Last Friday, The Tech published an opinion piece on student engagement by UA President Michael Bennie. His column referred to two recommendations of concern to undergraduates from the Institute-Wide Planning Task Force: creating a more rational system for summer housing utilization and developing a new plan for House Dining.
Mr. Bennie praised the process that led to the recent announcement on summer housing because it involved a committee of students, faculty, and staff working together. We agree that this is an exemplary method for approaching important issues. As Mr. Bennie stated, “This collaborative working style resulted in an outcome that both students and administrators supported, even though the initial situation looked bleak.”
When it comes to the recommendation on House Dining, Mr. Bennie is right to say that we — students, faculty, and administrators alike — face a monumental task. MIT must eliminate an annual House Dining operating deficit of more than $600,000 and resolve decades of frustration with the system. Over the past 20 years, MIT has convened major committees to study House Dining every five years — in 1992, 1997, 2002, and 2007 — but it has not addressed the root causes of instability and dissatisfaction.
We want to thank Mr. Bennie for raising his concerns that the process for bringing constructive change to House Dining will be rushed, not inclusive of students, incapable of withstanding challenge, and rigid. In response, we would like to offer the following points for consideration by the MIT community.
First, this is not the hurried beginning of a process. Instead, it is the culmination of a review that commenced in 2007 with the work of the Blue Ribbon Committee on Dining — a committee with student representation, including members of the UA.
Second, there are few topics at MIT for which the student point of view has been so thoroughly solicited, considered, and understood as dining. Over the past two years, MIT has engaged students to gather their opinions and ideas on dining through numerous channels. There have been surveys, focus groups, and meetings. The MIT community has extensive data from outside consultants and the Office of Institutional Research; from the Blue Ribbon Committee and the UA; and from individual houses such as Baker and Simmons. We each have met — and continue to meet — with student leaders such as Mr. Bennie on a regular basis.
Third, based on the charge of the Task Force and armed with all the feedback gathered over the past two years, Campus Dining has now proposed a range of scenarios for a new plan for House Dining. These scenarios take into consideration what students have told MIT that they want in dining, balanced against the need to eliminate the deficit and to reinforce longstanding Institute goals for residential life. These scenarios represent a change from how things are today. We are convinced, however, that the data supports the new approach.
One aspect we must reconsider is the narrow definition of student choice. The Institute is committed to preserving both cook-for-yourself and House Dining for students, but the past 30 years at MIT offer abundant evidence that when the system tries to offer every choice to every student at every point in the system, it quickly becomes unsustainable. Moreover, if anything is rigid about House Dining today, it is the limited service MIT offers its students compared to our peers. A new plan will have the potential to create the kind of House Dining program that many students say they want, including breakfast, an all-you-care-to-eat option, longer hours, better quality, and a wider range of menu offerings. Such a plan would mean more choice for MIT’s students, not less.
We are now coming to the community for a month of discussion. Following is the process for the community to engage in the conversation on dining:
• The Dean for Student Life recently convened the House Dining Advisory Group comprised of students, housemasters, and staff to advise on the process and to ensure that student voices are heard.
• Campus Dining has put forth scenarios for a new plan and a rationale for them on the House Dining Review website.
• There will be forums for students in the residences with dining halls and an online Idea Bank for anyone to comment on the scenarios.
• No decision has been made yet, and no decision will be made without broad community input.
This is precisely the approach that Mr. Bennie praised for summer housing — but with even more efforts to ensure that student voices are heard. In the interests of transparency and open discussion, the House Dining Review web site even has an archive of MIT dining-related reports and documents dating back to 1956.
The actual changes we arrive at will not be implemented until fall 2011. Next year, there will be continued opportunity to refine the plan. Today, we invite students — especially those undergraduates living in the four houses with dining halls: Baker, McCormick, Next, and Simmons — to take a look at the scenarios now and to offer suggestions.
For the next month, this draft will be a living, breathing document. And when the Dean for Student Life announces a proposal for a new plan in mid-May, it will be the product of the collaborative effort that we, and students, want for MIT.
Phillip L. Clay PhD ’75 is the Chancellor. Steven R. Lerman ’72 is the Vice Chancellor and Associate Dean for Graduate Education. Daniel E. Hastings PhD ’80 is the Dean for Undergraduate Education. Chris Colombo is the Dean for Student Life.