Dining Changes Represent Concerning Future

If you had been a miner in the United States, Canada, or Britain for most of the 20th century, it’s a good bet that you might bring a small caged bird, often a canary, down into the shaft along with you. If you didn’t, a buddy probably did.

Mining could release trapped pockets of carbon monoxide gas, which has no scent or color and can suffocate a person before they even realize it’s happening.

The canaries were a simple, albeit cruel, warning system. Their biology makes them more sensitive to poison gases like carbon monoxide than humans — if your canary died, it was time to go. Immediately. If your canary died, one thing you definitely wouldn’t do was wonder why it was dead, and you wouldn’t stay in the mine while trying to resuscitate the bird. When your canary is dead, something is very wrong.

Changes to campus dining are the canary in the Oberlin coal mine.

In spring 2017, administrators announced that incoming students would be required to purchase a 300-meal-per-semester plan. Though it did not include flex points, the plan allowed students to use their meal swipes to purchase groceries. Not the best thing, but certainly workable.

However, as many students frustratedly came to realize upon returning to campus, the new academic year brought with it even more regressive changes to Campus Dining Services. In addition to closing Dascomb Dining Hall and eliminating the Science Cart in favor of grab-and-go options like premade sandwiches (which, by the way, increased in price), DeCafé no longer accepts cash, and students can no longer buy groceries using meal swipes.

Many students have reacted angrily to these changes, noting that they put increased financial stress on low-income students, leading to the circulation of a petition opposing the meal plan changes that has accumulated over 600 signatures.

The unfortunate truth is that these changes won’t be reversed or undone, and they probably won’t even be blunted at all.

In an email to students, Vice President and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo explicitly state that these changes, along with the preceding ones, were made to “support the economic sustainability of the dining program … including fair compensation for employees.” Paying $5.50 for a PB&J (seriously — this is how much they cost at a grab-and-go stand) and being unable to buy groceries with swipes is the new normal.

This is frustrating, even financially perilous for some students. But what else is Oberlin supposed to do? We are over-budget, and the money has to come from somewhere. These dining changes most likely drive profits for CDS and add to Oberlin’s revenue, which is heavily dependent on student charges and tuition.

The argument that we could have simply raised tuition, while true and perhaps more economically progressive, doesn’t hold, because that would have gone over even worse than these relaively modest changes, considering Oberlin’s already astronomical cost. We could fire faculty and staff, but that would harm the curriculum, function of the school, and run into issues with unionized workers. Shrinking the physical footprint of campus — another large source of overhead — takes a long time; alumni donations just don’t cover the costs of running this place.

Even if you don’t agree that we are on the best immediate course of action, it’s clear why administrators chose to go this route. It was quick, easy, not that hard to sell, and will boost revenue. If you were to look for a way to cut costs and not increase actual sticker price to students, this sure seems like the way to do it.

Obviously, these dining changes are bad for low-income students on the meal plan, something I can’t personally speak to. But it’s going to get a lot worse than that.

Old dining policies aren’t coming back. The canary is dead. We need to stop poking the dead canary and realize that dining changes are the least of our worries,

This goes far beyond the dining changes themselves. Everything about how they were undertaken was wrong, especially the budgetary philosophy that the administration has adopted under President Carmen Ambar and the current Board of Trustees.

Ambar seeks to bring Oberlin’s budget into an operating surplus, bringing in more money than we spend. On the timeframe that she seeks to do it, her decisions have already dramatically reshaped the campus and will continue to do so. Dining changes are but one small example. Furthermore, doing so will require increased student numbers, which will further tax Oberlin’s already-weak physical and human infrastructure.

Worse, such reshaping will take place without broad or meaningful consultation from students. Picking Student Senate’s collective brain every once in a while isn’t enough. There was no forum on the dining changes. I’m not optimistic about if there will be forums on the most important issues going forward.

Not only that, but we won’t be given the information we deserve. There has been no public confirmation that minutes of Academic and Administrative Program Review meetings will be kept at all, let alone released for students and other members of the campus community to read. Soon enough, departments and jobs could be significantly impacted with little warning, and widespread restructuring may take place. Remember, something’s got to give here.

Dining changes are one thing. But fiscal and administrative philosophy is another. While we obsess over things like changes to CDS, our best (and likely only) opportunity to question the process itself slips away.

It doesn’t have to be this way. You don’t have to accept a budgetary philosophy of secrecy, swiftness, and overwork of already-spent places and people. But if you want to stop this approach, you have to do it now. This year — the year of AAPR — is probably our only shot. And we have to take our chance, because this place has to work for us, and it has to work now.

The canary is dead. It’s time to ask yourself if this is a mine you want to be in.