Current Position on Dining 11/19/2010


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So let me give you my take on dining. As a resident of a dining hall dorm (Baker) and a representative on the RFP committee I see different reasons to why the HDAG plan is not optimal. The following is my current view on the topic and is based on both meetings and discussions both on and off the record. In line with certain confidentiality agreements (for off the record meetings), I have left out the names of specific people involved, as well as other details where required. I believe I have allocated both criticism and praise where it is due. This reflects my honest opinion; I am sending the same message to both students and administrators. I believe that the facts are correct. Please correct me if you believe otherwise. Permission is granted to forward/republish.

  1. For people in dorms with dining halls: we want the dining hall to be open.
    1. I think you would find that the vast majority of people in Baker do not want to cook dinner for themselves; for many students this was one of the top reasons for choosing Baker.
  2. Non-dining dorms “won” in getting changes to them taken off the table very early on
  3. I believe that EC’s second order effects of students “fleeing” into EC does not outweigh our first orders concerns of getting the dining plan we want to pay for
    1. I absolutely agree that having all EC folks at the protest looked bad, very bad.
  4. Why people don’t like the plan also differs.
  5. The largest concern from Baker I hear is cost.
    1. And people are concerned about it, not just me. More than 80% of Baker students signed Cameron’s petition when asked to do so. A small minority declined to sign, indicating support for the HDAG plan.
  6. As I said above, students in Baker, for the most part, like the dinner.
  7. But many students do not want $6.50 (the official #; others say it is higher) breakfast every day.
    1. Many students are satisfied with buying cereal, etc from Shaw’s because of the large price differential.
    2. I roughly estimate ~30% of dining hall students would be willing to pay for a breakfast plan at that price.
      1. There ARE SOME students who would buy the $6.50 breakfast.
      2. But FAR LESS than the students that would have to buy it.
      3. The survey HDAG relied on to gauge breakfast demand from the UA, never considered cost, the primary driver of demand in classical economics.


Cost vs Service

  1. I see this as essentially a cost vs service battle. HDAG, especially the housemasters and DSL, are very proud of the level of service being offered under the new plan.
    1. All of their editorials in the Tech basically say this
  2. The hours of service at dining hall dorms will more than triple next year.
  3. The administrators and housemasters have no incentive to control cost. Not only do they make far more money than us students; they make more money than some of our parents. To them $2,000 for breakfast is a something they would buy. In addition, when they eat with students, they charge the meal to their “account”. I doubt this account comes out of their paychecks. Because of the “agency” problem in economics, they have no incentive to control costs for students.
    1. (I did not accuse them of not caring; strictly that they have no incentive to care)
  4. It is my impression that DSL and HDAG plan to implement this costly program to increase student life (in their opinions) without properly running it by fin aid and making sure that the Institute could pay for it.
    1. In these tough times, can we afford such a program? After all of these cut backs, are we able to?
    2. If MIT could afford it, should they spend this extra money on student life or other parts like TAs, professors, etc. How about rolling back some other cost cuts from the past 2 years?
    3. Is this even the best bang for your student life $$? Yes it will help in community. But are the costs worth the benefit? Are there cheaper ways to build community?
  5. This is not about merely cutting the dining deficit; it’s a tripling of service.


  1. Under the HDAG plan, the admin is offering incoming freshmen a choice between a $3,900 plan and a $0 plan with nothing.
    1. This is better than most schools where there is no choice.
    2. But we need not be satisfied at being slightly better than other schools.
    3. I think we can do better by offering more options, by diversifying the plan
    4. Perhaps a ~$2000 dinner only plan? There are many people who like the current house dining, but not the proposed breakfast plan.
  2. I’ve argued before that increasing the differences between dorms is a good thing. Every student when they arrive here gets a matrix of the different features of the dorm. Some allow cats; smoking; some you have your own bathroom; some are suite style; some have been recently renovated; some have kitchens; some have dining halls; some are close to Stata, some are closer to the Z-Center; some are closer to Slone; plus slight cost variations. Plus there is plenty of stuff that can’t be boiled down to a check mark on a list; that are subjective; the students roll them together and call it “culture”. Every person has to prioritize what features they want and take a tradeoff. Perhaps it has a nice culture (in the eyes of that person), but is too far away from campus. Every person should be able to decide what factors to prioritize and every person should use all factors in picking a dorm. Thus I believe that more difference between dorms is a good thing, if the students want that difference.
    1. I know many people disagree with me and flamed me for it.
  3. I strongly do not believe that the overhead costs of operating different schedules outweighs the significant cost savings of not being open the hours people want. HDAG has undercut their own argument as Massey is the only hall open for lunch. They currently have Baker as the only dorm open Fri and Sat. Sodexho runs 4-5 locations on campus, all serving slightly different fare, which is cooked in Walker and carted in.
    1. It might cost more per meal for this overhead; but it would be saved 10 times over by not having the locations open. Thus for a service many people do not want to pay for, there is a large net benefit.
    2. Hours of service are the largest determination of cost – they out shadow everything.
    3. If their cost model says this will cost a lot more money, their model may be flawed. Models just reflect what you program in there.
    4. I requested to see their cost model on 10/18/2010 as a member of the RFP committee. My request has never been granted, despite promises to show the model to committee members.

Fin Aid

  1. Nothing on financial aid has been decided at all. No one should rely on any sort of financial aid info until a firm promise has been made.
    1. HDAG does not set financial aid and absolutely no power to promise anything.
      1. To be fair, they have not promised anything
    2. I’ve asked DSL to reach out the committee on financial aid, but nothing ever came of the discussion.
  2. The plan is “regressive” with respect to income level. The financial aid # is an arbitrary line in the sand. If the plan’s cost (plus lunch and IAP) go up to that line, but do not cross it, than students are responsible for the full extra cost of the plan – without any regard to income level. The person on full financial aid (family income <$36,000) and Bill Gates’s son will face the same, full cost increase. Students currently spend this “surplus” money on living expenses or keep it in their pockets. It is a real increase in cost for everyone.
  3. Moving up the line on financial aid will be expensive. The institute talked about LOWERing it 2 years ago. This money would have to be given to everyone, giving the people in non-dining dorms extra surplus money. Has this cost been considered in the cost of the plan? I have no evidence that is has been.
  4. One solution would be to give students on the dining plan more financial aid than those who are not on the plan. However this idea was written off quickly because it was unfair. I get the same financial aid grant living in Baker vs living in EC. Any money I save by living in a quad is money into my pocket, or money not out of my pocket.
    1. This is good economic policy, because it ensures that resources are not wasted.
    2. You might not agree that these incentives should be present – but it is a very difficult issue to fix.
  5. I have not heard a single plan to rejigger financial aid which will address these issues.
    1. It would be great if we could find the average family income per dorm. The financial aid office has the pieces of this data – someone needs to ask them for it.

Appeasement Plan

  1. According to my sources, HDAG is considering an appeasement plan. Details are sketchy, since I am not on HDAG, but essentially it would appease current sophomores and juniors, without affected current freshmen (“who knew about the plan”) and future students.
    1. In my opinion, this does not solve the problem that the Institute is offering too-many breakfast and dinner beds at $3,900.
    2. The appeasement plan is rumored to do nothing about the cost of the plan.
    3. It would not solve the issue that new students would choose EC for reasons other than the current students have
    4. It throws current freshmen and new students under the proverbial bus.
    5. If you look at the dining petition, the class with the most signatures was the class of 2014 – the current freshmen
  2. HDAG believes that it is CHANGE that is scary. People that come in under the new plan would like it.
    1. But according to the petition, the newest students are actually the ones who like the HDAG plan the least

Student input

    1. The government follows the following model: Gather a committee (I believe that HDAG did this properly; the petition disagrees), gather input (again: I believe that HDAG did this properly; the petition disagrees), but then release a DRAFT. HDAG never did this. I believe that this was a fatal mistake, because we never had a chance to respond to a proposed plan. The government then collects letters about the plan and must reply (and make public) every one of them. I don’t know if it would be worth HDAG’s time to do this – but many of the people who signed the petition wrote lengthy responses.
    2. I know we are not a public institution; but the above is a time tested model of fair process.


  1. History is not on our side: MIT has tried mandatory and has tried breakfast before. Those services are no longer with us.
    1. Why?
    2. I don’t have any clear answers, despite writing a research paper on this (I went through Institute archives and read old Techs)
    3. From people I talk to on HDAG, no one really knows.
    4. We should figure this out first.
  2. I believe that making the plan mandatory for students in that house is necessary to lower unit costs for everyone and make the program sustainable.
  3. I am apathetic about all you can eat or not.
  4. It is logical for the admin and the housemasters to not discuss the plan any more. The ball is in their court and they have boasted in the Tech in so many words that they have won.
  5. If students in dorms with dining halls do not like how their representatives are presenting their views, than why are these students still in office?
  6. The last I heard a grab-and-go breakfast would be severely restricted to 2 pre-determined pre-boxed cold options. You would not have the option of going through the normal line to take out for breakfast.
    1. Staff members of HDAG have responded that fixing this would raise the cost of the plan; One housemaster told me that students should “get up earlier” – direct quote!
  7. I believe that if you re-ask parents a month into MIT if their students have been reporting back that they are happy with food arrangements, you would get a much different opinion than before MIT starts.
    1. Having a large meal plan option in at least one dorm would solve this problem – since the people who would want this option could have it.

Moving Forward

  1. I think that the best way forward is the plan which Vrajesh (UA President) and Sammi (UA VP) proposed with little fanfare. Let each dorm choose what level of dining service they want in their house through a public, house vote, with some provision for general house dining system opinion (such as a 7/7/7 plan will be offered somewhere)
    1. A list of services would be provided with prices that would make the plan sustainable. Options have not been totally hammered out, but would be 7 breakfast/7 dinners, 2 brunch/7 dinners, 7 dinners, 5 dinners, shut that house dining down
      1. I am confident that shut my house dining down would not get many responses
    2. Students would have to buy whatever service is chosen in their dorm, so the plan would be more financially sustainable than the current HDAG plan which lets students opt-out of certain meals.
    3. Students and dorm cultures stay very similar for year to year, so what students want won’t change dramatically from year to year
      1. Every dorm’s lottery results are more or less even from year to year.
    4. Yes there would be change over the long term – but it would under either plan
      1. For example governing structures: EC by floors, Baker no floor emphasis has remained static for years
    5. The most qualified people to choose a dorm’s plan are the dorms’ current students as a whole
      1. Not one particular person
      2. One student on HDAG said that he/she would not feel like he/she was qualified to decide in a public vote what students will be eating in 5 years
      3. Well then how in all world is HDAG qualified?
      4. Research from my adviser at Slone centers around letting line-level employees make decisions. In something is sufficiently important, when the learning curve can be addressed, the outcome is better than one or two people deciding how to represent their dorm
    6. Under every proposal dorm cultures will change somewhat; but by definition, the change would be the least drastic under Vrajesh’s plan.
    7. Marginal costs might be higher (depending on the plan chosen), but total costs will be far lower if a lessor plan is chosen. But it should be the students’ choice. They can do the math and figure it out.
    8. The decision to add breakfast should be the marginal cost vs the marginal benefit. The overhead, which is needed for the dinner, which most people want, cannot be considered. You are not wasting money by having the facility sit idle for breakfast, if many students don’t want breakfast.
    9. I may be completely wrong and people in Baker DO want to pay $6.50 for breakfast every day.
      1. In that case I would have a choice to accept the plan or enter the readjustment lotto.
      2. Personally, I would live with the result, if I knew that this level of service is actually what my friends in Baker want.
    10. But I if I do not believe that outcome reflects informed student opinion, (like I believe under the current HDAG plan) I am obligated to continue working on this issue until I am satisfied the plan reflects student opinion.

The longer future: experimentation

  1. In addition, I am uncertain what the possibilities for change are once the plan is in place. The admin has talked about the need to readjust the plan once it is in place. However, cutting back any service is completely off of the table. At one of the first RFP meetings I proposed setting performance targets for breakfast over the first semester. My proposed was totally shut down. The housemasters and the administration was willing to wait “years” for the plan to take.
    1. When I asked for examples of what could be changed; responses included relatively minor items such as the items available for breakfast, the character of the breakfast take-out program
  2. If this dining program has the kind of impact which the administrators and the housemasters say, we should be able to measure that. Everywhere else in this Institute, professors run experiments all the time. Before starting, an experimentalist will first define what measures could be looked at. A few off the top of my head: freshmen lotto preferences, # of meals actually “picked up”, number of people that voluntarily buy meals, average family income in a dorm, some metric of health, some metric of community. My suggestions to look into this have thus far been ignored.
  3. Hypotheses should also set. We need to talk how what we think that the new dining service will do to each of our metrics before we start the “experiment”. For example: For this plan to be considered a success, we need to increase community interaction by 20%. The committee has thus far been completely unwilling to work to define some of these metrics (see above). For my experience on RFP and talking to people on HDAG, no attention has been paid to this, despite my attempts to introduce it.
  4. That way, if those measures fall short, we need to look into other options. If we talk about those options now, we can objectively look how the new dining service is meeting the student life goals of MIT.
  5. Even if HDAG decides that the students are not qualified to pick their level of dining service (the Vrajesh plan), these steps I outlined for experimentation must be followed. The hypothesis about whether the benefits of the dining service outweigh the costs MUST be rigorously proven or disproven.
    1. Experiments can have surprising results; that is why we do them.
    2. To go forward without these steps would be diametrically opposed to the mission of this Institute. Members of the committee who do not believe in honest, data-driven experiments should disaffiliate themselves with the Institute.
  6. I propose that HDAG spend the spring 2011 semester working on this issue.

Respectfully submitted

  • -Michael Plasmeier
  • Baker House VPFS
  • Baker RFP committee representative
  • 11/19/2010

Dining at MIT

Various things I have said about dining at MIT, in various contexts: