Last Wednesday, Dean Merrill and Steve Klass, vice president for operations, announced that Dodd and Greylock dining halls will be taken out of service at the end of the semester. According to their all-campus e-mail announcement, the closure of the two dining halls will save Williams College $880,000 each year.
The e-mail announced additional changes for the fall that include extending hours in Driscoll, Mission and Whitmans’ dining halls; opening the ’82 Grill for lunch; dinner and late-night seven days a week, relocating late-night Snack Bar offerings to Whitmans’ and expanding seating in Driscoll. Menu changes and an additional Grab ’n’ Go venue will likely be implemented as well.
According to the e-mail, “The dining discussion was prompted by the need to control College costs but led to a result that increases the hours and offerings students most value, that’s more efficient and that reduces costs.” Student reactions have ranged from support to outrage.
The administration relied heavily on data available from the student ID swipe system that tracks the usage of each dining facility. On average for lunch, Driscoll serves 202 meals, Mission serves 177 meals, Greylock serves 148 meals, Grab ’n’ Go serves 448 meals, Snack Bar serves 97 meals, ’82 Grill serves 61 meals and Whitmans’ serves 513 meals daily. Average daily dinner data shows that Driscoll serves 305 meals, Dodd serves 117 meals, Mission serves 279 meals, Greylock serves 296 meals and Whitmans’ serves 349 meals.
Greylock provides 25.9 percent of the campus’s seating capacity for dining and attracts 9 percent of the student lunch crowd. In comparison, Whitmans’ offers 11.7 percent of the campus’s seating capacity and attracts 31.2 percent of students eating lunch.
After discussions in the Committee on Priorities and Resources (CPR), senior staff members proposed the dining hall changes at the April 9-10 Board of Trustees meeting. According to Klass, trustees lent their full support for the changes. President Falk confirmed that while responsibility for the decision was ultimately his, it was made in conjunction with senior staff, trustees and dining services.
Klass said that discussions about dining hall closures first came up in the meetings of the ad hoc budget committee formed in 2008, which included faculty, staff and students. Senior administrators then recommended the dining changes to the CPR for consideration.
Two students currently serve on the CPR. “The senior members of the CPR asked for our opinions first, as they knew that these changes would affect the student body the most,” CPR member Alison Hart ’12 said. “I felt that they sincerely took our advice, comments and suggestions into account as they continued to revise the plan throughout the process.
“What swayed me to support the new plan were the charts that Steve [Klass] presented to the CPR concerning the number of students who eat at each dining hall for each meal,” Hart added.
Merrill and Klass said that the closure of Dodd has been on the table for several years, since it serves the fewest students. Ceasing Dodd’s dining operations will account for $277,000 of annual savings. The closure of Greylock accounts for $600,000 in annual savings.
According to Klass, the administration considered closing Driscoll because it was a standalone building, but found that Greylock’s closure would save $160,000 more each year. Concerns were also raised that Driscoll is the only dining facility on the south side of campus.
Klass said that the administration never considered closing Mission dining because it is part of a 314-bed residence hall, is the most recently renovated facility besides Whitmans’, serves a large number of first-year students on full meal plans and is generally a flexible space.
The College’s current dining facilities provide seating capacity for 72 percent of the total student body, a figure which Klass says is actually higher because of the number of students studying abroad. The closure of Greylock and Dodd will result in a remaining seating capacity of 53.5 percent of students in residence on campus. In comparison, Amherst has seating capacity for 47.7 percent of its student body and Middlebury for 53.4 percent of its student body.
According to Klass and Bob Volpi, director of dining services, the biggest challenge that will be posed by the closures is the lunchtime rush period between 12:15 and 1 p.m., which already sees heavy student traffic and will now have to accommodate the approximately 140 Greylock lunchtime diners.
Merrill said that faculty and students might want to look into issues of class scheduling so that fewer students have to eat lunch during the 45-minute rush period. Meanwhile, Volpi said that having students swipe their ID cards before entering Whitmans’, rather than after receiving their food, will help with traffic flow, as will offering a “lite lunch” option in Whitmans’ from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m.
Dining services is also considering refinements at Mission to attract more students, such as incorporating a Whitmans’-style vegan station where the dessert table currently exists. Klass and Volpi confirmed that another Grab ’n’ Go station at the Eco Café is another highly probable solution.
The College has hired an architect and a design team to evaluate how best to change the structure of Whitmans’ and Mission to accomodate increased traffic, projects that will likely be undertaken at the end of August. Klass said that all of these changes will require significant investment, though the College currently does not have a strong idea of what that budget will look like. He explained that all of these projects might add up to $500,000, but said, “it’s up in the air.” He emphasized the difference between “one-time investments and the ongoing savings of $877,000 every year.”
According to the e-mail, the classrooms and Makepeace Room in Greylock will continue to be open, and the Dodd dining space will likely become dorm space in the future. Klass projected that the Dodd space could accommodate 12 to 15 beds, and said that the earliest the conversion would happen is over the summer of 2011. “We’ve got a year of still having that room. We can certainly still do events in there,” he said, adding that he has discussed these possibilities with the Dodd Neighborhood governance board. Klass said that future use of the Greylock dining area is open for discussion.
Falk expressed confidence that the changes have the potential to improve campus life. “Sometimes conversations about budgets and money cause you to have conversations you should have anyway,” he said. “In the end, we really view this as an improvement of the overall dining program.”
Changes for staff
According to Volpi, dining services staff members were informed of the changes last Wednesday morning, before the campus-wide e-mail’s release. The managers of Greylock and Dodd received the news first, followed by the rest of the staff.
The closures will not lead to layoffs for staff members, nor will staff members’ hours be reduced. According to Volpi, dining services plans to send a letter to staff members asking them to indicate their preferences for new locations, though not for which shifts they would like to take. Dining services staff will be notified about their new locations in mid-July. Staff will continue to receive slight wage differentials for each hour worked on the weekend and after 5 p.m. on weekdays.
Lisa Armstrong has worked for dining services for 19 years, eight of which she has spent at Greylock. “It’s sad that Greylock is closing, but what they really have to do is look at the big picture,” Armstrong said. She added that many employees are worried about the changes, but said that “Bob Volpi and Steve Klass were very accommodating.”
“We got some helpful and positive feedback,” Klass said of staff reactions to the changes. “But it takes some people a lot longer to get used to change and to feel comfortable coming forward with concerns,” he added, explaining that he expects more specific staff concerns are likely to arise in the coming months.
At the open forum held in Paresky by Klass and Merrill last Thursday, students voiced concerns about the transparency of the decision, which was never opened to the campus as a whole. Merrill and Klass stated that the primary reason the administration did not open its discussions to campus was sensitivity to dining services staff members. “I am one of the biggest advocates for an open and transparent process, but it would be so demoralizing to expose 100 staff [members] to months of conversations about their work and the future of their jobs,” Klass said.
“I understand why some people don’t agree with how we came to our decision, but we had to make a judgment call,” Merrill added.
CC co-presidents Ifiok Inyang ’11 and Emanuel Yekutiel ’11 were informed of the changes after the trustees’ vote. “While everyone, including Ifiok and I, would have wanted all students to be involved in the process, [the administration] didn’t want the message to be thrown out before the details were made a bit more clear,” Yekutiel said. “They wanted to maintain respect for the staff whose lives were being affected by these changes.”
Students have expressed a range of reactions to the announcement. “I certainly appreciate that there are a lot of savings to be had by the closing, but I’m skeptical of the ability for the remaining dining halls to take up the capacity,” Dean Weesner ’11 said.
Andrei Baiu ’11 agreed. “I hate to see any dining halls go, but based on the numbers, it makes sense,” he said. “Like many students, I think that Whitmans’ will not be able to bear the excess of students at lunch and dinner. The administration underestimates how much this will affect students. Students’ meal schedules are dictated by their classes, sports and extracurriculars, and that won’t change.”
Other students were less ready to support the changes. “The decrease in the variety of options is going to lead to added stress [around] eating and nutrition,” Norman Walczak ’12 said.
Students have also brought up concerns about losing the distinctive character of the dining experience in Dodd and Greylock, citing Dodd’s intimate atmosphere and the opportunity for closer staff-student interactions in the less hectic atmospheres of both places. “This decision facilitates the loss of small communities, a lot of which use Dodd and Greylock as meeting places, as well as the interaction between students and staff, which is one of the few ways most of us have contact with the actual world outside of Williams,” Jennifer Ewing ’10 said.
Some believe that the changes might also have an effect on the College’s overall appeal. “As a tour guide, one of the things that always got my groups excited was the selection of food we have,” Baiu said.
Students have expressed concern that the announcement was ill-timed for student response. “Students are stressed by papers, exams and projects. The senior class no longer feels the need to fight,” Josephine Warshaeuer ’11 said. “There is not enough time for us to act on our beliefs, organize truly effective protests or help administrators find solutions before the summer.”
However, Klass said that the administration made an effort to release the announcement in a timely manner after receiving the trustees’ approval. “We wanted to provide as much time after that decision as possible for these public conversations,” Klass said.
Last Thursday’s forum was the first step in the College’s attempts to solicit student feedback. Tonight, CC plans to have a constructive conversation about recommendations for the new system and how to keep the student body involved. Volpi said that the administration hopes to put together an implementation committee consisting of roughly equal parts students and staff before the end of the academic year; he imagines the committee will have a large role in shaping the changes.
“We’re really excited about working with students,” Volpi said. “I think that with some good, valuable input from students, we’re going to make some nice changes to the way we do things.” He added that dining services plans to launch a Web site soon that will update students on the details as they are decided. The site will also include a tab for students to give their suggestions online.
“I’ve been so impressed with the quality of discourse since we made the announcement,” Klass said. “People are thoughtful and creative, even at times when they’ve been disappointed or concerned about it. I’d really like to bottle that [thoughtfulness] and get a group together that provides some leadership and collaboration as we move forward.”
Inyang and Yekutiel said that they have already gotten a significant number of e-mails from students providing feedback. “I just hope that our student community can take this as an opportunity to have agency over the changes that can be made right now that can make our dining experience better next year,” Yekutiel said.
“The school is really looking at the bright side of things,” Inyang added. “I’m cautiously optimistic.”