The Campus Dining Petition

Wrong for dining dorms; wrong for students; wrong for MIT

Some Basic Facts

See more information in the resources section.

The Key Issues

Response to November 29 Amendments

The latest announcement from Dean Colombo, dated November 29, offers a "transition plan" for rising juniors and seniors. Unfortunately, it does not address the major concerns, it leaves the rising sophomores and future classes of MIT students to shoulder the high costs of the program, and it's not even an attractive option for juniors and seniors.

This is what your organizers predicted, and we need to fight back:

Expect HDAG to attempt a strategy of appeasement instead of addressing the real problems with the new plan, and be insulted when they do. - Nov 26

The Transition Plan

Multiple reports, from the Blue Ribbon Dining Committee report to the student life report from the Institute-wide Task Force (page 15) indicate that students in dining dorms spend roughly $2250 per year on all of their food, including the $600 house dining fee. The $2,500 fee for seven meals exceeds this cost.

While the food under the $2500 may be better than the current dining system, it's hard to justify spending more than one's total annual expenditures on a fraction of the meals. HDAG is offering this expensive plan as the minimum commitment from students in Next, Baker, McCormick, or Simmons - indicating that they are ignoring our concerns about the high cost.

Not to mention 2014s, and future generations of MIT students, are not even given this option.

Attempt at Appeasement

The latest amendment to the plan--an expensive halfway commitment option for rising juniors and seniors only--is not an adequate response to our concerns. Nothing is being done to address the high expense that the class of 2014 and future generations of MIT students will have to bear.

Moreover, the plan in its current amended form will still have a negative impact on MIT's student life. Clubs and FSILGs will still suffer. Dorm culture will still change, because many folks are still planning on moving--and new students will still consider the huge cost differences when choosing where to live, instead of being able to choose based on cultural fit alone.

Too expensive

The expenditures under the new dining plan are more vastly more expensive than what the average MIT student currently spends.

In its fact sheet on pricing and spending, HDAG tries to portray the cost of the plan as comparable to the existing student spending. It notes that spending on all food for students in house dining amounts to $3,193 (average) and $3,000 (median), and that a plan of $3,800 for 14 meals is therefore comparable since under the plan students get hot breakfast.

There are several inaccuracies here. First, they are comparing $3,000 (or $3,193) of total expenditures to $3,800 for breakfast and dinner, not including IAP. In other words, your total expenditures under the plan are going to be much larger; if we assume another 230 days at $5 per day for lunch (a low estimate), plus $100 per week during IAP, that is $5,350.

Second, the statistic of $3,000 (or $3,193) for house dining students is questionably high anyway. The student life report from the Institute-wide Task Force states:

In a recent survey, student self-reported expenditures on food ranged from $1,700 per year to $2,240 per year. The lowest amount was for students who cooked for themselves and the highest amount was for those students who are currently on a meal plan at a residence hall with a dining facility. [link]
The consultant-run survey commissioned by the Blue Ribbon Dining Committee in 2009 agrees with these numbers:
The amount of money students spend on food each year varies from approximately $1,750 (East Campus and Senior House) to $2,250 (average for students living in residence halls with dining facilities)." [link]

The comparisons with other colleges are barely any better. $5,350 does not compare favorably to the full-meal plans at our neighbors at Harvard ($4,600) or BC ($4,600) - and this is assuming a cheap lunch at MIT.

Comparing to the 14-meal per week plans at other colleges is meaningless because those plans are inflated in order to encourage students to purchase their 21 meals per week plans. This is a choice MIT students in dining dorms will not have. Furthermore, most of the 14-meal plans being compared are usable toward lunch. The HDAG plan is for breakfast and dinner. Lunch is likely more expensive than breakfast.

The takeaway is that MIT's new plan is much more expensive than current spending at MIT, and also more expensive than at other colleges.

$600,000 deficit is questionable; solution even more so

The financials of the dining system have consistently been cited as a primary motivator for the new system. But the information given on the dining subsidy is misleading and it is not even clear that the new dining system is indeed a solution to the supposed financial problem, given the additional cost to financial aid.

The Division for Student Life cites annual losses in house dining of over $600,000 as a primary motivation for the new plan. [citation]. The "Call to Action" on the DSL House Dining Review website states:

With the recent budget crisis, a situation that was always undesirable is now untenable. In past debates, the principle of student choice overshadowed all other considerations, compromising important values such as community and financial stability—and, thereby, ironically compromising student choice itself.

There are several inaccuracies with this portrayal. First of all, the dining system as a whole does not lose money. Some of the fees garnered from the student center vendors are used to subsidize the four dorm dining halls. It is arbitrary to cut a division into pieces and note that one of them doesn't pull as much weight so it needs to be radically overhauled. That would be like noting that DAPER loses money because students don't pay fees to use the gym, so the Z-center should be cut.

Moreover, even if this deficit problem were as significant as it is portrayed to be, the new plan does not really solve it. Instead, it likely represents a transfer of costs from dining to financial aid. Given an annual meals allowance for financial aid of $4,350 and a 14-meal plan cost of $3,800 (which does not cover lunch or IAP), and a guarantee from financial aid that the food allowance for financial aid "will not be lower than the cost of the proposed new dining plan," it follows that financial aid will have to increase per student by several hundred dollars.

Sixty-two percent of the 4500 MIT students, or 2970 students, are on some form of financial aid right now. For each one, MIT calculates the cost to attend, subtracts the amount they can pay, and covers the difference. So when the expected cost of food increases, each person's financial aid package goes up by the same amount.

(A slight detail is that expected food cost might be calculated as a weighted average, meaning that if food costs go way up for some students (the ones on mandatory dining), then the financial aid allocation might not go up as much. This is particularly insidious because it could lead to financial aid not paying the full cost of living in certain dorms, which might lead to financial stratification across campus. So let's again take the guarantee on the financial aid FAQ website at face value.)

Anyway, dividing $600,000 by 2,970 yields $215. This is the amount that financial aid would have to increase by in order to create an equivalent $600,000 deficit. And since $550 + $215 = $765 is not enough to cover 230 days of lunch, this is a safe bet.

So this $600,000 number really breaks down; the new dining system essentially becomes a transfer of costs from dining to financial aid; and it looks like it actually increases costs.

Hurts dorm culture, both for dining and non-dining dorms

HDAG expects students to choose their housing with dining playing a large part in the decision. This might work at other colleges where dorm culture is not very strong, but it is fundamentally at odds with how MIT students think about their housing.

The new dining plan will cause some students to move out of dorms that best fit their culture in favor of dorms that are cheaper. In addition to the obvious negative effect on community within dining dorms, which is a tremendous issue, there are additional problems:

  • Displacement: Students who would like to stay in MIT Housing but would like to move to another dormitory in order to avoid the increase in food cost are concerned that they will not be able to do so, due to the length of the waitlists.
  • Community: Students who would like to stay in House Dining dorms are concerned about the impact that the changes in the dining plan will have on the communities there, especially in terms of losing upperclassmen. Some students in the other dorms are also concerned about the effect on their communities because incoming freshmen may choose one of these dorms due to the lower cost, even if the culture is not right for them.
- letter to undergrads from UA President Vrajesh Modi and UA VP Sammi Wyman, Nov. 11, 2010
This concern was reiterated in The Tech:
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.

HDAG does not understand MIT housing. Students benefit greatly from being able to choose a residential community that fits their personality. HDAG expects students to compromise this unique MIT offering to select housing that matches their dining preference.

To reiterate, this might work at other schools where dorm culture is not very strong, but it is fundamentally at odds with how MIT students think about their housing.

Hurts FSILGs and clubs

Many FSILGs eat together in their houses. Freshmen forced to pay $3,800 for campus dining are much less-inclined to forfeit that money and go to their fraternity houses for dinner, which is an important bonding time for many FSILGs.

Likewise, clubs use food to attract attendees to events; forcing students to purchase a meal plan in advance may hurt clubs.

Motivation is paternalistic

The campus dining system ought to offer breakfast for nutritional reasons. Less than one third of MIT undergraduates report eating breakfast and just 1 in 8 reports eating at least one healthy meal per day. - HDAG fact sheet on breakfast.

HDAG sees this statistic as a sign that it needs to step in and fix everyone's unhealthy lack-of-breakfast habits.

Or, one could interpret the breakfast consumption to mean that most students don't find substantial utility in breakfast being available, and that requiring dining-dorm students to pay for breakfast will run counter to their desires and waste their dollars.

Student opinion was ignored

"Gearty said that students have had many opportunities to have their voice heard. 'We had a process last semester in which we held forums in all the houses. We met with individual student groups upon request and there was Idea Bank. There were multiple channels for students to make their views known.'" [*]

The argument "we gave you a chance to complain and you didn't complain" only works if we didn't complain.

The effect of student input was minimal and opinions that contradicted the administration's bias toward mandatory dining were ignored.

I feel like the decision has been made, and that the administration is just going through the motions to appear as if they care about student opinion. At the recent HDAG meeting, I brought up many suggestions on how to improve the proposed plan to align better with student desires and to make it more cost-efficient. Yet these valid arguments were not even considered, and once the RFP is sent out, the plan will be essentially unalterable. A survey is being planned by HDAG, but its purpose is to alleviate student concerns rather than to get student feedback, so honestly it’s just a waste of time.

- Statement on HDAG issued by former UA Dining Chair Paula Trepman, who resigned in frustration; Oct. 29, 2010

Idea Bank

One of the two official channels for students to give feedback to HDAG was the house dining idea bank.

This idea bank was several weeks late in being released, and it is unclear whether the ideas submitted were taken seriously.

There was no dialogue through the idea bank; students who submitted their ideas heard nothing back until after HDAG released its report. As noted in The Tech at the time of announcement of the HDAG final recommendation: "In the coming weeks, Richard Berlin, Director of Campus Dining, and Gearty will draft responses to student suggestions."

The responses to hard questions about features now included in the plan are often short and uninformative. Instead of reprinting the full text of submitted ideas, the report summarizes them, often stripping away the whole point of the idea.

Consider this idea bank submission. Now consider how it is summarized, and how HDAG responded:

Idea: Consolidate or close the dining halls

"The largest cost to a dining hall is employees, so consolidating people who want dining into a few places is the only way I see to make dining viable at a reasonable price ..."

"The best idea would be to close all the dining halls and provide more options in the Student Center."

At MIT, this type of dining experience is, in fact, already consolidated into four of the undergraduate dining halls. Importantly, the residents of these communities do not want their dining halls to close. During the review process this semester, most students also said they preferred to eat in their own residence rather than travel to another dorm or the Student Center.

Closing all dining halls seems to be one of several major potential solutions to the problem of dining halls losing money. The idea is not discussed elsewhere in the HDAG report. One paragraph to dismiss it seems insufficient at best.

Here's another one:
Students shouldn't choose dorms by dining

"Choosing a dorm should not be about choosing your meal plan--it should be about choosing the people and culture of the dorm that works best for you!"
"Forcing prioritization of dining before dorms ... hinders the current value of dorm culture."

Students already choose dorms for a variety of reasons, including the dining option. Consider the following data from the Blue Ribbon Committee on Dining surveys:
  • Nearly two thirds of students in House Dining residences chose their dorm because it has a dining hall.
  • Approximately 90 percent of East Campus residents, and nearly 80 percent of other non-House Dining residents, chose their dorm because they wanted to cook.
Although there may be some adjustment, the new meal plan does not depart from the current model for MIT's residential system. Students who wish to have a meal plan and who are attracted by the variety and service offered in the new system will choose to live in a House Dining community. Students who want to cook for themselves exclusively will select other communities. And other students who want to cook sometimes and eat in a dining hall sometimes may choose to live outside of House Dining and voluntarily enroll in a partial meal plan.

Again, the response is insufficient, and there are major problems of causality here. The BRDC survey asked whether dining was a factor in housing choice, not whether they chose their dorm because of dining.

Obviously, the presence of a dining hall is a consideration. The students who asked the questions were expressing the worry that the dining factor (actually, the very-expensive factor) would take a much greater weight than it currently does, eroding the value of cultural fit.

For more, take a look at some of the other ideas in the house dining idea bank, and their responses at the end of the HDAG final report.

General student response

Students voiced concerns through other means.

The Tech complained about HDAG's lack of transparency (their 'meeting minutes' are a joke).

UA President Mike Bennie complained in The Tech about how HDAG's not-up-for-discussion assumptions are problematic:

The time between the creation of this committee and a final decision is approximately one and a half months, which is simply not enough time... In order to meet the time constraints, HDAG members have been presented with a rigid set of assumptions: there will be a meal plan and it will involve at least a certain number of meals per week. These assumptions are the only real decisions that most students care about and insisting that they are part of any solution creates an impediment to meaningful dining conversation.

- Mike Bennie, UA President, April 2, 2010

The Tech reported on concerns from undergraduates that HDAG was not listening to students.

It's hard to feign surprise and say "but you never said anything!" when students have been saying things all along. Even with the announcements timed to coincide with maximal student distractions (finals week, orientation week).

Student government response

The voice of the students is the student government. If there was anything that merited review and response by HDAG, it was the UA Dining Proposal Committee, which even provided a comprehensive solution!

There was no immediate UA response to HDAG... because HDAG released its report during finals week, after the UA (and every other student) was studying and heading away from MIT for the summer.

This fall, the UA Bill to Reform HDAG Dining Proposal and Process in Light of Overwhelming Student was passed. It articulates a number of issues with the process of involving student input in HDAG:

No Transparency in Minutes

HDAG minutes, which are no longer publicly accessible, were unattributed, vague, and were unavailable for several weeks [*]
Check them out at the bottom of this page. They are not 'minutes' by any standard of notetaking.

Selection of Representatives

The established procedures for selecting undergraduate representatives to Institute Committees were not followed [*]
...which led to a set of students on the committee whose opinion generally disagrees with most of the student body.
The selection of undergraduates for the Request for Proposals (RFP) evaluation committee was not an open or publicly understood process [*]
It's still unknown.

Short Timeline for HDAG Caused by Colombo Stalling

The timeline minimized student involvement; the UA Senate requested a green paper from the Dean for Student Life in December 2009, but the Dean waited three months to respond and failed to address the Senate's request [*]
In November 2009 the UA Senate unanimously requested a report on future policy changes to House Dining from DSL through the Resolution to Ensure Transparency in Dining Reform.

“We thought eight weeks would be plenty of time for DSL to come up with something. Apparently it was not,” said [Daniel] Hawkins, [vice chair of the Undergraduate Association Committee on Student Life].

According to Hawkins, “If DSL was working productively on dining for those three months without letting students know what they were doing, that’s unacceptable. If DSL was not working on dining for those three months, that’s also unacceptable.”

- [April 9, 2010]

Instead, Dean Colombo waited four months before creating the House Dining Review Committee in March 2010, with a charge to come up with a final decision by the end of the school year.

"The time between the creation of this committee and a final decision is approximately one and a half months, which is simply not enough time. On a matter of such great importance, it is unlikely that student input can be collected and incorporated in any meaningful way before students depart for the summer."

- Mike Bennie, UA President, April 2, 2010

Timeline Minimized Student Involvement

The final recommendation from HDAG was released during finals week of Spring 2010, when students were either under extreme pressure or already off campus.

The final Fall 2010 HDR Report was posted to the web during orientation, when most students were not on campus, and was not publicized via email (or any other method) to all undergraduates. [*]


In summary, there are substantial issues with the HDAG plan that must be addressed immediately. The assertion that we entertain such discussions anymore due to timing is not a valid means of rejecting student input when the short timeframe is one that Dean Colombo created himself.

To lend your support to the accompanying petition on campus dining, click here.