During my term last year as Yale College Council president, the council fought the fights we believed students cared about: adding mental health resources and reforming financial aid are two of the most important ones that come to mind. Sometimes we won, sometimes we lost, but we always did our best. Last Thursday, I was reminded of one of our losing battles when I arrived in the Saybrook dining hall and saw beef brisket: the push to restore weekly chicken tenders.
During my sophomore year, Chicken Tenders Day was a weekly occurrence. Every Wednesday night we went to bed knowing that when we woke the next day, we could enjoy as many tenders as we wanted with the sauces of our choosing. This knowledge was significant because of the special place that chicken tenders hold in our campus culture.
Indeed, no dish from Yale Dining (and perhaps in the entire Ivy League) is quite so popular as chicken tenders. It is the only dish at Yale with its own website, offering students text alerts on days it is served. This is probably an unprecedented feat for any food nationwide. In 2011, an article in the News characterized the chicken tenders as “Yale’s single greatest accomplishment,” and although I think this claim is outlandish, there is no doubt that the tenders are our collective favorite dish.
For the aforementioned reasons, YCC went to bat for students last year. There’s no scarcity of chickens in this country, and thus we felt the push to restore weekly tenders was a low-hanging fruit, a classic “win-win” in which students get what they want and the administration is able to easily accommodate student opinion.
Our hopes quickly proved illusory. We were told that average consumption of chicken tenders decreased when they were provided weekly. The dish maximized its popularity when served on a biweekly basis, as the scarcity increased students’ craving.
Now, the administrators at Yale Dining are among the friendliest at Yale. They were always willing to defend their positions and made concessions on issues such as adding whole milk to Commons, which has been particularly beneficial to athletes who now have stronger bones. They also recently restructured off-campus meal plans to better serve both the dining options and financial needs of off-campus students. Plus, as we enjoyed Tuesday evening, they host the convivial “Final Cut” event complete with free food and culinary competition. But their logic on the tenders is dubious!
Indeed, applied to its fullest extent, Yale Dining’s framework would suggest that tenders should be served even less often, perhaps only once per semester. Their error is that they are using the wrong metric to make the chicken tenders decision. Rather than seeking to maximize the utility of the tenders themselves, Yale Dining should seek to maximize the utility provided by the Thursday dining experience (which is always higher when tenders are served).
Let’s say that, on a popularity scale of one-10, chicken tenders register a 10 when served every other week and an eight when served weekly. To decide which option is preferred, we must consider the enjoyment derived from the poultry alternative on non-tenders weeks.
Typically, this alternative takes the form of beef brisket, a very loathsome choice. When I see beef brisket, I opt to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or just have some cereal or ice cream for lunch because beef brisket has such a disappointing taste. The utility of this option is very low, probably like a two. The average utility of biweekly tenders, therefore, is a six, whereas it’s an eight for weekly tenders. Even though the tenders’ utility is higher when served on limited occasions, overall student enjoyment is not maximized.
There are many ambitious and important changes that Yale should make to improve the experience of students, but this reality should not prevent us from making small, common sense improvements. It is worth remembering that the winning ticket for the Harvard student government election two years ago ran on a platform of providing daily tomato basil ravioli soup — the chicken tenders of Harvard Dining. Even though dining options may not be the most pressing concern facing the Yale Corporation, students care about what we eat. It’s a kitchen table issue.
I only hope Yale will not be too chicken to give students what we want.
Michael Herbert is a senior in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at email@example.com .