AYCTE Pilot for Simmons Dining Canceled Amid Controversy Over Implementation

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Simmons Dining Hall, pictured above, will return to a la carte service in the fall, while a new committee will decide future changes.
Michael Meyer

Simmons residents were officially informed on Thursday that their dorm would return to an a la carte dining system in the fall, reversing a July 24 announcement that a new trial of the “all you care to eat” buffet system would be tested instead.

A committee of Simmons residents, chaired by housemaster and professor John M. Essigmann PhD ’76, will further discuss dining issues over the fall term.

“We have heard loud and articulate voices on both sides of the issue,” Essigmann said. “But we have also heard that the level of satisfaction with the system in place before last spring was marginal at best. Returning to it permanently without considering other options seems contrary to the interests of the community. It is time for a dialog within Simmons.”

The committee will submit a series of recommendations to Karen A. Nilsson, senior associate dean for student life. Nilsson will make the final decision on how Simmons Dining will be run next spring and in the future.

The AYCTE pilot that would have taken place came as a surprise to Simmons residents who had gone through a six-week trial of AYCTE dining at the end of spring term and voted, narrowly, not to implement AYCTE permanently in the fall.

AYCTE trial revoked

Outgoing Dean for Student Life Larry G. Benedict informed Simmons residents of the new AYCTE trial in a e-mail that sparked a flurry of communication between Simmons residents, housemasters John and Ellen Essigmann, Dining Services, and MIT administrators who have been involved in Simmons Dining. Some students who had enjoyed AYCTE dining in the spring were happy to hear that the pilot program would be continuing, but many students were angry because they felt that their house vote to return to a la carte dining had been ignored.

“Most people’s concern was that the residents of Simmons actually got a say in this. People felt their decision had been summarily disregarded,” Simmons resident Josiah W. Schwab ’09 said.

Benedict’s e-mail also detailed several physical changes to Simmons Dining that would make the dining area more accommodating for the AYCTE system. These changes included an increase in the capacity of the stir fry station and more flexibility to switch between serve and self-serve options. Some Simmons residents took these changes as reason to believe that Benedict and other administrators had in fact considered their opinions and concerns.

“I viewed the e-mail as the administration acknowledging that there were problems with the system the way it was,” Simmons Dining Chair Daniel P. Lorenc ’10 said.

Following Benedict’s e-mail and the responses from students, Benedict, Nilsson, the Simmons housemasters, and Dining Services decided not to go through with the pilot.

The first notice that Simmons would be returning to an a la carte system for the fall came in an e-mail reply on July 29 from Chancellor Phillip L. Clay PhD ’75 to Sarah E. Whiteside ’11, a Simmons resident who had e-mailed administrators complaining about Benedict’s AYCTE announcement.

Further notification of the change came in an e-mail to Simmons residents from the dorm’s housemasters and, finally, in an official e-mail from Nilsson on Thursday.

Dining committee to be formed

The formation of a dining committee represents a departure from the way in which Simmons had previously made decisions on dining issues, which was with house votes.

“There are lots of ways to decide things and I’m not necessarily sure that a vote is the best way,” Nilsson said. “We found ourselves in a bit of a quagmire … I think bringing a group together will allow us to move forward.”

After experiencing several close votes on dining in the past year — twice on whether or not to go forward with AYCTE trials and once on whether or not to continue AYCTE dining in the fall — many students welcome the change in the decision-making process.

“I think forming a committee is the best solution to the flame wars and debate that seem to sprout up once AYCTE is mentioned,” said Marcella R. Vokey ’11. “If we continue to vote, I doubt the results will change and we won’t have made any progress. But if both people who agree and disagree with AYCTE sign up for this committee, I think we could come up with a compromise or at least some new ideas.”

Christine J. Hazlett ’11 agreed that having a committee would help a lot. “I don’t think the votes were very useful since they were all so close.”

Though there will be no overhauls to Simmons Dining in the fall, Nilsson hopes some smaller changes being implemented will improve Dining immediately. First, James Lachance will be coming to Simmons as executive chef, and Dining Services will also work to provide better vegetarian entrees.

Many concerns to address

The new dining committee will face the challenging task of trying to satisfy as many residents as possible in a dorm that is currently divided in its opinions.

Some students strongly prefer the AYCTE dining system and are excited by the possibility of it returning next spring.

“I felt that the food quality and selections improved, and I ended up paying less for each meal,” Lorenc said. “With the trial, there was incentive to stay in the dining hall and that created a sense of community. The number of people eating at the dining hall increased.”

Paul T. Miyazaki ’10 and Paresh G. Malalur ’10 also said they paid less for each meal, food quality improved, and that a sense of community was fostered. “We would hang out in the dining hall for a while, and we got to know each other better,” Malalur said.

Other students adamantly oppose the reinstatement of AYCTE, citing concerns that, at times, directly contradict the opinions of AYCTE supporters.

Whiteside and Schwab both thought that the food quality and selection was worse, and both said they paid more for their dinner.

They also said that AYCTE was too inflexible. “For someone who just wanted an entree and a vegetable and fruit, there was no similar low cost option with AYCTE,” Schwab said.

Whiteside thought the AYCTE system might discourage community because students could not enter the dining hall without paying for dinner during the trial. That made it impossible for her to sit with friends who were eating dinner if she did not want to buy dinner or only wanted a snack, Whiteside said.

Other students have no strong preferences for either system.

Hazlett counts herself among “a whole bunch of people [who] don’t really care very much” about the format of dining.

Students and administrators also hold different opinions about which of the controversial issues matter most.

While cost was a large concern for many students, some preferred AYCTE even though they paid more for it. Vokey said that even though she spent about $1.50 more on dinner, she liked the AYCTE trial because “I can’t argue with the chance to sit down for a meal, relax, and actually see other Simmons residents.”

Nilsson declined to comment on cost concerns. “I think that quite often we concentrate on solely money as opposed to what is being offered that will fuel a sense of community,” Nilsson said. “I don’t want Dining to be solely a financial discussion.”

Despite the recent controversy, many Simmons residents and administrators express optimism for the future of Simmons dining.

Lorenc hopes to try to please as many students as possible by considering options that combine AYCTE and a la carte options.