Dining Redistribution Incites Campus Debates

Photo courtesy of Conncoll.edu

Many students returning to campus this semester were surprised by the summer decision to close both the Smith and Knowlton dining halls. Smith, only open for breakfast and lunch during weekdays, was one of the most popular eating spots on campus despite its limited hours, and Knowlton, the foreign language dining hall, was frequented by the international community. The decision to close Smith and Knowlton was made over the summer by a working group that included Dean of Students Victor Arcelus, members of the student body, and outside consultants. This working group also outlined the repurposing of the now vacant spaces in Smith and Knowlton into a game room and a language lab, respectively.

This change received an overall negative reception from students and left many speculating as to why the changes needed to happen at all.

At a meeting in his office, Arcelus shed some light on the reasoning behind the dining hall closings. On Knowlton, Arcelus said: “There were a lot of resources going into that space, and not a lot of usage of that space as a dining area.” Smith, on the other hand, was closed in order to “run a more efficient overall dining operation, in order for resources to be deployed in different ways across campus.” Arcelus spoke of a master plan for this campus, which will lend itself to larger, but fewer, dining spaces. “Historically, Conn has had many dining spaces, and the analysis of the operation is that we ideally should operate fewer,” Arcelus noted.

Another dining change was the addition of a more comprehensive lunch menu at Oasis, which now also allows the use of meal swipes at lunchtime. “Oasis and Smith are within a stone’s throw of each other,” said Arcelus, whose plan pegs Cro as the new dining area for central campus, at least during lunch hours.

I sat down in Cro for lunch with James Murray ’18, a member of SGA and one of three students in the summer working group. About the group meetings, he said: “Over the summer, it was tough because it was just via phone… they talked about how there needed to be [budget] cuts, essentially, but also how running so many small dining halls was inefficient, and needed to be restructured.” Budget cuts seem to be an underlying factor in the closure of Smith, as Murray also noted, “Not just dining, but many other departments of the school have had to make cuts.”

Financial constraints aside, Murray assured me that the voice of the students was not ignored in the closing of Smith. “They listened to our concerns, Victor listened to students about why we wanted to keep Smith. I sent him a pretty long email.”

Murray and Arcelus agree that closing Knowlton and Smith allows for better allocation of dining services staff for the existing dining halls on campus. To learn more about this, I met with Mark, a member of the Harris dining staff, for lunch. He reported a noticeable influx of students since the closings, particularly during lunch hours. “Both Jane Addams and here have obviously picked up. Going into the dish room there are more dishes, which means more students. But we don’t mind.”

Mark also remembered that Smith received 200 plus students a day for breakfast and lunch, and would probably have had more, if there was more room. “We are all creatures of habit, we all have certain places we like to eat. Smith was popular.”

I asked Mark about the new strategy of having fewer dining halls on campus, and he responded that there are multiple perspectives on the changes. “From the student’s perspective, I don’t think it was a good move. I don’t even think, from the employee’s perspective, that it was a good move. From what we hear, it was strictly financial.”

Knowlton, which received more in the 30-40 range for student daily attendance, was closed more because of that low attendance than due to financial reasoning. On Knowlton, Mark stated, “I worked there quite a few times and it was always pleasant, and good to see all the cultures coming together. It’s unfortunate.” The language dining hall has been moved to Freeman, so while Knowlton itself is closed, language-immersion lunches still have designated a space on campus.

Overall, the changes have received a mixed response from students. I talked with  Matheos Lopez ’18,  who said “Food in Cro is great because I only have 5 minutes in between my classes, and I can just run here and get a sandwich.” When  asked about the new game room, however, she wondered, “Does anyone even use that?” Arcelus has noticed more and more students using Oasis as a lunch option and hopes this number continues to increase.

Arcelus also notes an increase of use in the game room compared to previous years. “Smith was closed at night, so that major space in the building was dark. Whereas now, with the game room, that space is lit up. Smith/Burdick has a very different look to it now.”

When asked whether the changes would be reversed in the future, Arcelus commented: “I don’t know what the future holds, like I said, we’re looking at the analysis that we did, and looking at the master plan.” Murray had a similar response: “It’s a bummer that they closed Smith, but it makes sense how the small dining hall model won’t work on this campus.” Mark, too, is hopeful that the College acknowledges how important food is for prospective students and said he “hopes things turn around for all of us. Hopefully this is a temporary thing, and things can go back to normal.”

As with most issues on campus, student feedback is important, and students are encouraged to voice their concerns about the dining situation. For instance, Mark has noticed a large number of “bring back Smith” napkin notes in Harris, and Murray encourages students to bring complaints to the right people. As of now, the changes seem here to stay, but nothing is set in stone for the long term.