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As the Division of Student Life prepares to eliminate the house dining system’s $600,000 annual deficit, some undergraduates worry that the newest dining committee will neglect students’ opinions.

According to a new House Dining Review website, http://studentlife.mit.edu/house-dining-review, several changes, such as offering all-you-care-to-eat service, providing breakfast, and opening all four dining halls seven days a week, are being considered. Estimated costs for these modifications range from $1,850 to $3,700 per-person, each year.

This past Saturday, April 3, Daniel D. Hawkins ’12, vice chair of the Undergraduate Association Committee on Student Life, sent an e-mail to the ua-senate and ua-exec mailing lists expressing his opinion on the issue. Both lists are open to the public.

The subject line, “You are being lied to,” showed Hawkins’s frustration with the lack of student engagement in dining reform before the House Dining Review website was created.

In his opinion, “there are plans that can accommodate everyone’s preferences, but that’s not what MIT administrators are interested in,” he said in an e-mail to The Tech yesterday.

UA President Michael A. Bennie ’10 wrote a column in last Friday’s Tech, the day before Hawkins’ e-mail, in which he reviewed the importance of this student engagement.

According to Bennie: “The time between the creation of this committee and a final decision is approximately one and a half months, which is simply not enough time. On a matter of such great importance, it is unlikely that student input can be collected and incorporated in any meaningful way before students depart for the summer.”

MIT officials responded in their own column on Tuesday, saying “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.”

That column was submitted to The Tech by Dean for Student Life Chris Colombo and also signed by Chancellor Philip L. Clay PhD ’75, outgoing Vice Chancellor Steven R. Lerman ’72, and Dean for Undergraduate Education Daniel E. Hastings PhD ’80.

According to that column, the latest dining reform developments are not “the hurried beginning of a process.”

On April 6, Colombo sent an e-mail titled, “Make your voice heard on Campus Dining,” to all undergraduates. The message gave a brief background on dining reform from the past few years, including the formation of the Blue Ribbon Dining Committee in spring 2009. The e-mail said that “the work of the Blue Ribbon Committee exposed deep dissatisfaction with crucial aspects of the House Dining program.”

Regarding past dining reform efforts, Wissam N. Jarjoui ’11, a Next House resident, said he hasn’t seen action from past dining committees. “We’re making a lot of noise,” he said.

Colombo’s e-mail came four months after the UA passed its “Resolution to Ensure Transparency in Dining Reform,” which requested a report on future policy changes to House Dining from DSL by the end of January 2010.

“We thought eight weeks would be plenty of time for DSL to come up with something. Apparently it was not,” said Hawkins.

According to Hawkins, “If DSL was working productively on dining for those three months without letting students know what they were doing, that’s unacceptable. If DSL was not working on dining for those three months, that’s also unacceptable.”

Colombo’s e-mail also introduced the new House Dining Review website, which outlines the call to action and key considerations for House Dining reform. The site also features http://ideabank-housedining.mit.edu/, an Idea Bank similar to that of the Institute-Wide Planning Task Force, where members of the MIT community can provide suggestions and respond to posts from others.

Campus Dining plans to offer responses to House Dining Idea Bank submissions once the new dining plan is announced.

A March 8 letter from Colombo addressed to members of the UA outlined DSL’s plan for dining reform and charged the House Dining Advisory Group (HDAG) as a “conduit for community feedback.” The letter is available at http://ua.mit.edu/committees/dining/.

The HDAG, which includes housemasters, presidents, and dining chairs of the four dining hall dorms and the Ashdown Phoenix Group, identified choice, nutrition, community, and financial stability as key principles in dining reform.

These principles represent a variety of needs in House Dining. According to Sinchan Banerjee ’11, also of Next House, “profit is important, but it should not be the determining factor.”

Idea Bank, dining forums promote communication

Student representation on the HDAG comes from presidents and dining chairs of the Phoenix Group and the four dorms with dining halls, as well as Adam Bockelie ’11, dining chair of the UA.

Hannah M. Rice ’11, president of McCormick Hall, notices a focus on student opinion in HDAG meetings.

“The administration has been working hard to make sure that the opinions they hear are not those of administration or faculty, but of the students. Not only have they asked our opinions on the dining policies themselves, but also how the committee should be run and the best ways to collect student opinion,” she said.

According to Rice, the HDAG has “made all of the student members at the meetings an integral part of all the discussions.”

According to Simmons Hall President Christina R. Johnson ’11, “I believe that HDAG has done a good job of including student opinions in the conversation on dining. HDAG is committed to reaching out to students and gauging their opinions on several of the controversial issues.”

Tom Gearty, spokesman for Colombo, said dining choices “are going to have to be based on basic preferences,” while providing a reasonable solution. “We can’t offer every choice to every student everywhere,” he said.

According to the HDAG timeline, the Idea Bank will be open until the week of April 12, when the DSL review period will begin. DSL plans to announce the new dining plan and offer responses to Idea Bank submissions during the week of May 3. The Idea Bank was opened earlier this week, nearly three weeks later than the published HDAG timeline indicated.

DSL will host several forums this month specifically for students who eat at the dining halls. “The meetings in the Houses will be open to anyone who uses the dining halls, not just the residents of that house,” according to Gearty.

Ellen B. McIsaac ’12, president of Next House, said she has seen a focus on student feedback in this process. “The administrators working with us in the group take student opinion very seriously,” she said.

According to McIsaac, “change can be difficult to deal with. Not everyone will be fully satisfied with the new dining plan, but it would be unreasonable to expect that one dining plan could satisfy the diverse needs of all 4,000 undergraduates.”

With regards to the HDAG meetings, Cameron S. McAlpine ’13, dining chair of Baker House, said “the amount of input from the students is always significantly less than from the housemasters and other older members of the HDAG.” In his opinion, this is due to the elder members’ extensive experience with dining reform on campus.

“I would not say that the student voice is being shut out of these meetings at all. I would just say that the students representing dining at the moment just don’t have much of a voice. This can be resolved if dining gets publicized enough to get the majority of students aware of the history of dining at MIT and at least thinking about potential ideas to input,” McAlpine said. McAlpine sent an e-mail to Baker House residents detailing the House Dining review process earlier this week, “so I can get as much input from people that have different ideas so I can find out what students at Baker want,” she said.