It may be about four months late, but there is finally a sensible effort underway to get rid of dining hall restrictions. Since we argued here in October that these limits violate the spirit of the residential college system, they have only gotten worse — highlighting the need for a solution that not only opens up dining halls, but addresses why they became restricted in the first place.
The Yale College Council’s approach to the problem is, for the most part, the right one. In pushing for a near-complete removal of the restrictions, the council has rightly pointed out that when one college restricts, it encourages the rest to do so. Opening Commons on Sunday nights is a worthwhile idea, too, as is allowing colleges to limit transfers from those colleges that have unnecessary limits of their own. But with the final decisions of dining hall policies resting with the residential college masters, the YCC should take care to advocate a system the colleges will accept, or else risk instituting a policy that cannot be sustained. That means creating a central body that can help define the few cases where restrictions might be justified and serve as a place where colleges must go to explain, with data, why they need to impose transfer limits.
That brings us to Berkeley — the one college whose policies escape the YCC proposal largely unscathed. Almost two years after the organic-food experiment began, the inequities it has created are so great that we are almost tempted to say Berkeley’s special status should be removed in the interest of fairness, even though we know that is not a viable option. Still, sustainable food boosters should not underestimate the extent to which Berkeley’s restrictions have created a sense of resentment that fundamentally threatens campus-wide support of organic dining. If Berkeley is going to continue to enjoy a dining hall so far superior to the rest, it must also express a greater willingness to let other students into its gates. Opening up to one or two other colleges a few nights a week might mean that some Berkeley students do not get to eat there every night, but that is a price the college should be willing to pay for the privilege of organic food.
Even beyond Berkeley, Yale must consider the underlying reasons why some dining halls are so much more popular than others. Yes, Yale’s renovation schedule inevitably leaves a few more students trying to get into other colleges’ dining halls. But the basic problem is that the quality of everything from the food to the ambiance differs vastly across colleges. And while we recognize that life in each college will inevitably be different at Yale, the disparities in dining are so great — and so central to college life — that they have created the mess we now see.
Thus far, the colleges’ strategy for addressing this challenge has been entirely negative: shut out the extra crowds and hope everything evens out. Instead, the Dean’s Office and Yale University Dining Services should look for ways to draw students to less popular dining halls. Giving these new organic options or perks — from ice-cream machines to better salad bars — would be a good way to begin reducing disparities among colleges.
Yale should move quickly to change its policies on who gets into its dining halls. But if it wants a lasting solution, it must address what’s inside them, too.