November 20, 2017

On the Importance of Student Voice – Regarding Changes to Lane

A late night at Lane Student Center. Photo by Anne Lemmer

by Joe Bandy ‘19

Contributor

When the email announcing changes to Lane was sent out a few months ago, I, like most other students, was ecstatic. Let’s be clear: Lane food isn’t the poison we exaggerate it to be, but it’s a far cry from the quality food any healthy person should be consuming. That being said, I also had several questions and concerns surrounding the changes, but I wasn’t too worried as the email promised focus groups would be conducted and surveys would be done to figure out what would work best for students. After all, students are the number one customers in Lane and the meal points we pay for are entirely separate from tuition. If anyone should have a say in the matter it’s us, right?

From the looks of it, no.

As time went on, we heard very little, and the end of the semester grew closer. When a survey was finally sent out to students my fears began to grow. Not a single question asked how we felt about meal points and all you can eat buffets. They did, however, ask if we wanted to be in a focus group. Now if you know anything about me, you’d know I love sharing my opinion–and so I jumped at the opportunity to do so.

When the group started, I quickly realized it was a focus group in name only. A real focus group has the intention of gauging opinion and gathering comments and concerns. In this focus group, however, a Bon Appetit employee was sharing so much information with the present students that most the time was spent asking questions to clarify the points they were making, instead of giving us students time to explain our thoughts and feelings about the proposed changes.

They described a lot of the decisions as already made in the Fall and repeatedly used the phrase “administrators wanted…” There were fewer questions and more statements. Instead of “how would you feel about a Mongolian grill?” it was “There’s going to be a Mongolian grill. People will love it.” I did not at all feel like the group was being held with any intention to hear what students had to say.

As I’ve mentioned before, focus groups usually consist of something being shown to a group of people, whose reactions are to be gauged and taken into consideration. Yet anytime I voiced a concern, (for example, that it seemed ridiculous for me to not be able to swipe friends in for dinner) I was pushed back against with detailed explanations of why they wouldn’t change certain things. They emphasized administrators really wanted these focus groups held so we could share our thoughts, but it seems to me like they really wanted to have them so they could claim they had student input.

When I contacted administrators about this I was told two things. The first being that there was a task force made in the Fall that had a GCSA representative on it, so there was indeed student input. While this is true, merely having one student does not count as proper representation. Furthermore, when I asked this person about the control they felt they had they expressed the following concern:

“It didn’t feel like the group had any control or knowledge about what was happening after the second meeting,” the representative said. “During the first and second meetings, we seemed to be having lively debates and driving a process of change, but at the third and fourth meetings, I felt like the least knowledgeable person in the room by far, and it seemed like we weren’t really accomplishing much because decisions were being made elsewhere.”

The second thing I was also told was that administrators were pulling on five years worth of data to make their decisions. This of course refers to the mid-year surveys that never asked if we wanted to switch to a swipe based system instead of meal points. Those surveys also never said big changes were coming and input mattered considerably.

The switch from a meal point based system to a swipe based system is one big change that had caused an immensely negative reaction from the student body. I struggled to find people who really would prefer an all you can eat system with a few swipes a day to the freedom a meal point system gives us. Instead, I found plenty of people who want variety of plans, higher quality food, and more options. To be sure of this I posted a poll in Open Gordon (always a great place to figure out student sentiment) asking which style plan people would prefer. The count currently sits at 105-3 in favor of meal points. Students have expressed concern that switching to a swipe based system from meal points will change the dynamic of Gordon’s food culture drastically. Right now we students use Lane as a pantry and social hub to grab food throughout the day as we see fit. If we switch to swipes, we will be forced to use it as a restaurant and a lot of our control will be lost.  

There are many more reasons as to why people think meal points are better than swipes, but this is a discussion that I don’t really need to get into in detail. The changes in Lane are just representative of a larger spanning issue: a lack of care for student voice. Which is what I really take issue with: the changes coming to Lane and our meal plans seem to have been made without adequate input from those who are most affected by the outcome and have the most valuable insight. A strong community must be able to discern the voices who matter most when making big decisions. Sadly, I do not at all feel like this was the case.

I fully recognize that change will always be hard. Especially so when it comes to controlling how someone will be able to eat. Given this, it’s easy to think that I’m writing this because I can’t change. In expressing my concerns I have been accused of wasting my breath and being stubborn. Additionally, others, especially those closer to or more defensive of the administration, have said I’m wrong and there was adequate student input.

Well, in response let me say that there are two scenarios going on here and in both I am equally justified in writing this.

In response to the first accusation, I would say while I can cope with changes, I can’t cope with administrators making this change without adequate student input. This is what I believe happened, and in this case it is important we make it clear how unacceptable it is and we want our voices heard.

In response to the second accusation, which says that the administrators did value student input, I would say that their transparency is slim and that they did not collect input properly. This is given the fact that in my brief interactions and research student preference and values seems to lean overwhelmingly in the opposite direction as decisions that have been made.

Whatever the case may be, if we have gotten to a place where raising concerns to the administration is considered a waste of breath then things on this campus are much worse than we think.

1 Comment on On the Importance of Student Voice – Regarding Changes to Lane

  1. I find the story revealing, because when I was a student 40+ yrs. ago, we were having the same discussions. I was asked to be on the first “food committee”and the outcome was much the same. The diversity of food options is much greater now as it is on most colleges. But my observation is that cost containment will always be the primary administrative goal. And anything short of an unlikely mass student action will achieve only minimal changes. But don’t give up trying and soliciting student opinions, conveying any desire for improvements. Good article!

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