Behind closed doors

Three hundred seventy-five days ago, sitting with my parents in Williamstown, I decided to matriculate at Williams College. As involved parents who wanted to make sure I was making the best choice for myself, they asked why I was choosing Williams. I told them what had been sold to me as a fundamental truth about Williams College, a truth that President Falk underscored in his talk to parents at Family Days two weekends ago: Williams’ priority is first and foremost the undergraduate education and experience.
I no longer believe this to be the case.

In last week’s e-mail, the College announced the decision to close Greylock and Dodd dining halls, among other changes in dining services. In and of itself, this is a profoundly poor decision. Crowding in Paresky around meal times is already a problem, and removing the main dining option of Wood and Spencer Neighborhoods will make dinner in Paresky impossible.

In his talk to the parents, Falk lauded this year’s efforts to create the Gaudino Option. He was impressed not only by the content of the option but also by the student involvement in creating the option and the committee’s engagement with the students through a comprehensive survey. These two factors were decidedly missing in last week’s announcement. For anyone who experienced the marathon discussion concerning neighborhoods this year, it is hard to believe that a decision could be at Williams made without a survey, 10,000 question and answer sessions and an 11-part final report. In last week’s announcement about dining hall closures, the argument was presented that we, the students, “voted with our feet” – that the question about dining and neighborhood affiliation in the Neighborhood Review Committee’s survey provided enough student feedback to make the decision to close dining halls. This made me pause. If those who made the decision believed that there was overwhelming student support, they would have conducted at least a cursory survey in order to prevent criticism from the likes of me. It could not have been that a survey was too difficult to do, because my opinion havse been solicited for three surveys between the announcement and my writing of this piece only a few days later. Therefore, it must have been that the administrators knew they would get resoundingly negative feedback and decided that it would be best to ignore such a response.
Okay, fine. We understand that budget cuts had to be made and that student opposition would not have stopped that, but how could student input have hurt? The administration has over 2000 bright young minds at their disposal – of which at least a few might have been interested in helping to shape the future of dining services.

We were told at the forum Thursday evening that the administration chose not to involve any students to protect them from being tied to such an unpopular decision. We were told that the administration did not want the issue discussed publicly because the discussions could negatively impact staff members.

These are not reasonable excuses. In what we were told was a year-and-a-half discussion, it would have been fairly easy to decide early on, as they ultimately did, that no employees would be terminated. After that, let’s say last September, the discussion could have been opened to the students and dining services staff alike.

On Thursday, the spokespeople [Dean Merrill and Steve Klass, vice president for operations] affirmed the importance of students working together with staff members to iron out the details of the new system. However, the new system goes into place in September and the academic year ends in less than a month.

If students had been allowed to start planning last semester, vague ideas about what we might do could potentially be shovel-ready projects for September. We could have experimented by closing various dining halls for shorter periods, and collected quantitative and qualitative data. We could have ideas ready for how to use the soon-to-be unused space in Greylock. We could have already set up a ‘Whitmans’ Cam’ to help with next year’s inevitable congestion.

Budget cuts are always unpopular; we all know that. But by waiting until the 11th hour to announce such a drastic change, the administration has demonstrated a complete lack of respect for the student body and dining services.

I would love to hear the explanation for why the announcement was delayed for two -and-a-half weeks after the trustees’ vote, other than that the administration did not want the prospective Class of 2014 or the parents to know about it while they were here for Previews. I would like to afford those in charge the benefit of the doubt, but I am not sure if they have earned that level of trust.

I understand that not every spending decision can be run by five committees and a student referendum, and I am willing to excuse certain expenditures that don’t pan out (read: Paresky televisions which were not-so-stealthily removed over spring break after becoming symbols of a period of spending and excess in the College’s recent past), but this was a major change to something that affects every student about three times a day. It is a change we seem to be wholly unprepared to implement successfully.

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