Unilateral decisions about dining options

Mac Watson

I am pleased with many of the improvements that have come with the construction of the Warch Campus Center, as are, I am sure, many other students. The building itself is beautiful, and it provides a wonderful place to study, eat and socialize; it is somewhat like an 18- to 22-year-old’s ideal playground.
Last year, I expressed some concern that, however beautiful and comprehensive the building was to be, some students would still want to find other dining options. Students who preferred providing for their dining in ways more tailored to their individual needs and desires still had no idea whether such individualized dining would be provided for or not. My main concern was that the Lawrence administration would continue to act unilaterally with respect to independent eating options and make decisions without meaningfully consulting students.
I received a prompt e-mail response from Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Nancy Truesdell assuring me that students before me have been consulted about dining decisions and that students will continue to be asked for feedback about dining options. A session with Greg Griffin, the current Warch Campus Center director, was promised to clear up all confusion on the part of me and other SigEps.
Though I was the only recipient of the e-mail, and it offered me no concrete answers, I felt confident that the university was looking out for my interests and that my input would prod the administration into considering our concerns.
The meeting with Griffin came, and though no concrete meal plan was outlined, our cook, our president and the other formal group house members in attendance were assured that our independent eating options would continue to be “viable.” All signs led us to believe that a large part of our way of life and our traditions remained safe.
Several months later, in April, members of our house – along with the rest of the campus – were informed of the meal plans that would be available to us. We were paying less to the now independent food service, Bon Appétit, but we were each assessed a $300 “maintenance charge” to provide for the utilities in the excessively energy-efficient campus center.
This charge hamstringed our house’s ability to provide food for our members and to pay our cook in the manner that we were accustomed to doing. Suddenly, after months of trying to get details of the plan, our house was handed information that was forcing us to make unsavory decisions: Do we need to fire our current cook and friend? Will we be able to continue eating together as a house?
After some of us and our parents e-mailed the administration with concerns about the new plan, Truesdell issued a response, stating that we failed in our responsibility as a small group because we were not prepared for these changes.
She asserted that responding to unexpected changes in dining “is something that other groups are doing through effective problem-solving” and suggested that we may just have to learn how to “stretch a dollar further.”
I guess these decisions required problem solving, but I’m of the belief that being confronted with choices about not only a pivotal part of how our social group relates to each other, but also about how our cook and friend’s livelihood would be maintained, with four short months before the next school year, is quite different from the campus encouraging effective problem-solving.
It also seems silly to me that our meals cost far less than the $10 dinners at the campus center – about $6.50, not including leftovers, which are rarely wasted – but they are not subject to competition from us and are free to take as much as they ask for from our pockets.
SigEp has, however, engaged in effective problem solving, and this is part of the benefit of providing our own food. As a house, we manage our own money, making our own budget that pays our one employee and makes sure that we have food to eat. It is great training not only for balancing a checkbook, but balancing the needs of a group.
The system our house has for dining is showing itself as continually efficient and resilient, with our cook taking a substantial pay cut, but still providing meals throughout the week. These meals also cater more to our needs as a group; things are more efficient when they cater to a smaller audience. Our cook does not need to cater to the tastes of 1,500, but rather to the tastes of 30 students, so there is far less waste and more satisfaction, even though we are still allowed to spoon our own food onto our plate.
Though small group housing can still maintain independent dining, I would encourage the administration to listen to student concerns next time they plan a sweeping change. Unilateral decisions may be quiet and easy in theory, but they are anything but in execution, and sometimes they leave unintended consequences.