DSG, admins dispute dining fee agreement
Changes to Duke Dining’s leadership have revealed misunderstandings and poor communication between administrators and student representatives.
Last year, Kemel Dawkins, former vice president for campus services, agreed to increase the dining plan contract fee from $19.50 to $90. The fee’s increase was one of the measures taken to reduce the $2.2 million Dining deficit that has accrued since 2007.
Duke Student Government representatives agreed to support the fee increase for the 2010-2011 academic year given that administrators adhere to a list of stipulations, Lefevre said, such as making the additional charge temporary. Although student representatives said the increase was only supposed to exist for one year, Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta announced his intention in September to extend the fee until at least the summer of 2013.
“Regardless of what [administrators] say they agreed to, they knew what we agreed to—and that was for a one-year fee of $90 and a plan for scaling that back every subsequent year,” said DSG President Mike Lefevre, a senior. “Anyone who tells you otherwise is either misrepresenting us or wasn’t in the room [during Spring negotiations].”
Although dining fees are expected to continue, Moneta announced Thursday that the $54 annual Quad & First Year Housing Fee will be eliminated in the Fall of 2012, which he said will help mitigate Dining’s higher cost for students.
But Lefevre said the end of the housing fee does not make up for the increased dining fee.
Over the summer, administrative reshuffling meant that the leadership that had agreed to the plan was no longer in charge. After Dawkins left the University in June, the department of Campus Services was dissolved and Moneta’s Student Affairs assumed responsibility for Dining. Moneta said he does not plan to make major changes to the department for a year and a half—including reducing the increased dining fee.
Administrators noted that there was no written record of the agreement. DSG planned to draft a written contract for the Board of Trustees to hold administrators responsible, but no parties signed a plan.
Still, DSG representatives stated publicly last year that their understanding was that the increase was temporary. The Chronicle reported in February that DSG supported only a temporary fee increase as a “student bailout” to Dining. In March, The Chronicle reported that DSG representatives said Dawkins agreed the fee would be in effect for a year with negotiations to follow.
“We made every effort to make them agree that this was a one-year deal,” Lefevre said. “There was absolute understanding in the room that this was what we were agreeing to.”
Former DSG President Awa Nur, Trinity ’10, declined to comment on the agreement.
DSG Executive Vice President Pete Schork, a junior, confirmed that DSG’s intent was “clearly communicated” verbally during the Spring semester, but noted that the administration can make policy decisions without student approval.
Seeing “eye to eye”
The lack of a written agreement has left the student government without leverage.
“It was frustrating... when [Moneta] asked me, ‘Can you show me where administrators agreed to a one-year increase, that this wasn’t just from the student’s end?’ and he knew the answer was, ‘No,’” Lefevre said.
DSG did not push to get written administrative approval because administrators could not commit without knowing exactly how the fee would affect the deficit, Lefevre said.
“We were confident in working with [Dawkins] and Sam [Veraldi, director of Parking and Transportation Services that] we would be able to eliminate the dining fee in one year or have a bullet-proof strategy for moving it down,” Lefevre said. “We truly did see eye to eye with the administrators after a very painful process of negotiations.”
Executive Vice President Tallman Trask said his direct involvement with Dining ended last year.
“I never liked the fee agreement, but the student leaders wouldn’t accept anything else,” he wrote in a Thursday e-mail.
But if there was an understanding between administrators and students, the current leaders tasked with reducing the deficit said they were not aware of its specifics.
Moneta, who was not involved in Dining before June, said he was not aware of a formal agreement between administrators and students. He added that he had not received any records of an agreement from Dawkins, who currently serves as the executive vice chancellor for administration at Rutgers University’s Newark campus.
Director of Dining Services Jim Wulforst, who was present in the meetings last year, said he had received DSG’s list of stipulations but “couldn’t tell you who said it or when it was said.”
“I don’t know if we ever said the fee would go back to $19.50 [after one year]. I don’t remember us ever having that discussion,” Wulforst said.
Moneta said even if a formal agreement had been made, it might not have made a difference in extending the fee for upcoming years.
Although he was aware of DSG’s intentions, Dawkins said eliminating the fee after one year had always been “a long shot.”
Last year, Dawkins said he considered a number of structural changes to make on-campus eateries more attractive to students, which made the financial impact of long-term policy decisions difficult to predict.
But with the change in leadership, plans proposed last year to evaluate and reform eateries were “thrown out,” Lefevre noted.
Moneta said this year’s increase cut the dining deficit approximately in half, adding that other measures, including eliminating faculty and staff discounts, will likely cover the rest of the deficit. Wulforst added that revenue has increased by 10 to 12 percent this year.
Just the beginning?
Ultimately, all campus leaders are working toward the same end—to improve the University dining experience, though their ideas to reach that goal may differ, Schork said.
“If you eliminate the fee, you eliminate resources that will ultimately be used to improve dining,” Schork said. “I’m not sure if I agree that students should be financing [the deficit], but if you look at things from a pure financial balance sheet perspective, I understand where [Student Affairs] is coming from.”
Student representatives from organizations like DSG will continue to meet monthly with administrators to create a strategic dining plan.
Although Moneta expressed his intention to continue the fee, the Board of Trustees has the final say in May 2011.
“I would like nothing more than to see that fee eliminated before I graduate, but... if that’s just not possible, I plan to create a comprehensive strategy on how to phase out that dining fee,” Lefevre said.
He added that he may have to work with the Board rather than Student Affairs. He said accepting the fee increase as definite is premature and nothing will be decided until next year.
“It seems that Dr. Moneta has been forthcoming about the dining budget and is generally open to some responsible changes for dining operation, but the proof is in the pudding,” Lefevre said. “We’ll see in May where we end up, and that will be the moment when we see whether this has been a real negotiation or whether it’s been a sham.”