A task force made up of students and administrators will meet Thursday to hash out the future of the Barnard meal plan.
After a contentious forum earlier in February where student response to a proposed required meal plan was overwhelmingly negative, administrators are planning to work with a smaller group over the next month.
In an email sent out to the college, Dean Dorothy Denburg announced that Barnard will assemble a working group of 12 students who will meet with Gregory Brown, Barnard’s chief operating officer, and her three times before spring break. The group was created in part because of suggestions made during the forum.
The task force will be made up of six students from Barnard’s Student Government Association and six from the general student body, including two first-year students, two sophomores, and two juniors. Seniors, with the exception of SGA President Katie Palillo, will not sit in. The task force will have one student self-identified as having allergies and one commuter student.
As of Wednesday evening, SGA had only finalized three council members that would participate in the working group—junior representative to the Board of Trustees Verna Patti, BC ’11, junior class president Lara Avsar, BC ’11, and sophomore class representative Mitzi Steiner, BC ’12.
“The goal is to have a series of conversations that incorporate the voices of interested students,” Denburg said. “Even though we had a lot of student input in the span of a year of conversations, there was some feeling that we needed to hear other student voices.”
Denburg received 23 responses to her initial college-wide announcement. She responded with two possible time slots, which some students were unable to attend, and the final meeting slots were chosen based on the times that the majority of candidates were able to make. These candidates were then sorted by class. After the committee picked a student with food allergies and a commuter student, the rest of the students were chosen randomly.
It has not yet been determined whether Denburg and Brown will be the only administrators on the task force.
Giselle León, SGA vice president of communications and BC ’10, said that SGA would work with students to improve communication between them and administrators.
“Our role on the task force is not to act in any way other than in favor of our students through collaboration with our administration,” León said. “The administration included SGA specifically to acknowledge our role as elected student representatives.”
“My personal goals from this task force are twofold—I’m looking forward to collaborating with students, and to reaching a plan that is agreeable to the student body,” Palillo added.
Some said they were concerned with the lack of student input in deciding the task force members.
“I would say that it could end up being a great group of people who really do take the time to figure out people’s opinions,” Sarah Sherer-Kohlburn, BC ’10, said. “But when the students themselves aren’t selecting who is going to be on the committee, you run the risk that only a certain viewpoint is going to go through.”
“I think that it makes sense that seniors are excluded since it doesn’t necessarily affect them, but that it at the same time could throw off the ratio of the number of students who are for versus against the meal plan,” Emily Montrose, BC ’11, said. “I think that freshmen would be more likely to think having a mandatory meal plan is OK, since they haven’t yet experienced how amazing it is to live in a suite with a kitchen and cook for yourself.”
Still, the voluntary nature of the committee could lead to a task force comprised of students that only represent a particular view.
“I think that if the administration really listens to the task force then there could be meaningful reform to the meal plan, but as to whether the students on the task force will be representative, I think they run a risk of self-selection,” Diana Rastegayeva, BC ’11, said. “Everyone has an opinion, but only the people that are really, really against it are signing up for it.”
But some said the task force is evidence of the administration’s responsiveness to student opinions.
“At the very, very least, I value that the administration is responsive to student concerns,” Natalia Quintero, BC ’13, said. “They could have ignored emails. ... At least they’ve taken them into account.”
SGA members said they anticipate discussing options for commuters and students with allergies and dietary restrictions.
But Montrose said she was concerned that all disabilities wouldn’t be taken into account.
“I personally have PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] that can be triggered by being in a crowded space,” Montrose said. “I wouldn’t want to have to try to rush into the Diana cafeteria to push through other people during my lunch or dinner hour just to try to use up the points that I was forced to buy. That’s completely unacceptable.”
The task force will make a formal recommendation to Denburg and Brown. The administration plans to announce a decision on the meal plan by room selection.
Ultimately, Rastegayeva said, how receptive administrators are to student concerns will make or break the task force’s efforts.
“It all comes down to how much they are going to listen to the students,” she said.