From March 16 to March 17, students cast ballots not only to elect the next Undergraduate Association’s (UA) president and vice president, but also to respond to the dining referendum sponsored by UA Senator Shuang Chen ’13 of Simmons Hall. A vast majority elected Allan E. Miramonti ’13 and Alec C. Lai ’13, the only official running ticket, to the presidency; likewise, a majority of students expressed mild to strong disapproval of both the new dining plan recommended by the House Dining Advisory Group (HDAG) as well as the process by which HDAG proposed recommendations for the plan.
Of the 1412 students who responded to the dining referendum, 59 percent voted against the dining plan (either “strongly disagree” or “somewhat disagree” with the plan) and 58 percent in disapproval of HDAG’s process. Only 15 percent of participants approved of the plan (“somewhat agree” or “strongly agree”), and 12 percent approved of HDAG’s process. Students also had the option to “neither agree nor disagree” or vote “don’t know.”
Of those voting students that live in dining dorms, 56 percent voted against the dining plan and 54 percent in disapproval of HDAG’s procedure. In particular, although the Class of 2014 was notified by the DSL of the pending changes to the dining plan prior to entering MIT, 57 percent voted against the plan, and only 11 percent of the class approved of HDAG’s process.
When asked why he had sponsored the dining referendum, Chen said, “I hoped to bring up the issue of student engagement.” Chen acknowledged that the results showed that students were clearly dissatisfied with how the process was conducted.
Of more interest is the UA’s response to the referendum results. “The next step for the UA will be to communicate the results to the relevant administrators,” said Vrajesh Y. Modi ’11, president of the UA, in an email to The Tech. “To the best of my knowledge, this is the most comprehensive data collected on … how different cross-sections of the student population feel about the plan.”
During the presidential debates, president-elect Miramonti said that “nothing was set in stone” regarding the dining plan. Vice President-elect Lai expressed similar sentiments: “Everything is still up to change,” he said. “They haven’t signed the contract yet.” When asked if he was aware that vendors were in the process of being chosen, however, Lai said, “It is going to be really, really hard — maybe impossible — to turn it around, but we’re not giving up.”
Chen was more wary: “Right now, the plan looks like it might be final — the only thing we can do at this point is [to adjust] the details to make it better for students.” According to Chen and Lai, the UA Senate is not yet decided on its next course of action.
“We want to make sure we’re all on the same page,” Lai said of Monday night’s Senate meeting. “We were focused on structural changes to the Senate. … [Dining] was not our priority.”
Henry J. Humphreys, senior associate dean of residential life and dining, said that he had anticipated the negative response from the referendum before the results were released.
“The way I’m looking at it, I came onboard two years into the process, and I saw an unprecedented amount of student involvement,” Humphreys said.
Comparing MIT’s efforts to integrate and accommodate student responses to the efforts of other schools’ to do the same, Humphreys noted that “most institutions would not make such an effort to involve students, and I think this speaks as much for the kind of institution that MIT is — students’ voices were heard and adjustments were made.”
The administration is in the process of rolling out the dining vendor details. “We announced what the [dining] program is at the end of last semester,” Humphreys said, with all indication that the question of dining itself was decided and set in stone. “We’ve told the UA and DormCon that we’re wrapping up the process of choosing a vendor, and we welcome student dialogue in the implementing of dining.”
Implementation will be a two-part process: Renovating existing kitchen facilities in non-dining dormitories, and forming a committee to work on implementing the dining plan for dining communities. “Renovations will probably start by June 2012,” said Humphreys. “But the planning process will begin this spring, as soon as a vendor is announced.”
“I hope to present the issue of dining to the Senate for open discussion,” said Chen. What the UA hopes to accomplish is not clear at this point, given the finality of the administration’s decision. Nonetheless, as Chen stated, “it is crucial that we involve everyone.” In respect to the last note, it would seem that the UA and administration are in agreement.