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Dining Proposals Bring Reactions Pro and Con

By Ann E. Shanahan '59

For many alumnae, memories of the flower-patterned china and linen napkins of house dining remain central to their Smith experience; for others, the tightly knit house communities, rigid meal hours and limited menu choices were stifling. News that some house dining rooms will be closed while dining hours and menu choices are expanded has prompted responses from about a thousand alumnae, many of whom expressed their dismay by signing a petition opposing the college's plan to close dining rooms.

      Read some common questions about the budget process >

      View the dining proposal, including facilities and menus >

The turmoil among alumnae resulting from the current plan to eliminate seven dining rooms over the course of the next two years -- a critical part of the college's strategy to achieve budget equilibrium and avoid possible financial crisis -- has been instructive in a number of ways.

While Smith has made a valiant attempt to get the news out about both the full budget plan and the dining proposal, modern technology has been unreliable during the process. Although there is a great deal of information on the college's Web site, not everyone thinks to look there. "People are more likely to be ordering from the L.L. Bean catalogue or reading the Drudge Report" when they are online than to be visiting their alma mater's Web site, says an alumna from the 1980s.

Other methods of communication also have drawbacks. E-mail works for those who are on campus but not as well for alumnae: the college has valid e-mail addresses for only about half of its 45,000 alumnae, and many of those have spam blockers that prohibit incoming mass e-mailings. (As an added complication, the week Smith chose to communicate some dining information by e-mail was one of the worst weeks of the MyDoom virus infection.) The postal service would be an obvious mode of communication if using it did not require a significant expenditure for postage and paper; spending in excess of $16,000 on a mailing seems wasteful during a time of self-imposed fiscal restraint.

Apart from suggested cost savings, the plan recommends more latitude in dining hours, in menu options and in students' choices of where to eat. Photo by Jim Gipe.

The result is that many of those who have written to the college in passionate opposition to the dining proposals, seem not to have full information about what has been proposed. Some feel "as though they haven't been heard," as one 1997 alumna put it, when, in fact, they have been heard very clearly. The president and members of the administration have heard from many alumnae that the plan to reduce the number of Smith dining rooms from 25 to 18 is a "travesty" or "an attempt to dismantle one of the great strengths of the college." But they have also heard from alumnae who call the plan an exercise in fiscal responsibility, an appropriate trade-off in an overall proposal to control a budget deficit projected to be $7 million by 2006-07. As a member of the class of 1986 said: "Maintaining academic standards and student financial aid should and must be given higher priority over maintaining charming but costly and outmoded dining facilities."

Admittedly, it's difficult to understand that Smith can still be facing financial difficulties, now that the financial markets have rebounded, said one New York alumna, herself a banker. "People don't think about the fact that the college relies heavily for operating expenses on take-out from its endowment and that, using the current formula, the take-out rate is affected by a downturn for three years after that downturn is essentially over." So while many individuals are benefiting from the recovery, Smith (and other colleges and universities that rely on a similar formula) is still struggling with what happened many months ago.

That said, there continues to be some misunderstanding related to the dining room-closing plan. A reduction in the number of dining rooms is only one of the many trade-offs being undertaken as a result of extensive study weighing possible reductions. Features distinctive to Smith, like house dining, have been weighed against more recent but similarly costly -- and distinctive -- initiatives like Praxis internships and the engineering program, just as elimination of staff positions has been weighed against reductions in financial aid funds. The poignant remarks of a current student at a recent campus meeting provide some perspective. "Some people are worrying about dining rooms; I'm worrying about whether there is going to be enough financial aid to allow me to return to Smith next year."

Reflecting the priorities raised by senior staff and other planning groups, the proposed plan allocates budget reductions differentially across the campus, protecting core activities, such as financial aid and academic programs, while taking the largest reductions in administrative areas.

To exempt dining from a budget reduction, as some have suggested, says Smith President Carol Christ, "would mean valuing it above all else at the college. While we all understand that dining is a very important part of the Smith experience, we have had to conclude, from the extensive discussion of priorities that has occurred over the past year, that dining should not have that kind of exemption."

It was in that spirit that, while not approving the full budget proposal at its February meeting, the trustees reduced the expected review period by two months and directed the college to begin implementing it right away, allowing a longer planning interval designed to lessen the disruption for dining staff and involve students in decisions about the proposal's implementation.

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