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A less perfect Union

Earlier this year, the long-awaited West Union finally opened to students. Although there is certainly room to admire the beauty of West Union, in light of the almost $90 million cost of constructing the building, today we aim to critique certain negatives of the new glass box.

First of all, on a positive note, we acknowledge that West Union is a valuable contribution to our campus. The building, with its slew of long tables and its thirteen centrally located eateries, provides a place for students to congregate, allowing for the construction of a more centralized West Campus community, similar to how Marketplace provides a centralized location for the first-year to come together in on East Campus. Meeting and study spaces ensure that West Union is a hub even outside of mealtimes. Additionally, with regards to food, West Union offers a level of variety that was unavailable before its construction.

That said, there are critiques to be made of West Union and its impacts. First, in rolling out West Union and its new vendors, the administration has limited the availability of other food choices: food trucks have been relegated away from the main quad and Merchant-on-Points hours have been limited; additionally, the vast majority of campus food outlets have been concentrated into a single space. All of this has limited food flexibility for students. For example, because of Merchant-on-Points changes, a student sick in bed cannot order meals until 8 p.m.; similarly, a student living on Central who wishes to dine early must now choose between taking a bus to West Campus just to have a meal and eating Dame’s for dinner. Students who are far from the main quad for other reasons, such as commitments in Durham, also need to go out of their way just to get food, or wait until 8 p.m. to eat.

As food flexibility has decreased, food prices seem to have risen. That’s incredibly unfortunate: costly meals are unaffordable for many people on our campus—from budget-minded graduate students to non-tenured staff to undergraduates on meal plan A to East Campus RAs with low allotments of food points. Since West Union’s opening has coincided with a reduction in the number of non-affiliated eateries, it is now quite hard to find a cheap meal. Although we recognize that West Union vendors must turn profits, we strongly hold that students and staff should not have to choose between eating less and overspending because of high prices.

In critiquing high prices, it is hard to ignore the fact that students have essentially been funneled into West Union through the centralization of eateries at Duke, and that Duke enjoys a financial benefit to the tune of 17.2 percent of vendor profits from each student that dines at West Union. Duke is not alone in profiting from dining options—many other private schools do. The key difference with Duke lies in the fact that Duke undergraduates are required to live a significant portion of their four years on campus and as such, are constrained to dine on university meal plans, guaranteeing the university a source of continued revenue. Since students have little agency in the choice to buy a food plan, we urge them to question whether Duke should be profiting from their purchase or whether their profits might be better used as a subsidy to lower prices.

In the end, although we appreciate the new West Union, we believe that students should question any downsides to the $90 million investment and always consider how dining could be better.

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