Dining Changes Create Urgent Accessibility Concerns

Oberlin students have been greeted by many changes this fall — some leaving us pleasantly surprised, others less so.

An inaugural orientation trip organized by the Bonner Center for Service and Learning brought more than 1,000 first-year students, Peer Advising Leaders, faculty, and staff into Cleveland for a day of service, experiential learning, and fun.

Further, the Patricia ’63 and Merrill ’61 Shanks Health and Wellness Center opened for the first time to the campus community. The space will provide improved exercise and fitness opportunities, kicking off with President Carmen Ambar’s presidential fitness challenge leading up to her inauguration festivities in October.

While there is much to celebrate about the beginning of a new year, budget stresses have also created or renewed some challenges on campus. Chief among these have been difficulties produced by changes to Campus Dining Services. Designed to increase accessibility, these new measures have in some ways hit their target, but in one very important way have fallen short.

Students heading to lunch at Stevenson Dining Hall Tuesday were greeted by check-in lines that stretched outside the building’s doors, making lunch inaccessible to those who were in a rush or who have a difficult time being in crowds. The situation at DeCafé was similar, with crowds of people jostling for limited food options.

The unmanageable crowds are likely the result of last semester’s closure of Dascomb Dining Hall, a move made for budgetary reasons and widely criticized for its impact on CDS staff. The reduction in seating due to the elimination of that space has led students to flood other eating areas, creating long waits and frustration.

This should be a matter of great urgency to Oberlin’s administration. Clearly, in times of financial hardship, adjustments need to be made, some of which will necessarily impact the student experience. At the same time, some things are so vital to students’ personal and academic success that they cannot be compromised — among those is the ability of students (particularly first-years and sophomores who are confined to the 300-meal-per-semester plan, which costs more than $8,000 per year) to access nutritious meals through the school.

Already, students have reported to the Review that the crowds at dining locations this week have made eating meals difficult or flat-out inaccessible. This is a reality that cannot be allowed to persist, even in the short term.

We are not asking for a world-class dining experience — not only would this request be unreasonable in our current financial situation, it would also be unwise. Spending money on food comes at the expense of other services Oberlin can offer, including financial aid. Across the country, institutions of higher education make choices every year about what aspects of the student experience to prioritize; we feel comfortable sacrificing some measure of food quality if it means expanded opportunity in other areas.

The accessibility of dining spaces, however, should be as close to the top of that list as possible. As of now, students with mobility difficulties, anxiety in crowds, and other accessibility needs are wondering if the throngs of people at Stevenson and DeCafé will subside as the semester goes on, or if they will need to find alternative ways to feed themselves while remaining on an expensive meal plan, paying for food they are unable to eat.

Fortunately, senior-level administrators are aware of the issue and have committed to addressing it. Part of the solution will be increasing awareness of the new grab-and-go dining options this year, including in Lord-Saunders Dining Hall and Azariah’s Café. Plans for the future also include creating a grab-and-go area on the first floor of Stevenson, below the dining area — a move which would significantly increase accessibility. While these areas will not offer the same hot options previously available at Dascomb and currently available in Stevenson, they will at least allow students to eat.

We understand that in times of hardship, difficult cuts are necessary. We also believe that the administration is committed to finding a path to financial sustainability that is also accessible to and supportive of its student body. They will be the first to tell you that they will make mistakes along the way — this week has brought to light hopefully one of the most significant concerns.

The administration’s response, both in the coming days and the longer term, to an issue that requires immediate attention will reveal much about how basic student needs will be prioritized over the next few years. While frustrated along with the rest of the student body about the dining experience of the past week, we are hopeful that action in the right direction will be taken swiftly and decisively.