The UA’s referendum on this fall’s dining plan is an unproductive stunt that only serves to prolong the often acrimonious debate on an already decided policy. To be sure, the referendum confirms what most undergraduates have known for some time — given the costs, a majority of students do not support a mandatory, all-you-care-to-eat meal plan at dining dorms. But at best, that data amounts to an “I told you so” from the UA to the administration; it accomplishes nothing, and will only weaken the UA’s standing as a serious organization.
The time for arguing over the financial or cultural repercussions of a mandatory meal plan has long since passed, and now is not the time to revisit them. Now, the time is to learn what lessons we can from the dining reform process, and then move on.
There are two things that are very evident at this point. First, the decisions have been made, the vendors have been solicited, the Class of 2015 has been informed, and dining reform as announced will be happening this fall. Second, and more importantly, the student body, UA, and administration have much to learn from the dining reform process.
Central to this is that both sides need to think carefully about communication in a policy debate. An administration that can talk to students in an effective way, and vice versa, will create an environment at MIT where every policy change isn’t an agonizing saga of anger, frustration, and misunderstanding.
While the administration cannot be faulted for not taking opportunities to communicate with undergraduates, they should consider more carefully their approach to doing so. Last year, HDAG members and campus administrators took to the pages of The Tech and sent campus-wide emails invoking a number of reasons for the dining change — nutrition, the desire to increase student-student and faculty-student interaction, and the historic variability in dorm culture, among others.
These are all reasonable, sensible arguments, but they failed to resonate with students or address their greatest concerns — chiefly, the fear that they or their peers would choose their residence based on finances, not dining or cultural preference. The administration must work harder to provide context for students who generally have a four-year time horizon at MIT. Faculty, staff, and administrators must, without guilt, remind students that they consider the long-term health and competitiveness of the Institute, looking forward 10 or 20 years, not four. If influences from peer institutions are important, point out why that is. Frame dining reform exactly as it is: the best — but not perfect — solution among a sea of more unpalatable options. Acknowledge that the plan has flaws, and explain why those flaws can’t be overcome. Tell students about the constraints imposed by available dining vendors and why dining plans cost as much as they do, to whatever extent is feasible. What’s obvious from an administrative standpoint probably isn’t clear to undergraduates.
Also, as in all writing, tone with respect to the intended audience is crucial. Letters from administrators and HDAG members to The Tech often read like scientific abstracts or political speeches. We appreciate that some level of finesse is demanded by these communications, but MIT students constitute an audience that highly values frankness and directness. Much of what administrators have written about dining in the past year are informative, intelligent responses to student concerns, but they lost their student audience well before the important points were delivered. As a litmus test, administrators should think back to when they were in college and consider just how many paragraphs they would read before losing interest and returning to work.
Students, too, can benefit by adopting more effective ways to communicate with the administration. Namely, students should recognize that the administration knows a lot about MIT and its history, and if they say there’s a problem in the realm of student life, it’s worth listening to what they have to say. Indeed, much of the student response to dining reform was outright rejection of the new plan. When a serious proposal to fix a known problem is presented, one does not earn bargaining power by simply repeating that said plan is unacceptable.
Just as administrators must gear their communications toward gaining student reception, so must students in their communications with the administration. Be strategic: open your argument by acknowledging the opposing viewpoint, and establish some common ground. Move on, respectfully, to your own opinions, and periodically return to points of common ground. Also, seek to establish trust with your opponent. Your first assumption should be that everybody at MIT is working to make MIT better. Consider why administrators make the decisions they do — if you believe it is because they don’t care about and don’t listen to students, think about alternatives that explain their decisions. Evaluate whether a coordinated propaganda campaign from administration officials to push through food-related reform and destroy student culture at MIT is really a likely explanation. Frankly, what would administrators gain from that?
Students may worry that future generations will forget the concerns, long debates, and effort that went into student opposition of the dining plan unless they continue to press them now. However, in this case it does hurt to try again. The UA, especially its incoming members, can make a profoundly important gesture by accepting that the dining plan will be a reality in a few months.
In general, dining has served to highlight the systemic problems in communication between those who attend MIT and those who run it. The Tech hopes that both groups give the other more reasons to trust them in the future through clear, direct, and most importantly, targeted communications.
David M. Templeton and Andrew T. Lukmann will publish a dissent to this editorial on Friday, Apr. 1.