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3 Questions: Charles Stewart on the new House Dining program

An MIT professor and faculty Housemaster talks about the dining hall as the 'heart and soul' of his residence.
Charles Stewart, MIT professor and faculty Housemaster of the McCormick Hall dormitory
Charles Stewart, MIT professor and faculty Housemaster of the McCormick Hall dormitory
Photo: Richard Howard

Charles Stewart III is the Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science at MIT, where he has taught since 1985. But as a faculty Housemaster in McCormick Hall — where he has lived alongside the undergraduate residents with his wife and son for nearly 20 years — Stewart also has a long perspective on the campus community. Over past year, Stewart has served as a faculty representative on the House Dining Advisory Group (HDAG), a committee of students and faculty charged with recommending a new dining program for the five dorms with dining halls — Baker, Maseeh, McCormick, Next and Simmons. As the campus community looks toward the opening of the new program in fall 2011, Stewart shares his thoughts on the central role of dining in the life of a dorm.

Q. What is the role a dining hall plays in residential life at MIT?

A. A dining hall is a truly the social center for the life of the dormitory. It’s a place where everyone comes every day, where you sit down and share a moment with your friends. This is important because one of the key parts of the college experience is exchanging ideas and social time with other people. A dining hall, when it operates well, provides precisely the type of experience that people go off to college to have: to interact with people of different interests and passions so we can learn from each other.

After the McCormick dining hall was closed in 1993, it was as if the heart and the soul of the building was torn out. When the dining hall was open, people got together and saw each other on a regular basis. It was really the information hub of the building: everyone passed through the dining hall every day. After the dining hall closed, people generally returned to McCormick just to go to sleep and the building was dead almost all day long. Students would socialize with people on their floors, but not across the dormitory.

It ended up being a very isolating environment. There was a real sense that the feeling of community was gone, that opportunities to get to know people from around the dorm were not there, and that residents didn’t value McCormick as a place to congregate. Since the dining hall reopened in 2004, the effects are clear. At 6 p.m. the building is hopping with people. Even the students not going to the dining hall know that they will be able to meet up with people who were. Residents end up interacting in a much more social environment.

Q. How were opinions of the entire Institute community included in designing the new meal plan?

We were able to do so in a few ways: the HDAG [House Dining Advisory Group] web presence both provided information and served as a place for people to give feedback and express their points of view. Via the web, we were able to reach out beyond dorms that would get the new dining plans.

There was also a very extensive set of discussions in each of the dining hall residences about the future of dining in the houses. Each unfolded in a different way. In ours, we had several public forums where members of the administration and dorm members gathered, asked questions, and probed the plan. The house president also went floor to floor and talked to people in the lounges or during study breaks to discuss the future of dining in McCormick.

At the end of the day, we had both a wholesale process where everyone in the Institute could comment and a retail process that involved one-on-one conversations with the students most impacted by the new plan.

Q. What will most surprise students about the new plan?

A. First, the increased level of service in the dining halls during dinner, which is the service they experience right now. Because the plan has such a stronger financial footing with more participants, the general apparatus and infrastructure around dining will be much improved. With more people involved in planning and delivering the service, it will be a deeper, richer, higher-quality experience.

Another immediate surprise will be around breakfast. Students are still wavering a bit about breakfast; right now what they do is just grab something and go. In the future, on some days they will still be rushing, but on the days when they have a little more time, they’ll have the opportunity to sit with friends or in the sunshine first thing in the morning and enjoy a nutritious meal to start their day. I think that will transform how they will interact with people around them.

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