Masters didn’t think through ‘family’ policy

In its most diligent work to improve the residential college experience, the Council of Masters has devised a policy to make each Sunday night “Family Night” in the dining halls. Under the policy, only members of a given college are permitted to dine in that college on Sunday nights — all others must be turned away.

Only in the silliest of imaginations could this policy produce a beneficial result. The Council of Masters should realize its mistake and the policy should be eliminated.

It’s unclear as to when the policy came into existence — there was never any official notification, and the Web sites of the Council of Masters and of Yale University Dining Services are silent on the issue. One may not even realize the policy is in force; its regulation seems to vary among the colleges, though it seems religiously enforced in Berkeley and Saybrook. (Of course, an exception is made for the homeless Sillimanders.)

To indulge the council, let us think of the policy’s potential benefits. Imagine a “Family Night” where everyone from the college is in attendance. Instead of sitting in pairs or in small groups of familiar friends, everyone from the college is interacting, making new friends, etc. It is the residential college come to fruition — by the end of an hour’s time, everyone is acquainted and the love and pride for the college is strong. You get the idea.

Nevertheless, when the policy is enforced, the dining hall is not a place of utopian bliss. In reality, the policy is incredibly problematic. The realistic image of “Family Night” is this: The students who always eat in their residential college still do, sitting with the same people as always. Meanwhile, those with friends in other colleges (tsk, tsk!), those with boyfriends or girlfriends in other colleges (almost as bad as miscegenation!) or those trying to have a meeting of some kind that involves students from more than one college (inter-college organization, oh my!) are without anywhere to eat. For comparison, even at the height of transfer restrictions of 2004-’05, students were allowed to host friends from other colleges.

The council was, of course, smart enough to consider these potential problems and picked a night when Commons is open. Oh wait, they didn’t. They picked one of the three of seven nights each week that Commons is closed.

Most students are crafty enough to find somewhere to go where the cashier isn’t checking your college of origin. Prohibitions, after all, create incentives to cheat. Mea culpa — mea maxima culpa — a friend and I actually snuck into a dining hall without swiping last week just to avoid the problem after being rejected at another dining hall. (Believe me, it’s almost as exciting as an illegal border crossing.)

To consider the extreme case (since we indulged the masters’ imaginations) where a student only has friends in other colleges, this policy forces the student to eat without his friends, potentially alone. Even if he finds others to sit with, it is only because he’s been forced into it.

The residential college provides a great community within Yale, but it isn’t one that should be forced upon students on a weekly basis. There are more than enough opportunities for college pride and unity — study breaks, holiday dinners and college council activities, to name a few. Encouraging a college night isn’t a bad thing, but making it compulsory is. There have also been more than enough times when I don’t have meal plans and I sit with those I chance to find in Branford. I’ll often meet new people this way, and it’s one of the benefits of the college system that I always have a place to eat among familiar faces. Nevertheless, it’s not a situation into which I should be forced.

If a “Family Night” were really that beneficial for everyone, just designating a specific night (saving everyone from having to make a group decision) should be enough to make the night work. Even better — and as some colleges have done at times — would be to have the college pick up the tab for off-campus students to join their on-campus comrades in dining.

We all benefit from having choice in where and with whom we dine. A compulsory family night has clear costs and only small (and unrealistic) benefits. Cashiers who feel good about having the “power” to reject people from the dining hall or, more significantly, the masters who think they’ve furthered the residential college cause, are the policy’s main beneficiaries.

One would think an educated group of people like the college masters would have a better respect for the idea of liberty, but it seems their instincts have failed them as regards the “Family Night” dining policy. The policy is a nuisance without benefits. It should be swiftly repealed.

Patrick Ward is a junior in Branford College. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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