Discussions Regarding Dining Changes Must Include Student Input, Voices

The Office of Residential Education sent an email to all rising juniors March 19 notifying students that previously promised meal plan options would no longer be offered. Instead, the office planned to limit them to more expensive meal plans that provide fewer options to students. Concerned about the impact on low- and middle-income students, a small group of passionate student activists planned a boycott in response. Later that day, because of the accessibility concerns, I joined as an organizer. I created a food donation plan to ensure every participant would get enough to eat during the boycott, regardless of income.

I’d like to thank Vice President and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo and the Dean of Students Office for addressing our concerns and creating an alternative meal plan system. Financial aid will cover the cost increase for low- and middle-income students, meal swipes will remain usable in DeCafé, and Fourth Meal is safe. I’d also like to thank my fellow organizers and the 225 students who joined us in the boycott. It was inspiring to see the community come together to stand up for middle- and low-income students, and I’m proud that together we have made an impact.

Nonetheless, we need to address the disconnect between administrators, Student Senate, and the rest of the student body that brought us to this point.

The current lack of communication between the administration and students is unacceptable. For two weeks, a major policy change was played off as an administrative error, leaving low-income students wondering how they were going to handle the cost increase. The day before the boycott, students received an email which — while substantially better than being left in the dark — still left out important information. The cost increase for students, the use of swipes in DeCafé, and the status of Fourth Meal in the new meal plans were all completely unaddressed. It shouldn’t be a surprise that students were frustrated by the information omitted in the email. There should be more channels of communication to and from the Dean of Students Office, ResEd, and other student-centered offices, and they must be more accessible to the student body. We need to build bonds of trust between students and the administration, and the first step is to turn over a new leaf of transparency.

Student Senate — which was formed as one such channel of communication — must strengthen its connections with the student body as well. Student Senate was made aware of the problem and wanted to address it. I reached out to many of the senators for help circulating a call for food donations on social media. None of them were willing to help. One even publicly condemned the movement without offering an alternative. 

I respect and even admire most of Oberlin’s student senators. Many of them are my friends. I know they are better than this. The reason they took this job was because they care about connecting the student body and administrators. Now is the time for senators to reach out to their constituents. Now is the time to work with student activists instead of against them. We all want to improve the same community. It’s time we work on this goal together.

It is also imperative that the administration addresses the lack of student involvement in policy decisions — particularly decisions that directly affect students. During this period of change brought by the Academic and Administrative Program Review, we are witnessing important changes to student life like dining and housing largely as outsiders. This should absolutely not be the case. For administrators, more student involvement in those areas would strengthen the trust between students and the administration and provide vital but otherwise overlooked student perspectives. For students, more involvement in policy decisions means policy decisions that reflect our needs and a better community for all of us. Increasing student involvement in policy decisions will do more than just resolve the issues that forced us to organize in protest. It will be a win-win for everybody.

We’ve got a long way to go, but effectively informing students of ways to improve policy decisions is a good start. While many of our concerns were addressed, the details of flexibility and accessibility are still being worked out. This is a great time to get involved! Join committees, volunteer for working groups, share your ideas with the administration via email, and meet with them in person. Student input — for every aspect of campus life, but especially in campus dining policy — should be a vital part of every policy decision. Tuesday’s Campus Dining Services boycott showed us the power of our voices. Let’s keep putting them to good use.