The way to a man’s heart may be through his stomach, but apparently the way to a Barnard woman’s is not through hers. Barnard’s administration is learning this the hard way, as it faces the aftermath of force-feeding a proposal for a mandatory meal plan to its students.
The proposal, to take effect in the next academic year, was announced in December and mandates that each Barnard student sign up for a meal plan. In an e-mail to the student body announcing the policy, Dean Dorothy Denburg wrote, “We believe that the revised plan will build community and animate the Diana Center, yet still accounts for differences in lifestyle of students by class and residence.”
Students will break bread together and bond and learn from one another over scintillating conversation like, “Really? You used seven points for that sandwich?”, “Oh my God, will you just shut your mouth while you chew?”, and “Meal plan—more like meal scam!”
For if Facebook is any indication (and if there isn’t evidence of something on Facebook, did it ever even happen?) Barnardians have not taken kindly to the meal plan. The Facebook group “PROTECT YOUR RIGHT TO BE OFF THE MEAL PLAN!” had 641 members as of Jan. 19—that is more than a quarter of the Barnard student body. And if caps lock wasn’t enough to convince you that this group is serious, consider this: In less than a month, the group wrote and sent a manifesto to the administration and tentatively arranged for a meeting with the Student Government Association. Those steps may not be particularly effective, but they do reveal a sense of shared purpose, of cohesiveness, and of unity. What’s that word again? Community?
Community, as you know, is a sore spot for Columbia University as a whole and for Barnard in particular. Even if our sports teams did rise above a .500 record, I doubt they’d attract much enthusiasm from the students here who have cultivated and projected their sense of dissatisfaction and disdain since toddlerhood (“Oh, mummy, disposable diapers? Did you even consider Mother Earth?”), meaning that the traditional collegiate community has little chance. But this campus-wide ennui leads to the perpetuation of a different kind of community: a community defined by opposition, one that thrives on complaining and reacting and fades in and out of existence—or mutates—according to the cause du jour. Let’s call it the "community of no."
The anti-meal plan Facebook group is just the latest iteration of this phenomenon. Two years ago, when Facebook was still in its adorable toddler stage and there had only been one round of “Bring Back the Old Facebook!” groups, a real-life group of Columbia students undertook a hunger strike to protest certain University policies. That protest fit right into the “community of no.” The student strikers defined their group and its mission in opposition to the University as an institution. Other students attempted to provoke the strikers—in one instance eating McDonald’s mere feet from the South Lawn octopus (which represented, presumably, the rubbery, slightly unsettling texture of Columbia’s proposed Manhattanville campus). But the mockery seemed only to strengthen the strikers’ resolve and the community that had formed around them.
But twist! A second group, known on Facebook as “We Do NOT Support the Hunger Strikers,” then formed to protest the protesting. This group also attracted hundreds of members, but it didn’t do anything as radical as publicly taunting the strikers or waging a counter-hunger strike. Instead, it posted a manifesto for its members to send to the administration—a manifesto against those who were against the administration. On one hand, that’s a double negative and amounts to an affirmation of the administration. On the other hand, nowhere in the manifesto did group members state that they supported the administration. They only decried the protesters. So, on the third hand (I, like the octopus, am many-handed), the group was the epitome of the "community of no": obsessed with protest and opposition but uninterested in ideas or constructive criticism.
So far, “PROTECT YOUR RIGHT TO BE OFF THE MEAL PLAN!” has not approached that point. It has formed as a "community of no," but it is also taking real action, trying to reach a compromise with the administration. If the administration really is motivated by an apparent lack of community, then it need only look online to see that a vital and active community does exist. It may not be the warm, friendly, stable Hogwartsy (warty?) community that President Debora Spar spoke of, but then, even Hogwarts’ meal plan isn’t without controversy—have you seen the working conditions of house elves?
Anna Arons is a Barnard College senior majoring in urban studies. Two cents and sensibility runs alternate Wednesdays.