There was a bit of a stir last week when the Nutella affair got picked up by the media. Thousands of dollars spent on a condiment for Ivy League students makes good news. And so the story traveled from Morningside to the Mail to Munich and became the stuff of small talk and tweets. But this course of events ought to disturb us. While millions have heard of the sweet teeth of Columbians, there has been no honest public discussion of the affair. The absurdity of the situation has produced joke after joke, but the underlying issues have been forgotten.
Columbia dining is in a bad way. First-years, the largest group using the dining halls, must buy meal plans costing upwards of $10 per meal. There is a general sense that the money each meal costs could get students better fare elsewhere. In the end, there’s ill sentiment towards the dining plan, and it makes sense that so many students choose to leave the Ferris Booth Commons behind come sophomore year.
This is not to say that dining or Dining Services is all bad, but to explain why students feel comfortable taking from the dining halls. Freshmen realize that something costly and inadequate has been forced upon them. When they find themselves in need of afternoon snacks and balk at the prices at Westside Market, they naturally turn to the dining halls. Why not get some Nutella to go with that $10 swipe? That is how we got in to this mess.
The way administrators handled the affair was also quite disturbing. A student representative wanted to improve the dining halls. He met with an administrator who cited the cost of Nutella as a reason dining doesn’t usually add great new items. Wanting to make progress, he posted the information to the class Facebook group, so that students would know why it’s important not to take food from dining halls. Here we have a student trying his best to make a real, positive change, deal with an inflexible administration, and communicate with students.
How did it go wrong? The big numbers got into the Times and everywhere else. The administrators, who were responsible for producing these figures, called them lies. Finally, several days after ‘nutellagate’ made big news, the administrators released actual figures.
The university press release attempted to make light of the way the story had been handled by the media. But what they were doing was denying responsibility. The statement fails to provide answers to the question of how this misunderstanding occurred—in a conversation between Columbia College Student Council representative Peter Bailinson and head of dining Vicki Dunn.
The worst scandal in the whole Affair is the failure of the campus community, especially the Spectator, to discuss these problems honestly. This stands in contrast to a tradition of heated interactions between students and dining often recorded in these pages. In the early thirties, Spectator investigated the dining halls and alleged that dining was run contrary to students’ interests, for profit. The editor-in-chief at the time, Reed Harris, was expelled for rabble rousing. Spectator asked to see the dining budget and, when rebuffed, published an editorial criticizing the administration editorial against the administration. The next year they secured access, and found that the university was making more than the two percent profit normally allowed.
1961-62 was a particularly important year for dining debate. At the start of the year, a mandatory meal plan for freshmen was proposed. The Spectator’s editorial board rejected it on the grounds that students would not use all the meals and the dining halls could not hold all the freshmen at once and thus fail to facilitate community. The newspaper ultimately deemed it a profit making scheme.
The next year began with price reductions and the year after that with a statement from the head of dining, James MacDonald: “we want the student to have what he wants.” Yearly dining profits were published. Later that year, a comprehensive report was published by the student council demanding primarily that food quality take precedence above profit, provoking wide administrative response.
Student investigation and student media have the potential to hold dining and administrators accountable. The response to the Nutella Affair has been a lazy, even cowardly. Here’s an opportunity to take part in a tradition of students campaigning for better dining. The fact that a representative tried to do that and has received little support from the administration should be getting more attention.
What matters most to me is that the institution the dining halls might have been is lost. When University President Seth Low described his ambitions for the Morningside Campus at the turn of the century, he outlined the belief, shared with students at the time, that a dining hall where the whole school could meet would foster a collegiate community before absent. I share in this belief. That is why I find the Affair distressing.
The author is a Columbia College first-year and an associate design editor for Spectator.
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