September 29, 2003
Because students have voiced so much concern about possible changes in dining at Smith, I am writing to clarify where we are at present and what the process will be for determining any changes. A great deal of misinformation is circulating, causing needless alarm and distress.
I think it would be useful, first, to give a chronology of events that have led us to this point.
Last fall, I appointed a task force on housing and dining (made up of students, faculty, staff, trustees, and alumnae) to advise me about whether the college should consider any changes in the current housing and dining system in order to better meet students' needs. (Those of you who were here in the spring of 2002 may remember that the grass roots group urged attention to several housing issues, which made up a portion of the task force's charge.) You can read the full report of the task force at www.smith.edu/rltaskforce/report.php. In the area of dining, the most important finding was that, while the majority of students prefer to keep dining options exactly as they are, a substantial minority (30 to 40 percent) expressed a desire for more options, including broader menu choices, longer dining hours, and more freedom to choose where to eat their meals.
In the course of last year, after the task force had begun its work, it became clear that the college was facing some budgetary challenges. Dean Mahoney and I decided that it was best for the task force to complete its work in accordance with its original charge because we wanted to know what the task force felt the ideal structure of housing and dining should be.
This fall, I have appointed two small implementation committees, one concentrating on housing, the other on dining, in order to consider how the campus might implement the task force recommendations, with appropriate attention to cost. I've encouraged the dining committee both to consider small changes -- allowing students to take some meals on their meal plan at the campus center, for example, or extending hours in some dining rooms, or creating more specialization and variety in menus, or allowing students more flexibility in where they eat lunch, or creating more and larger co-ops -- and also to consider the benefits, drawbacks, and comparative costs of a smaller number of dining locations.
We have asked a consulting firm to help the committee envision scenarios and to cost them out. The consultants' task is to stimulate discussion by imagining alternatives (they have certainly done that!) and to provide cost and budget analyses. The consultants have no authority, and they are not even charged with making recommendations. It is the task of the committee to evaluate the scenarios that the consultants suggest, to assess what they offer in comparison with house dining as it currently exists, and to consider efficiencies and cost savings. Of course the committee will give careful attention to long-standing house traditions like Friday tea, senior banquets, and candlelight dinners.
The implementation committee will consult widely with students before making recommendations to the administration. Any recommendations for change will come before the Committee on Mission and Priorities (CMP) and the Advisory Committee on Resource Allocation (ACRA), both of which have student members. A final decision would be made by the administration in consultation with the Board of Trustees.
As you can see, we are at the beginning of a deliberative process. No decisions have been made, and there are no foregone conclusions. Because I know that students want to have a structured and regular way in which they can get information about issues and can give advice not just about dining but about the budget in general, I have asked SGA President Elizabeth Liedel to propose a way to accomplish this within the current student governing organization.
In the discussion about dining, I realize that many of you are concerned about the security of the jobs of your kitchen workers. In all of the budget reductions that we have been making, we have been careful to minimize layoffs. For that reason, we have offered voluntary separation plans in areas where we knew we would make workforce reductions; we are banking empty positions in order to provide budgetary flexibility; and we are increasing opportunities for internal mobility for college staff. We will be as careful to minimize job loss in RADS as we are in any area of the college.
In facing the budgetary challenges before us, we must not be afraid to ask hard questions about how we do things and to have thoughtful, civil discussions of alternatives. Entertaining a possibility is not the same thing as making a decision. If we take some alternatives off the table without any discussion, we may find ourselves facing unforeseen consequences in areas of the budget with higher priority -- the curriculum, for example, or financial aid. I would hope, in the year ahead, when we face a number of challenging decisions, that we not rush to conclusions based on insufficient or faulty evidence, that we trust that the process of consultation and deliberation will lead us to good decisions, and that we understand that fiscal challenges can motivate creative ideas and beneficial changes.
Carol T. Christ