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Survey Says What?

Results of dining satisfaction poll seem indubitably flawed

By The Crimson Staff

Dining hall food has long been a source of sorrow for Harvard students. We’ve often bemoaned the unpalatable provisions provided by Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS); and we’re generally suspect of steps taken (and advertised) with the pretense of ameliorating the unfortunate food situation. But, after the release of HUDS’ Resident Dining Satisfaction Survey results last week, it appeared as though there was reason to celebrate. Affirming a general increase in overall student satisfaction—the third semester of marginal improvement in a row—the survey would suggest that students are happier with House dining this year. Students’ overall satisfaction—based on considerations of variety, taste and freshness of food—has increased to 3.74 (out of 5) this semester, from 3.65 last spring. And while these stunning results must give any HUDS critic pause, we cannot accept the premise that these numbers are actually indicative of higher-quality dining.

At best, surveys are imprecise guides for estimating opinions, and we see numerous factors which may have inflated student responses, providing HUDS with an inaccurate assessment. First, we see a strong likelihood of sample bias. The survey, which was conducted online in mid-October, received its highest response rate from Quincy House, with 59.8 percent of student residents participating. And, while Quincy residents should certainly be applauded for their high voter turnout, there’s good reason to believe it wasn’t Quincy’s delectable victuals that inspired such survey enthusiasm. More likely, the House’s (long-awaited) dining hall redesign, whose chic interior mocks that of, say, Dunster or Mather, might have played a role in mobilizing optimistic voters. To be sure, according to the sizeable HUDS posters hanging in House dining halls, the survey drew a record number of 2,561 respondents—up by more than 850 students since the spring survey. But we wonder whether happy Quincy residents—pleased with new dining hall decor and enthusiastic about the renovations—may have unfairly skewed the results.

In addition, we must ask to what extent responses were inflated as a direct result of HUDS’ slick public relations campaign. There is no question that HUDS has been on a crusade lately to bombard students with advertisements of improvements and extras, attempting to overshadow the more unsavory truth that they have been increasingly burdened with budgetary constraints. While we’re generally in favor of spicing up menus with seasonal snacks, the over-promotion of seasonal menus and themes seems stale in the face of continued cutbacks. After the barrage of HUDS’ public relations binge, it seems natural that many busy students might have been able to temper survey scores.

To be fair, it is encouraging that in response to survey results, HUDS vowed to implement immediate changes to upcoming menu plans, attempting to track—and heed—student preferences. With popcorn chicken, parmesan chicken and turkey dinner topping the list of student favorites, HUDS has decided that these dishes will be rotated throughout the three school-year seasons.

While we’re glad to see HUDS taking an active interest in student opinion, The Crimson Staff cannot honestly say we’ve seen notable improvements in the dining experience this semester from last. Rather, we’ve been disappointed by cutback after cutback. But the onus is on students to make their opinions clearer in the future. HUDS is doing their part to listen to students, so students who are dissatisfied must do their part to fill out surveys, stop understating responses out of modesty or politeness and keep pushing for more palatable, and varied, dining hall food.

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