As the Office of Undergraduate Admissions ponders how to reject 90 percent of Harvard applicants, Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS) is doing some rejecting of its own. Not normally known for its commitment to exclusivity, HUDS has broken in the new year by giving the thin envelope to Cheerios, Golden Grahams, and a smattering of other contenders for a coveted spot in the bowls and bellies of hungry Harvardians.
Yet even if a slightly higher score in “cereal selectivity” helps Harvard inch past Princeton in next year’s U.S. News rankings, what is significant about this decision is HUDS’ suspiciously self-serving motivations. The official line is that these organic and generic cereals replaced their brand-name counterparts because students requested expanded organic options in HUDS surveys. HUDS also points out that the new cereals are healthier, too. All fine justifications—if only they really accounted for HUDS’ decision, but closer examination suggests otherwise.
To be sure, we applaud that HUDS has become (ostensibly) more responsive to student concerns—if that is what they’ve done. Dining is an area of college life where what students want ought to take precedence over almost all other matters. Unfortunately, it is far from clear that students in any sense want this change. Given that HUDS’ evidence is limited to vague responses to broad survey questions, the assumption that the switch to generic brands would be doing students a favor is probably a bit hasty.
What is peculiar, however, is the broader trend seen in so many of the recent HUDS announcements: Changes which are advertised as in the interests of students repeatedly and conveniently boost HUDS’ bottom line. Students may be accustomed to such deceptive public relations from politicians—as well as the University itself—but why is Harvard’s dining provider constantly covering up its budget cuts with obviously suspicious pretenses? Why won’t HUDS be upfront about its decisions?
After all, there is nothing inherently wrong with keeping costs down. What does matter though is how that money is redirected. The last year has seen cut after cut—all of them supposedly cooked-up to meet student needs better. But what students demand above all is to get their money’s worth, and these cutbacks have shown no corresponding changes on termbills. Full board this year is $4,286 (which is actually an increase of $124 since last school year); if the cost of feeding students has fallen, students should pay less or get a better product. By our account, HUDS has some explaining to do.
It should be noted that amid the cutbacks this past year, students have also witnessed a brand new redesigned HUDS website as well as the proliferation of ever more glossy propaganda lauding the glorious HUDS monopoly. HUDS’ mission is to feed the students, not to promote itself. If there is any way that that money, along with all of the money saved by recent cutbacks, could be better spent—perhaps on something related more directly to food—we would support it.
Of course, there is no need for much consternation about this change. It is, after all, only cereal, and thankfully, HUDS did perform taste-tests over the summer to ensure quality control. (Of course, it should be noted, the panel of tasters conveniently consisted of members of the HUDS purchasing department, HUDS chefs and a group of student interns.) Still, we must admit, while the cereal tastes a bit different, it is not horribly different. The true significance here is whether these changes mark another year of cutbacks and deceptive justifications, or a year of increasing and more fruitful responsiveness to student needs. We hope it is the latter.