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At an emergency Undergraduate Association meeting on Wednesday, students and senators discuss the proposed mandatory dining plan for fall 2011. A survey conducted by the UA showed that a significant number of students are opposed to the new dining plan.
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At an emergency meeting Wednesday night, the Undergraduate Association (UA) unanimously passed a bill urging Chancellor Phillip Clay “to intervene by halting” the approval process for the new dining plan. The bill, 42 U.A.S E1.1, argued that the process by which the plan was developed was not transparent, respectful, thorough, or fair.

The meeting came in response to a petition initiated by Andres A. Romero ’14 and signed by more than five percent of the undergraduate student population; according to the UA Constitution, an emergency meeting must be held within 96 hours of the receipt of such a petition. This followed a recent UA survey that revealed strong opposition to the new dining plan, designed by the House Dining Advisory Group (HDAG) last semester.

The plan introduces all-you-can-eat (AYCE) breakfast and dinner seven days a week at dining halls and requires students in McCormick, Baker, Next, and Simmons to sign up for a 10-, 12-, or 14-meal-per-week plan. The plans, which are divided equally between breakfast and dinner, will cost students between $2,900 and $3,800 a year. Among those who live in dorms with dining halls, juniors and seniors will be able to choose any of the plans whereas sophomores will have to choose between the 12- and 14-meal-per-week plans and freshmen will have to participate in the 14-meal-per-week plan. Students in other dorms can opt in to any of the plans or pay for each meal individually.

The Request for Proposal (RFP) presented to the contractors will be finalized next week.

At least 215 students signed a petition that states, “The new dining plan needs an immediate reform, as it will lead to financial and cultural problems in all dorms.” Romero, who resides in Next, said he was convinced to write the petition because his friends are leaving due to the cost of the new dining plan. Romero said they demand “the dining plan be either non-compulsory or revised to significantly cut costs.”

Concerns over costs

Concerns about the cost were also expressed during the emergency meeting. “I don’t want to move out of the dorm because I cannot afford the new dining,” Veronica L. Barrera ’13, a Simmons resident, said.

Baker Dining Committee Chair Cameron S. McAlpine ’13 explained that the new dining plan costs more because part of its aim is to eliminate the deficit that the dining system has faced for the past several years. The dining deficit is estimated at over $500,000.

“But financial aid will be adjusted to the dining plan,” McAlpine said.

Katherine J. Silvestre ’14 from McCormick was especially concerned about the plan because she is a vegan. She said that it is not fair to require all residents in dining dorms to pay for the expensive all-you-care-to-eat plan.

“Go to any market and you’ll know that meats and seafood cost significantly more,” Silvestre said. “It is not fair for people like me to pay the same price.”

The new plan will also affect residents from outside the dining dorms, according to Tim Jenks ’13, a fraternity senator. He is concerned freshmen may not be willing to skip meals provided by the plans.

“Freshmen living in dining dorms are less likely to eat at the house because the house dining is more expensive,” Jenks said.

As a solution to strong opposition to the new dining plan, the senators of the dining dorms proposed 42 U.A.S E1.1, titled the “Bill to Reform HDAG Dining Proposal and Process in Light of Overwhelming Student Opposition,” citing issues with the process leading up to the dining plan proposed by the HDAG.

The UA noticed that minutes from last semester’s HDAG meetings were no longer available online as of Wednesday night, but Tom Gearty, spokesman for the Division of Student Life (DSL), said this was purely an accident.

“We’ll get them back,” Gearty said. “They weren’t removed for any malicious reasons; it was simply an oversight.”

Sarah W. Bindman ’13, Simmons’ dining chair and a member of the HDAG, also took issue with the allegations that there was a lack of transparency. “HDAG did everything in its power to include students,” she said. “I can say that it is actually quite frustrating how so many students can complain but not bother to show up to a house dining meeting to raise their concerns or ask questions.”

Romero said he heard the dining plan would be finalized in early- to mid-October, but his petition, which had been two to three weeks in the making, coincidentally was submitted while the UA senators from the dorms with dining halls rushed to gain student input on the new plan.

RFP deadline drove last-minute discussions

The UA’s rush to gather student opinion on dining was primarily a reaction to the RFP Evaluation Committee meeting next week. This committee comprises students, faculty, and Campus Dining administration and is in charge of choosing a contractor for the new dining plan. According to Michael E. Plasmeier ’13, a member of the RFP committee, while contractors must adhere to specifications, they are free to choose the types and portion sizes of food offered.

“The committee will be evaluating the price versus quality trade off of each vendor,” Plasmeier said. “As part of our work, we are planning on traveling to other schools to inspect actual output quality of the various contractors.”

While the new UA bill states “the release of the Request for Proposals (RFP) is imminent,” Gearty said the process is far from complete.

“The RFP Evaluation Committee will not be choosing a contractor on Monday,” Gearty said. “We are at the very beginning of the RFP process, which will take months.” Gearty went on to say the committee is only finalizing the RFP document, which will then be offered to vendors that invited to submit bids for review.

Still, several UA senators felt the need to reach out to their dorms this week before the document is finalized. “We’re in a big rush, and we need all the support we can get before students are forced to use this new dining plan,” said Alex C. Wang ’14, UA Senator for Baker House and member of the UA Committee on Dining. “We want to stop this plan.”

If the UA is to stop the RFP before the plan is finalized, they recognize that they’ll need to offer another solution that can be implemented in the next academic year. If the UA bill successfully halts the new dining plan, UA senators will use new surveys to find out what students specifically want.

Getting student opinions

This would by no means be the first survey distributed to students to gauge interest in dining.

“We know it’s a pain to keep filling out surveys,” Wang said.

UA President Vrajesh Modi ’11 said he and Vice President Sammi Wyman ’11 have only initiated one survey this semester: “Any other surveys that are taking place have not been sponsored by ua-admin.”

“That being said,” Modi added, “I applaud the outreach efforts of individual senators. It is, after all, their responsibility to represent their constituents.”

Wang sent an informal Doodle survey to Baker residents, giving them the option to select “Yes, I approve of the new dining plan,” “I don’t care either way,” or “No, I do not approve of the new dining plan.” Nearly three quarters of respondents chose the last option, but McAlpine noted that this was a “very unreliable source.”

“You could enter in your vote as many times as you wish, and you could choose more than one option,” McAlpine said. “So, I believe the only votes that are legitimate are ones with the names of actual Baker residents.” Only about a third of respondents gave their name.

Those that voted for the plan tended to stay anonymous, whereas many of those against it used the box for their name to voice their personal belief. “I’d rather gobble balls than pay that much for food,” one respondent said.

Paula Trepman ’13, Chair of the UA Committee on Dining, holds that no new dining plan should go through without the approval of students. “The UA position on dining is that we should not implement a plan until it is clear that the affected students support it,” she said.

“I could have gotten enough information [about the proposed plan],” Romero said. “There was one page right before the housing lottery.” However, Romero said that didn’t include information on pricing, but instead offered links to the House Dining Review website. “Eventually, I could have found the House Dining Review site, but I didn’t go through and I don’t think others did either.”

“We took pains to make sure it was front and center,” said Gearty. “We also made sure the dining website contained the same information.”

According to Wang, this information was received, but not fully understood. “From the start, I heard ‘oh yay new dining plan,’” Wang said. His feeling for the new plan was then marked by a “progression to ‘hopefully it’s a good plan’ to ‘crap this is really bad.’”

After sending an e-mail to Baker residents outlining the estimated costs, Wang said he receieved an overwhelming number of e-mails from residents regarding the costs. “That was their first impression­­— why is it so expensive?”

Dining plan could alter dorm demographics and culture

One of Wang’s biggest concerns is that students are considering moving out of Baker to avoid paying the new dining plan’s estimated $2,900-3,800 annual price.

“We don’t want people very comfortable in their dorms moving out. That is ridiculous,” he said.

“There is no denying that having this dining plan will shape culture,” Bindman said, “but in my opinion there are so many positive externalities: students can eat healthier, more consistently and build community. That is worth it.”

Sara R. Comis ’13, chair of the McCormick Dining Committee, noticed similar concerns. “The main issue is that [residents] feel like they’re being kicked out of their home,” she said. Since McCormick is the only all-girls living option on campus, this poses a unique challenge for residents who want to avoid next year’s dining costs.

One idea has been to establish an all-girls floor in another dorm. Comis says some McCormick residents and their families have specific expectations for safety and lifestyle when it comes to housing. Some parents may not be happy if their daughters could not stay in an all-girls living arrangement.

“Their parents would pull them out of MIT,” Comis said.

McCormick’s emphasis on health-conscious living is another factor in the new dining plan. According to Comis, who asked residents to e-mail her with their concerns about dining this week, “a lot of people feel that with the all-you-can-eat buffet, the food quality will rapidly decrease.” Comis then described one resident who was concerned about the new dining plan after an unsatisfactory experience with the AYCE dining offering during Interphase, a summer program aimed at minority freshmen at MIT.

The Final Report on the 2010 House Dining Review addresses this issue directly.

“According to Campus Dining, students in an AYCE system tend to consume more fruits and vegetables than in an a la carte system,” the report says. “This observation is supported by data from the Simmons AYCE pilot last year, in which consumption of fruits and vegetables rose significantly during the trial.”

Meanwhile, Wang recognized that there were major challenges with converting MIT to the system used by other universities, with large, centralized dining halls.

“If you think about the way MIT is organized socially, it’s really hard for MIT to turn that way,” Wang said.