Students petition against ending Commons dinner

Commons during the Freshman Dinner in 2010.
Commons during the Freshman Dinner in 2010. Photo by Antonia Woodford.

After Yale Dining announced on Monday that Commons will no longer be open for dinner next fall — though all residential colleges will have extended dinner hours — many students have expressed dissatisfaction with the changes.

Over 800 students have joined a “Save Commons Dinner” Facebook group since Monday night, and since Tuesday afternoon more than 300 have signed a petition asking Yale to reconsider its policy. But dining officials said Tuesday that closing Commons is a necessary cost-efficient measure once residential college renovations finish and all 12 college dining halls become operational.

Jeanette Norton, deputy director of Yale Dining, said that Commons did not serve dinner before renovations of the colleges began in 1998. Commons was opened for dinner to accommodate students living in Swing Space, she said, adding that once Ezra Stiles — the last college to be renovated — opens its dining hall next year, keeping Commons open is infeasible from a financial standpoint.

“The concern was that since Stiles was reopening, we have to staff Stiles. So by closing Commons for dinner, the staff would be transitioned to Stiles,” Norton said.

Rafi Taherian, executive director of Yale Dining, said that closing Commons for dinner is a way to compensate for “extra services” Yale Dining will provide next year.

Besides the fact that all 12 residential college dining halls will be open, they will also have longer dinner hours. All the colleges will serve dinner until at least 7:30 p.m. on Mondays through Thursdays, with Calhoun, Morse and Ezra Stiles staying open until 8 p.m. those nights. On Fridays and weekends, the dining halls will be open from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. as they are this year.

“The decisions must be financially balanced,” Taherian said. “If you are adding extra services, it diminishes the requirement for services elsewhere.”

While students interviewed said they appreciated longer residential college dinner hours, they called Commons an important evening meeting spot. Some students said they attend club or team dinners in Commons that would be difficult to host in the colleges, whose dining halls are smaller.

“It’s kind of fundamental to Commons to be this neutral gathering ground,” Sophia Sanchez ’13 said. “Not every meal you eat has to be encapsulated within a college. We’re not just students of Davenport or Calhoun; we’re students of Yale College.”

Jose Dario-Martinez ’12, a member of the Varsity fencing team, said he usually eats dinner in Commons with his teammates.

“For me the biggest problem is that if I go to Trumbull, my residential college, I can’t find the space to sit with my team of 15 guys,” Dario-Martinez said.

Students such as Laura Platzer ’13 and Leah Libresco ’11 also said they rely on Commons for its greater variety of dining options, from the pizza and pasta stations to the large salad bar.

Libresco, who created the pro-Commons Facebook group and petition, also decried Yale Dining’s timing in announcing the changes.

“It seems sneaky and underhanded that Yale announces this as we leave campus, to minimize any outcry or discussion,” she said. She added that she started the Facebook group as a way to mobilize students, many of whom had left campus when they learned of the changes.

Even incoming students from the class of 2015 have joined the group, and three said in e-mails that they were disappointed Commons would not serve dinner when they come to Yale.

“Aside from jokes about Commons being akin to Hogwarts’ Great Hall, there is truth to the idea that cross-residential college friendships can and are formed and developed at Commons,” Paavan Gami ’15 wrote. “Commons lunch isn’t sufficient for this important role because classes often overlap it; dinner is the perfect time for freshmen to be integrated into the Yale community.”

While some students have also complained about no longer having a dining hall option past 8 p.m. — Commons currently closes at 9 p.m. on weekdays — Norton said that few people actually swipe into Commons at that hour.

According to Yale Dining’s records, an average of 41 students swipe into Commons between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m., with 29 of those swiping in before 8:30 p.m. By contrast, about 523 students swipe in between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. and another 221 on average swipe in between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m.

“It didn’t make sense to keep Commons open based on the number of participants that came during the [later] hours of operation, and based on the fact that we are opening Stiles,” Norton said.

She and Taherian added that the decision to close Commons for dinner was not made lightly, and that “all the stakeholders” in the process had been consulted.

“In the ideal world, everything would be open 24 hours a day. But that’s not feasible,” Taherian said.

Yale College Council President-elect Brandon Levin ’13 said that the YCC met with Yale Dining two weeks ago to discuss extending residential college dining hall hours. He said that the idea of closing Commons for dinner was briefly brought up in the meeting, but that the YCC was not made aware that a final decision had been made, or been asked to weigh in on that decision, until they learned of it this Monday.

Levin emphasized that the decision to close Commons for dinner was not a “quid pro quo” for leaving the residential colleges open later.

“These are two separate issues,” he said. “[The YCC was] working on extended dining hall hours. We were not aware of the Commons thing until yesterday. So it’s not like we were engaged in some this-for-that deal.”

Levin added that he and other YCC members will continue to discuss possible options with Yale Dining for keeping Commons open for dinner in a cost-effective way.

But not all students are upset about the changes.

“I sort of avoid Commons as much as I possibly can,” Jonah Coe-Scharff ’14 said. “It’s too big, too noisy, always overheated.” Coe-Scharff said he was pleased residential colleges will be open later next year.

“Several hundred” Yale students, employees and union members protested in September 1991 when Commons stopped serving dinner, according to a New York Times, according to a New York Times article.

Clarification: May 14, 2011

In an interview Tuesday, May 10, Deputy Director of Yale Dining Jeanette Norton said that Commons was closed for dinner before renovations of the residential colleges began in 1998. When asked if Commons had ever served dinner in the past, she said that it had been open “quite a long time ago,” many years prior to its reopening during the renovations. According to a 1991 New York Times article, Commons closed for dinner in 1991 after having been open for dinner some years before then.

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