The resignation last week of UA representative to the House Dining Advisory Group underscores its shortcomings. HDAG members have repeatedly defended the current dining plan by pointing to student input throughout the process, with the students on HDAG often being some of its loudest supporters (see this issue’s letter to the editor, “Misrepresentation of student HDAG members” by three house presidents).
Paula Trepman ’13, the recent de-affiliate of HDAG, said, “the administration is just going through the motions to appear as if they care about student opinion.” Her views mirror what has been said over mailing lists for the past several months, and what The Tech noted in a previous editorial: HDAG was always working from a preconceived list of acceptable revisions to the dining plan and did not consider all options equally.
The overarching plan of MIT in recent past has been toward a larger dining plan — this is because the only way to make a revenue-neutral dining system is to have the scale of participation be on par with the scale of the facilities. That leaves you two options — grow the customer base, or cut the facilities. The latter has not been seen as a reasonable option by HDAG; which dining chair will offer to close their dining hall, or which dean will propose cutting one of McCormick, Baker, and Maseeh given that they’re all next door? This leaves growing the customer base — which in dining systems is conveniently done by requiring students to purchase a set number of meals per term. If you charge them (and thus pay your vendor) regardless of whether people eat there, you no longer have to win people’s business — you merely need to prevent them from rioting.
We reject HDAG’s argument that it adequately considered student opinion by responding to questions and concerns throughout the proposal-forming process. HDAG never asked students the only question that truly measures student support: “Do you approve of the final plan we have proposed?” When the UA stepped in to ask this question for HDAG, only 8 out of 98 students who were informed about the plan and lived in dining hall dorms supported it.
So why does there seem to be a disconnect? Why is there such a division between administrators and students, and even within students? It’s easy to see why the administration would be surprised by student backlash — current HDAG representatives come solely from dorms where students are more likely to support dining halls.
Regardless of why the plan has been chosen (whether that be administrative pressure for a larger plan, parental protests about students eating at MIT, or even the possibility that a quiet plurality of students likes the current plan), it cannot be denied that all student input at this point is from dining dorm representatives.
What are the consequences of having neglected that input? We get a plan that ignores the impact on non-dining dorms, FSILGs, and student groups.
If MIT moves to a far more expensive mandatory meal plan, students will be less likely to choose their dorms based on the people they want to live with. Instead, they will move into dorms that are less expensive but also less compatible with their personality: the new primary factor will be the dorms’ dining hall status.
These non-dining dorms now rightly protest that their culture is under fire. While the new plan does not threaten the “cook for yourself” culture that was so sharply defended in years past, it is a broader threat to the personalities of these dorms.
Similarly, little has been said about the impact of a new meal plan on FSILGs. What is the impact for freshman pledging fraternities from Baker House? Will they be as likely to go across the river to eat dinner with their new brothers if they’ve already paid for meals they don’t want in their dining hall? FSILGs often build a strong bond around eating dinner together, and doing so helps link the new members to the upperclassman in a far more personable environment than any dining hall.
Student groups who use food as a recruiting tool are stakeholders in the current system also — they often operate on similar principles to the FSILGs, and use dinners as a way to attract new members.
In short, we do not think MIT is best served by the adoption of this new plan. If the administration wants to move towards a dining plan that truly works for the MIT community, we must consider a broader range of options than HDAG has. Doing so effectively will require direct representation from all affected parties — dorms with and without dining halls, FSILGs, and student groups alike.
Natasha Plotkin has recused herself from this editorial because of her reporting on HDAG.