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Responding to the Dining Fiasco

Eric J. Plosky

If there’s one thing I’ve learned during my time at MIT, it’s that in order for things to change around here, someone’s gotta die. (Suicides don’t seem to count.)

That’s why I’m not surprised at the administration’s recent boneheaded decision to renew Aramark’s food-service monopoly [“Institute to Sign Dining Contract, Aramark Monopoly Will Remain,” Mar. 9]. After all, no one has choked to death on Walker mashed potatoes; nobody has suffered toxic shock from eating too many Networks burgers. From the Institute’s standpoint, everything is just fine -- students eat, they don’t die, they keep eating. MIT signs on Aramark’s dotted line.

Oh, sure, there’s student unrest. Students have been complaining about Aramark’s overpriced, low-quality food “service” for years -- so loudly, in fact, that some years back the administration was actually obliged to form the Institute Dining Review Working Group in order to placate angry students by providing a means for official input on the subject. Unsurprisingly (and in an even more insidious manner than I outlined back in November [“Designing a Better Planning Process,” Nov. 13]), the administration then stymied students by making progress only on paper, adopting the Working Group’s anti-monopoly recommendations as “Institute policy” but dodging their real-life implementation. The result? MIT’s seal of approval on another three-year Aramark monopoly contract.

We know all this. We know why, too; from the administration’s standpoint, it’s easier to keep signing contracts than it is to implement a new policy, to break up a longstanding dining monopoly, to throw food-service policy open to student input. The more perceptive among us, I think, will even realize that Aramark itself, despite its rather shoddy track record, is not really to blame.

The question is: Where do we lay responsibility? In the past, I’ve criticized rapid, wholesale change in response to crisis [“Wise Planning,” Nov. 20]. Equally worthy of criticism is ignoring repeated, sustained pleas for change due to politics-playing or due to a fear of altering the status quo. Phillip J. Walsh, the Dining Implementation Team chair, predictably cited “stability” and “incumbency” as two reasons for continuing the Aramark monopoly. Those are fine words, but as long as they’re invoked, change -- and, presumably, improvement -- will be out of the question.

But consider the broader picture. The administration knows it will have to change food service on campus one day; they simply want to delay that day as long as possible. Administrators don’t like dealing with irritated students, nor do they like continuing to shovel money at Aramark (in the form of subsidies designed to cover operating losses). But students come and go; over three years, the span of the new contract, nearly the entire undergraduate body will have turned over, throwing into disarray student protests that are nearly impossible to organize in the first place because of the turnover. And it’s easier to stomach shelling out operating subsidies than capital improvements to campus dining facilities, as other food-service bidders rightly demand.

Besides, administrators are busy re-engineering some of the key elements of undergraduate life, and, despite popular perception, are in fact extremely disinclined to change (or to try to change) too much at once. Futzing with food service is seen as a much lower priority than building a new dorm and ironing all the uniqueness out of freshman rush -- an ordering directly related to each issue’s flashpoint (unrest and alcohol-induced death, respectively). The three-year Aramark extension will bring that question up for debate again only after all the current undergraduate reforms are completed.

Some of these issues have been conveniently left out of the food-service debate. Last Friday’s staff editorial and dissent would both have you believe that MIT could be cowed into submission by a simple boycott --the two pieces differed only in suggesting different durations [“Boycott Dining Services” and “Hitting ‘em Where it Hurts,” Mar. 12]. But a boycott would not work. Unsustainability aside, such a naive “solution” forgets that MIT has already signed a contract with Aramark, so things ain’t changin’ for at least three years. Despite administrative dithering on the subject, the Institute will continue, in one form or another, to cover any operating losses, including boycott losses, incurred by Aramark.

Or will it? Walsh has indicated that operating-subsidy details have yet to be finalized. Here is a golden opportunity for student protesters to still have significant, meaningful influence on the food-service debate, even in spite of the administration’s political machinations. Instead of childishly screaming at the wind for a boycott, students should figure out how to nose their way into this small bit of remaining negotiation.

Couldn’t the administration be prodded to insert clauses, a paragraph or two, specifying certain performance and satisfaction levels Aramark would have to meet in order to be eligible for operating subsidies? Surely MIT has some leeway to set the parameters by which Aramark will operate on campus -- and students can help define those parameters. (If there are already such parameters, and I hope there are, simply make them stricter.) In fairness to Aramark, food service has improved substantially in the past few years, and if we recognize the inevitability of a forced monopoly for the next three years, we may be able to preside over continued improvements.

This is not to say that students should be accepting of a continued monopoly. On the contrary; I simply suggest that we accept the politics of the current food-service situation, do with it what we can, and move on. This is not surrendering our voice, this is not giving the administration one last chance -- this is reality. Next time, when the current contract expires, we can only hope that the student body three years on is able to succeed in pushing its recommendations through where we failed.

Or, if all of this is totally unpalatable, there is one more option: Alyssa P. Hacker ’02, choking to death on overpriced, worm-infested Lobdell spaghetti. Aramark would find itself on the curb in front of 84 Mass. Ave. quicker than Phil Walsh can say “incumbency.”