.

Therein lies the real problem. Food service at a university exists, or at least should exist, to make it convenient and affordable to get decent food. To borrow a phrase from every math professor I've ever had, it's "inherently obvious" that such a food service should be tailored to the needs and wants of the students.

The committee has an excellent picture, from their survey, of where and when students eat. What I don't understand is why the committee's intent is to tailor the schedules of MIT students to the dining hall schedule rather than tailoring the dining hall schedule around the lives of students. None of us are going to change our lives to meet new dining requirements; instead, we're going to work around the inconvenience of the dining system while maintaining the same schedules.

The committee needs to find real solutions and recommend them to the administration. If, for example, too many people are eating at facilities near the main buildings during lunchtime, then the committee should recommend expansion of facilities near the main buildings. If Lobdell is overcrowded, then recommend an expansion of Walker to give it a variety of options competitive with Lobdell's.

Or maybe some of this would be alleviated by expanding the kitchens in the dorms. It's an old adage, but it holds up quite well here: "Give a child a fish, and he eats for a day. Teach him to fish, and he eats for a lifetime." Make sure every student in a residence hall has reasonable access to a stove, oven, refrigerator/freezer, and sink. I believe this could be done in most dorms for less than the money lost subsidizing the house dining halls for one year.

Maybe the current dining system worked at one time, when students spent more time in their houses, but it's not working anymore. Don't try to meld us to a dining schedule that's set in stone. Rather, pretend it's our schedules that are in stone and fit the dining system around us.

Tech Opinion Editor Bill Jackson '93 is celebrating the return of these little biographical notes by making this one self-referential.