China change causes college controversy

The new uniform plates are intended to cut back on tray usage and reduce theft of dishware.
The new uniform plates are intended to cut back on tray usage and reduce theft of dishware. Photo by Joy Shan.

Residential college dining halls lost one of their longtime hallmarks this fall: custom designed dishware. And the students frequenting those dining halls were not the only ones hit by the change.

Yale Dining recently replaced the individual college dishware with a generic set of china. With a larger surface area and no rim around the edges, the uniform new plates are designed to cut back on tray usage and to reduce theft by students seeking a full set of college plates, Yale

While old plates, like those from Trumbull College pictured above, were 9 inches in diameter, new plates measure roughly 10.5 inches across.
While old plates, like those from Trumbull College pictured above, were 9 inches in diameter, new plates measure roughly 10.5 inches across.

Dining Executive Director Rafi Taherian said in August.

So far, Yale Dining has received little feedback about the new plates, but all of it has been “overwhelmingly positive,” said Gerry Remer, the assistant director of supply management for Yale Dining. But the redesign has drawn criticism from some Yale community members, who think the move to a single plate style erodes residential college identities.

“Each [residential college] has it’s own character,” said Raleigh D’Adamo ’53, a former member of Silliman and an associate fellow of Davenport. “I think anything that takes away from that, including doing away with the college emblem on the dishes, is an unfortunate step.”

Students have split opinions about the dishware redesign: Some like the new plates for their larger size, while others miss the college pride the old china inspired.

Rather than detracting from the undergraduate experience, Remer said in a Wednesday e-mail that the standardized plates will help unify the 12 existing colleges and eventually ease the transition of adding the two new colleges.

The specialized college dishes have been stored by their respective dining facilities and will be used a few times each year for special dinners and ceremonies, Remer said.

The lack of residential college insignia is just one difference between the new plates and their predecessors. The new plates are bigger, roughly 10.5 inches in diameter, while the old ones typically measured 9 inches across, Remer said. The new plates are white with a border of two thin blue lines, and bear a single “Y” printed in the Yale typeface. They are coupe plates, which have slightly curved edges instead of rims, increasing the plate’s usable surface area and making it easier for the plate to double as a tray.

“We were concerned that they be dignified — that they be usable for both everyday purposes and in a situation where there would be some celebration,” said University Printer John Gambell ART ’81, who helped design the new dishes starting last spring.

Yale Dining administrators particularly wanted the plates to have an asymmetrical marking — the single “Y” — to make plating food for special occasions easier, Gambell said. The asymmetrical mark helps dining workers orient the plate and decide where to put each type of food, he added. The designs were finalized by the end of July.

Gambell said he believes the plate theft that traditionally plagues the University was among Yale Dining’s motivations for changing to standardized dishware. While other universities lose about 16 percent of their plates each year to breakage and theft, Gambell estimated that Yale has to replace about 38 percent of its plates annually. He and others have assumed that the large difference comes from students who steal the plates — not from additional breakage.

The new uniform plates will have less appeal from a “collector point of view,” Gambell added.

Collecting the residential college plates has long been a student tradition, said Chris Brown ’11, who gathered his complete set during his freshman and sophomore years. Getting the full set, he said, was on his list of must-do Yale activities, along with climbing to the top of Harkness Tower.

While Brown said he understands the economic motivations for replacing the old plates with generic ones, he said he doesn’t think the switch will discourage determined students from collecting their set.

“People are still going to take those plates when they come out at special occasions,” he said. “And since there’s a brand new plate, I want that plate for the collection.”

Some students may be disgruntled by the switch to a new plate style, but Niagara Ceramics, a small, Buffalo, N.Y.-based business that had manufactured Yale’s dishware since 2009, is feeling the impact more deeply.

The University has contracted the Homer Laughlin China Co. in Newell, W. Va., to produce its newest china, and Niagara Ceramics owner Bob Lupica said he found out about the change only when Yale did not place an order with his company this year.

“We were surprised and shocked when Yale decided to move away from a tradition that had been part of the campus for years, and we weren’t even notified,” he said. “They decided to do something different. That was it, that was the end of the game.”

Niagara Ceramics began making Yale’s plates in 2009 after former manufacturer, N.Y.-based Syracuse China, outsourced its china production to Asia and told the University it would no longer decorate custom patterns, Remer said. Yale scrambled to come up with a new manufacturer to match the existing dish styles, Remer said, but simultaneously started looking into creating entirely new plates.

Since 2009, the University has purchased more than 36,000 pieces of dishware — including plates of different sizes, mugs and other pieces — from Niagara Ceramics, Lupica said. He added that Yale paid a bulk price for all its residential college plates ­— Niagara did not charge the University extra for plates with more complicated designs.

“We’re just disappointed we weren’t invited to quote, being the incumbent,” he said, adding that he tried unsuccessfully to reach Remer all summer.

Remer said she did not know whether she returned Lupica’s calls, but felt “fairly certain” that samples offered by Niagara Ceramics did not match the plate shape and size Yale wanted for its updated design.

Yale Dining has sets of plates containing one dish from each residential college available for sale.

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