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.

Comments

  • Yalie14

    So put the 773 students who eat in Commons for dinner in the residential colleges. I’m sure there’ll be room for that. What utter nonsense!

  • Quinn

    This article seems to be misusing Mr. Coe-Sharff’s sentiment. Firstly, many students do enjoy commons, and while I myself, like Coe-Sharff, am not one of them, I will enjoy eating in the dining halls far less with the new crowding. Secondly, most students don’t eat in commons, but the decision should also take into account those who do. Thirdly, as Levin has argued, the extended hours for residential colleges and the closing of commons are separate issues and should not be conflated into an exchange as was done in that paragraph. Virtually everyone is pleased with extended hours, but the issue of Commons is another story entirely.

    Finally, it seems like, as Yalie14 so aptly put it, utter nonsense for the administration and Yale Dining to try to sell this like a quid-pro-quo and to claim that all constituent parties were insulted. That is obviously contrary to the facts!

  • laylago

    This article doesn’t mention the major concern of many people who joined the facebook group – athletes need food after practice! It has been difficult enough for teams to get to dinner on time on Friday, when Commons is closed, and practice usually had to be cut short because of this. The time for afternoon practice is limited by afternoon seminars anyway (and one also needs to shower, preferably), so closing Commons dinner affects some teams more than Yale administration seems to be aware of.

  • David_M_Wagner

    “…said that Commons did not serve dinner before renovations of the colleges began in 1998.” I was at Yale as an undergraduate and grad student from 1976 through 1984, and Commons was open for dinner throughout that period. A bad decision is not made better by revisionist history. — David M. Wagner, SM ’80, ’84 MA

  • sonofmory

    i graduated in 1999 and commons was not open for dinner…so it is not all revisionist history. however, it is clear that the closing of commons will impact a tremendous number of students (773) and should be reconsidered.

  • MB2014

    Could the article be corrected to reflect the fact that Commons has a history of being open for dinner that is separate from residential college renovations? They’re trying to peddle this falsehood as though it closes the conversation when the record shows it really isn’t the case.

  • Boogs

    I’m sure there are impracticalities to this idea across the board, but downtown New Haven doesn’t have a buffet restaurant (to my knowledge). The cash one pays at the register for a meal ($10-something for lunch; and I don’t know the dinner amount, but I think $15-something), is a great deal considering that it’s an all-you-can-eat buffet. That’s what one pays for a sandwich, bag of chips, and a soda at G-Heav. Why not promote a meal at Commons to all those tourists on campus and the community more widely? That would change the business dynamics of the place, and it would be a way to cash-in on the Yale brand. God only knows there’s plenty of room, and there’s no lock on the front door. What downtown business-person wouldn’t want to grab a quick bite to eat where they filmed the last Indiana Jones?

  • DCHeretic

    When Commons closed for dinner in 1991, a senior went on a hunger strike.

  • The Anti-Yale

    @ Boogs,

    That’s a pretty good town/gown idea.
    Security?

    PK

  • Boogs

    @ The Anti-Yale: On the matter of security, there’s nothing (to my knowledge) stopping anyone from coming into Commons at the moment. I eat in the RC dining halls all the time and pay cash (by sneaking in behind an undergrad; there’s high security for you). No-one ever asks for my ID. Commons, HGS, and the Med School dining hall are just some of the facilities that are essentially open to the public. That said, I’m not certain if there’s not a rule that says the facilities are for “Yale personnel and their guests” only. I haven’t a clue. But Commons is a really accessible facility. It’s only two blocks north of downtown, and you can’t miss it.

  • dembo

    I have always felt that Yale doesn’t do enough to promote cross-college relationships. Commons is a nice way to accomplish this. Now everyone will just go back to being squirreled away in their college.

  • JohnnyE

    How can they claim that the closing of Commons dinner is not related to the extension of dining hall hours? Dinner time being increased 25% isn’t free. The labor doesn’t just come out of nowhere. They should just shift dinner down half an hour instead of extending it by half an hour, so they can keep Commons open. It’s a very easy, common sense approach that I’m sure most students would favor.

    Hopefully, the compromise does not end up being extending dining hall hours AND keeping Commons dinner open. It would just mean on-campus students will end up overpaying even more for the meal plans they are dying to rid themselves of.

  • cyalie

    I think that most of us would agree that Durfee’s or Uncommon just do not cut it for meals. It is impossible to buy more than a drink and a snack for less than $7, and for those of us who are on a tighter budget, it’s not possible just to Bursar two or three extra dollars whenever we don’t make it to lunch. As someone who regularly eats lunch after 3 PM, this is really disappointing.

  • inthemix

    I think a prior comment addressed this issue, but this article is inaccurately reported. Dinners WERE served in commons prior to the college renovations. Freshman ate there for dinner every year that I was there from 1987-1991!

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  • BrightSide2013

    @dembo: People will still be free to eat at other residential colleges. I often eat outside of residential college with friends.

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  • MsMoneypenny

    Commons was open for dinner during the Great Strike of 1984. I was there!

  • alum

    The food served at Commons was better than in the residential dining halls. Vegan lasagna, tofu apple crisp??? wtf?

  • taser888

    things were much better before this new dining administration took over; make the dining administration salary visible to see how much we pay these incompetent folks and give more to hourly who really do ALL the work!

  • neilherb

    Definitely revisionist history. Commons was open for dinner every night I was an undergraduate (1981 to 1985). Freshman did not have a choice to eat in their residential college dining room every night and had to have a certain portion of their meals at Commons. I believe the purpose of this was partly to provide a bonding experience for the class prior to going off to individual colleges. It served this role well and the administration would be making a mistake to close Commons for dinner.

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