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Dining Halls Should Be Mandatory for All

Column by Raajnish A. Chitaley

MIT has never been much of an average college. As much as President Charles M. Vest might yearn, we don't have a 105,000 seat stadium, an extravagant homecoming week, or a vilified "Dean of Students" type character (not any more, that is) who cracks down on fraternity pranks. I will freely acknowledge that we can probably do without these staples of the American college experience. But one part of the average college experience that I sorely miss is the dining hall. MIT should make dinners in dining halls mandatory.

As of this year, Baker and Next House are the only dormitories with dining facilities; MacGregor's dining hall has since become a Kwik-e-Mart sans slurpees. The transformation of the MacGregor dining hall destroyed any chance of eating regularly with people from my own entry and dormitory. Eating dinner together had become a ritual of sorts: going downstairs together, bantering over dinner, and hanging out well after we had finished eating. Half-stale strawberry shortcake and warm soda was an excuse for staying an extra half hour to determine the country of origin of our math TA, or discussing why people from the Midwest call soda, pop. In my mind, as much as MIT is unique, this is one part of the college experience we need.

Thankfully, the closing of the MacGregor dining hall does not mean that we never have the opportunity to eat together. Many people from my entry still eat together at Next or Baker dining hall. And we socialize in other ways, of course. But it's not quite the same. With a dining hall in the dorm, there were fewer excuses for not eating together. People didn't worry about having to trek to Next or missing a meeting or phone call. The dining hall was just a hop, skip, and jump away. Some may argue that Next is not all that further, but distance is not the point - the real issue is having a common gathering place within your own living group.

A bit of history about the dining hall mess. The dining hall controversy came to a boil in the spring of 1992, when MIT decided that it could no longer afford to subsidize the losses that dining halls incurred. People simply weren't eating in the dining halls. They complained about the poor food quality and high prices, and blamed ARA mismanagement for financial loss. You've heard this familiar refrain about college food. (A year later, the dining halls have closed and now people complain about Lobdell in the same way. Baker dining hall, now student-run, seems to be on the right track.)

The lack of demand for pressure-cooked turkey breast and powdered potatoes (just like Mom used to make) is one half of the vicious cycle. I heard Institute Professor Robert M. Solow tell a relevant anecdote about a small diner on a remote country road. The sign at the side of the road said "Last food for 25 miles; Eat here or we'll both starve." MIT can't improve the dining halls unless they can be managed profitably, and students won't make the dining halls profitable unless the food and prices improve.

But how can dorm residents be brought back into dining halls? I don't think they will. I think they will have to be forced. MIT will have to erase the institutional memory of students in dorms, and make eating dinner in the dining halls mandatory for anyone who lives in a dormitory. Perhaps dinner Sunday through Thursday is a good schedule. Only then will the dining halls have any chance to have enough demand to encourage students to eat there.

I know what many people might be thinking. Yes, the hours and food (e.g. for vegetarians) would have to be improved. Yes, financial aid changes would be necessitated. Yes, the physical facilities would have to be expanded. Yes, some schedules would be thrown out of kilter. And no, MIT and ARA have a checkered history of customer service. Although keeping the quality and service at high levels year after year is a legitimate concern, I think the benefits of dining halls far out weigh the costs.

Mandatory commons is not the product of a sour milk delusion. Eating together is an age old notion that goes far beyond MIT's little piece of academic history. (In point of fact, MIT has had a lunchroom/mess since MIT was located in the Rogers Building on Boylston Street.) Most independent living groups include board in their house bills, and most members, though not explicitly required, eat dinner at their ILG.

And after a few transition years, it will become part of our expectations to eat dinner together in the dorms. Eating with entry/floor and dormitory residents will give dorms character and unity, and will make people more open minded; at MacGregor, we argued about everything from abortion to the biology requirement. If people wonder why MIT students are accused of being unsociable and narrow-minded, I would point to the lack of dining halls as a large reason.

With more regular schedules, dining halls will also give us another opportunity to welcome more faculty into our lives. Faculty, particularly those with connections to dorm residents, can easily eat dinner with entire entries and floors - they will know when many or most of the entry eats. They will feel more comfortable joining a regular meal versus the often awkward special meals that they are invited to now.

I imagine that only a few readers are probably thinking of more faculty involvement as a blessing. However, I believe that more faculty involvement in our living groups is essential to improving our quality of life. If they know how we live, maybe they will better understand the pace and pressure that we face every day.

It also makes good sense to force people to leave the lab or stop studying for the MCAT for an hour a day. And hopefully, longer dining hall hours would give us a chance to have a relaxing meal instead of a LaVerde's sub and Snapple in the Student Center elevator on the way to Athena. Mandatory commons should not be compared to a Dianetics session - in the end, its just a bunch of friends eating dinner together every day.

The current dining hall situation makes my stomach churn. It's a tragedy that MIT has destroyed any hope of having truly common dining venue for at least the next few years if not longer. Making dining halls mandatory is one remedy for better digestion. Besides, what's a Kwik-e-Mart without Apu?