UA President raises Dining issue at Faculty Meeting

At today’s faculty meeting, just before 5:00 p.m., for the first time in his term, Undergraduate Association President Vrajesh Y. Modi ’11 spoke to the meeting. In the New Business section of the meeting, he raised the issue of dining:

Recently, over 1800 members of the community signed a petition expressing concern — really opposition — to the plan as currently structured. Students are perplexed by how the administration can continue to move forward with implementing a plan with this degree of opposition, and they feel their voices are not being heard.

At least from the point of the view of the Undergraduate Association, we want to let you know, and have it on the record that we intend to bring up this issue of student engagement at the Faculty Policy Committee and also at the subsequent faculty meeting.

President Hockfield said, “Thank you,” and invited comment from the audience.

Chancellor Philip L. Clay PhD ’75 replied:

I just want to make an observation about the history of the dining system., and many of you have been at MIT longer than me and know: that over the years a number of efforts have been made to improve that.

On the balance, to create two subcritical systems. One system of residence halls that included dining as part of the construction, building, and original programming. Those four dining halls, along with Masseeh Hall, which I lived in as a graduate student and recall fondly lining up for the same food they served at Lobdell but it tasted a lot better, in the company of my fellow graduate students.

So those five dining halls, stand as one part of the system. The other part of the system is several dining halls that were constructed or renovated from various buildings, or built new, to NOT include dining. Now we’ve tried over the years including over the 10 years that I’ve been in this position to try a variety of schemes. All of the ones that we’ve been working on in the time I’ve been chancellor have a good deal of student engagement and some of the experiences worked better than others.

I recall for example, fall of 2001, the group of dining– whatever group it was called at the time–The Dining Board recommended there be mandatory dining started with the freshman class that would arrive the next fall. I came into this room with near all of the seats filled with students who objected to that even though there wasn’t a student in the room who would be affected. But it would have provided an opportunity to transition something that was more common at our peer institutions.

I accepted that rejection and asked that the group — the expanded Dining Board — expanded with some of the students in the room — come back within 45 days with suggestions for how to improve upon the recommendation of the group that had worked the previous year.

That group came back with what became the Simmons plan. The Simmons plan was found to be promising for a year or two and then it was expanded to Next and then to Baker and to McCormick. But the problem wasn’t just that we had two sub-critical dining systems. The other part of the problem was we were losing $1 million a year.

And it was a part of my job to make sure we stopped losing $1 million a year though we had no notion that we should somehow be profitable. Given that we did not have a system that was really designed to be that way.

So starting 3 years ago we started on another journey to improve dining. A number of studies and a number of different groups. We settled on a process about a year ago where the housemasters and students and student governments in the five dining halls where there was dining–or would be dining, in the case of Masseeh. Would work and put together plans that would allow the dining to go forward in those five halls.

There was never a suggestion that we add dining to any hall that did not have it even though the UA was invited and other students were involved, hoping that there would be a plan that would welcome the participation of students who did not live in the dining dorms.

They worked over the course of last year and this year and they came to a concensus. They came to a recommendation at the end of last term and that had a number of hearings and forums and other activities. We settled on a plan and then in the fall we started to get the pushback that Vrajesh talked about.

Go back and look what was recommended last spring. And what was announced two weeks ago — three weeks ago. You will see there are a number of changes designed to represent the responsiveness that was accepted by the House Dining Advisory Board. Those have been incorporated into a proposal that. meets all of the concerns that we would possibly respond to in the plan that we will move forward with in the fall.

Now, there have been surveys and other means of communication that convey a mix and complicated message. There was a survey published in The Tech back in September, there were petitions of various kinds, there were small demonstrations of varying sizes, but we responded on cost, we responded on a variety of plans ranging from meal plans with as few as seven meals to as many as nineteen meals. Variety in the various dorms and some accomodation for the different working styles of upperclassmen versus freshmen.

We expect that some of the students who live in house dining will, for a variety of personal reasons, not choose to be there. But those who are freshmen–freshman this year–were told when they came to MIT that there would be a dining plan, and that in selecting a residence hall they were selecting the dining plan that that hall would agree to.

So what we have now, and the bids are out to select vendors– what we have now are several plans. Seven to 19 meals. Five halls have dining facilities. We will support the non-dining hall dormitories through upgrading their kitchen and other cooking facilities. And we will welcome students who do not live in the dining halls to in fact subscribe to a dining plan of their choice if they like.

We have addressed the issue of cost, so that students on financial aid will be able to make a choice among these within the allowance that have been set forward in the student budget for housing.

So students will have a choice and we encourage them to take the choice. But we do not have a choice to continue 2 sub-critical systems. Systems that don’t meet our expectations about cost, don’t meet our expectations about providing a community for students who want dining. Now we know some students do not want dining, and they don’t have to pay.

But I have a really hard time accepting that students who live in a non-dining dorm can object to what students in a dining dorm have over the course of the year decided is best for them.

So that’s where we are.

I would welcome to continue discussion. But I also know that it is important to move forward with implementation. We welcome ideas on implementation. We also know hardly any plan that we make that recommends a fundamental change will be done correctly the first time.

There will be –as there is now in the dining facilities in Sloan and other places– people with clipboards going around looking at all sorts of things. Understanding that from time to time or after some period of review, changes will be — but I would like to see those changes be made in response to the experience of students in those places, and not to some notion of what some cultural assault is against MIT.

I came at a time when actually eating that not-so-great food in what is now Masseeh Hall was a pretty good experience for how to end a day and I think there are lots of students who want that opportunity.

Some don’t want to get up for breakfast so there’s a flexibility that allows them to use that meal for lunch. There would be some students for whom 7 meals is enough and there are others who will jump at the idea of 12 or 14 or 19.

And I hope the Faculty will support their colleagues, housemasters in these 5 dorms, the GRTs and others who work with the students to come up with these plans.

This plan did not come from me. I never attended a single meeting of the HDAG. They didn’t come from staff who had no connection. They came from those housemasters and students.

And all of the technical matters. From costing, the financial calculation, came from the work of three different parts of MIT — four different parts — they came from the faculty who were involved in the process, came from Finance whose numbers drive our budget, they came from the Dean’s Office that operates housing and dining, and they came from Financial Aid, who needed to make sure that what we produced was important to the students.

All of them agree, all of them were involved in the process. We made a lot of progress between last May and November, and I urge you to listen to what will be offered and to support our moving forward. Thank you.

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One Response to UA President raises Dining issue at Faculty Meeting

  1. Michael says:

    Can you give me some bullet points for the things Clay said? I can’t internalize monologues longer than about four paragraphs without taking notes :(

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