It is strange to imagine that there was once a time when Commons was open until late at night. Only four years ago, it was not uncommon for Yalies to spend a good part of their evenings in that great hall, exchanging jokes and conversation over a bowl of cereal and fruit. Commons very much served a communal function. It attracted students and faculty from all walks of life, from undergrads to university administration, into one shared space. When the University decided to cut dinner out of Commons four years ago, students and dining hall staff protested against this fundamental change in campus life.
Four years later, Commons now serves lunch for only five days of the week, four hours each day. What was once a central hub for student life and activity is now sputtering its last breaths, as its hours are cut and its services are moved elsewhere. This should worry us. The decision to move hot breakfasts to Branford is not an isolated measure of austerity; it is a statement of the University’s longer-term vision for Commons.
As Yale’s endowment has grown, her shared spaces have grown smaller. There has been a shift, over the course of the past few years, in the ways that students engage with our dining halls. Family night dinners, while well-intentioned, limit the ability of students across colleges to eat together. Morse, Stiles and Berkeley’s dinner transfer policies only make these limitations more apparent. The strict enforcement of dining hall hours for lunch and dinner at many other colleges hasten otherwise relaxed meals. The trend has gone from the communal to the local, from open spaces to closed ones.
This is problematic because, as many of us know, Yalies are already burdened with engagements and activities down to the minute. Between classwork, extracurriculars, job interviews and research, our meals are often the only time in the day when we can sit down and converse with leisure. The age-old mantra, “Let’s grab a meal,” indicates more than just an intention to eat food together; it signifies a desire to spend time in a relaxed manner. In my own experience, chance encounters at Commons have almost always developed into opportunities to catch up with old friends. Because of other engagements, a good part of my social life revolves around these lunches and dinners. I would not be surprised if this were the case with many other students.
In addition to fostering social ties, dining halls serve another important function for campus life: They are a space for intellectual conversation and debate. Dinners are often used as a time to test out ideas and challenge conventional beliefs. The relaxed atmosphere of our dining halls encourages the free flow of ideas that many students do not get to express in the classroom. In the dining halls, an electrical engineering major can discuss admissions policy with an athlete, while a debater can discuss music with old friends from a pre-orientation program. Dining halls are places where people can meet, regardless of individual interest. Cutting back on hours makes it more difficult for students to reach out to other Yalies outside of their normal social and intellectual interests.
An extension of dining hall hours need not infringe on the livelihoods of dining hall staff. We would not even need to change the hours that food is served to make these spaces better tailored towards students’ needs. Once the original dining hall hours are up at 7 p.m., the staff can collect all the plates and lock up the kitchens, like normal. Students who wish to continue their conversations or study should be allowed to stay until final closing hours (which can be enforced by student aides).
As Yale prepares to welcome two new colleges, it is important that her spaces be made more available to the student body. Opening up Yale’s dining halls will strengthen social ties and protect a necessary sphere of student life. In addition, an extension of hours will reinforce the dining halls’ important role as forums for free and open intellectual discussions.
Ugonna Eze is a junior in Pierson College. Contact him at email@example.com.