Let Them Eat Cake

By J.P. Harrington

Why I Hate SmartChoice And How to Start Fixing It

SmartChoice may be one of the least aptly named programs in all of existence. Why? Well, let’s just run through a few of the brilliant new changes that this plan has now inflicted upon my life.

I now live on a tightly run meal schedule that dictates exactly when I must eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner (of course any concept of snacks long ago went out the window). The monstrosity that any true Dartmouth College student calls FoCo (and which some pitifully brain-washed members of the Worst Class Ever call ’53 Commons) is only open at the following hours: 7 am to 3 pm and from 5 pm to 8 pm. I can only assume that Jim Kim utilized his extensive medical training to determine that students never hunger after 8 pm on a weeknight. Oh, well that’s alright, if I can’t make the trek to the all-you-can-stuff-in-your-face FoCo and swipe in, I can just grab a delicious breakfast sandwich at the Hop for a midnight snack.

Oh, wait. Under SmartChoice, any one of my weekly assigned meals varies in value, depending entirely on the minute of my arrival at the cash register, with my chosen meal in hand. Every day, Dartmouth students are tested by the administration to answer the following question, oddly reminiscent of those contained in third-grade math tests.

If J.P. leaves his dorm at 8:45 pm after finishing a difficult math problem set, and walks at a speed of 5 mph to the Hop to get dinner, then encounters 10 people in line waiting to check out, how much is his meal exchange worth?

Not that much. 

In fact, it would be worth exactly $5.25 as opposed to $9.25 just a minute before 9 pm. I can’t imagine it will be too long before some enterprising Dartmouth students manage to exploit this arbitrage opportunity. Where are all of the investment bankers when you need them?

That’s not the half of why this system is utterly ridiculous. If we return to the basic idea of SmartChoice, it soon becomes clear that switching to an all-you-care-to-eat system is inherently bad for the students. It’s all a question of economics. The old system worked on a simple basis. I have money, you have a selection of food. I choose exactly what I want to eat and then pay for it. I pay for my own costs and no one else has to subsidize me.

Now, under the all-you-care-to-eat system, you pay to enter FoCo, where you can eat as however much you can manage to stuff into your stomach. Apparently, Jim Kim fails to realize that some people eat more than others. So, the football players have the exact same 20 meals a week plan as the smallest member of the Class of 2015. Nobody sees the issue with this?

Well, $9.25 didn’t even cover some of the entrees at the old system. Of course, they can’t offer steak to everyone, or even half-decent hamburgers (by the by, apparently hamburger now means “a burnt sliver of meat served on a greasy bun”). Otherwise, people will just eat too much food to cover the costs. As time goes on, the quality of food at FoCo will just drop further and further in order to cover the costs of the food that people consume. 

SmartChoice also has no solution for the amount of food that will go wasted, even forgetting the heightened levels of consumption. What if a student just got three plates of food and ate half of each of them? Or just tried all three and ate the best one? He could throw away the food and bear no consequence. So, more food gets wasted, FoCo’s costs go up, and the quality of food will suffer even more as David Newlove attempts to preserve his precious profit. Apparently padding-your-resume-itis has spread from Dartmouth students to the staff as Mr. Newlove’s LinkedIn account proves.

And why does all of this matter? Why should it matter to our President, sitting as he does, so far removed from the newly renovated FoCo?

Because students matter. And students’ opinions matter. We have long said that Dartmouth holds a special place in the Ivy League because we care about our undergraduates. Unlike the University factories of Harvard, Cornell, Columbia, Yale, UPenn, and Brown, we are a College. Our professors interact with undergraduates and teach rather than just lecture half-heartedly before running away to do research. We are smaller, we don’t have as many grad programs, but we care about each student we have. At least that’s what I believed when I chose to come here.

More and more, this administration has forced me to call that belief into question. Why are we getting rid of Blitz, that time-honored tradition of Dartmouth, and more importantly, why are we replacing it with Microsoft Office? Why are we implementing a new dining system that will cost me more, force me to eat worse food, and prevent me from choosing when, where, and how much to eat? Why haven’t we had student input at the beginning of these decisions, rather than at the very end in a rather poor attempt to placate us?

SmartChoice is a system designed entirely to squeeze money out of students, but at the price of also destroying Dartmouth’s reputation. It’s completely designed for the short-run profit, along with seemingly everything else in the modern world. That doesn’t work – I thought we had learned at least that from the recent debt crisis.

  Let’s just call a failure a failure, President Kim. You messed up. Let’s fix it.

In the spring, The Dartmouth Review presented The Lone Pine Plan to President Kim. It was a collection of suggestions and alterations to the just-announced SmartChoice Program. These suggestions were promptly ignored. We are now refitting (or in some cases simply restating) these ideas to provide new alternatives to the SmartChoice debacle.

 

A Case Competition

Dartmouth is lucky to have one of the best business schools in the world. Yet despite this business prowess the DDS is forced to charge exorbitant prices in order to survive. We should leverage the talent in the Tuck Business School by hosting a case competition for Tuck students to evaluate and correct inefficiencies at the DDS. The case competition should have a prize large enough to attract talent (500 to 1000 dollars, or a good grade), and the competing groups should be given full access to DDS finances (after signing a non-disclosure agreement). This competition will produce excellent ideas for vastly improving the DDS at little cost to the college. Many of the students would no doubt participate simply for the prestige and experience offered by such a competition.

Increasing Competition                                                   

President Hoover said it best when he exclaimed that “competition is not only the basis of protection to the consumer, but it is also the incentive for progress.” Competition keeps a firm’s costs down and quality up by providing monetary incentives for both cost cutting and quality improvements. Without this competition, a firm will grow fat and become overburdened with costs and inefficiencies. This section details stratagems to whip the uncompetitive DDS into shape, burning off the inefficient fat and costs it has gained.

Privatization

The DDS should not attempt to be a jack-of-all-trades, and instead it should rely on the specialization of others. Parts of the DDS should be sold off to private firms in a competitive bidding process. This will allow the DDS to make more money while having higher quality services provided to students. For example, despite the rather high price, the Novak Café is unable to produce a half decent cup of coffee or even moderately tasty snacks. This is to be expected as the DDS does not have a long and proven history of being a café manager. The rights to operate a café in the Novak space should be sold off to private firms in a competitive bidding process with upfront requirements (I.E. certain open hours, x number of student employees, acceptance of DBA). Firms like Starbucks or Second Cup would place a premium on the brand recognition gained from running a top-notch facility in an Ivy League school. The DDS would make more money than running the Novak Café themselves by charging the private firm a lease, as well as collecting a percentage fee from students for every dollar spent (I.E. a two dollar pastry bought is then charged to DBA as 2.10, assuming a 5% fee). Trading with private firms is a win-win situation because the DDS will be more profitable than running Novak itself and students can take advantage of higher quality and less expensive products. This same principle can be applied to other parts of the DDS such as Topside. We’ve already seen this process succeed in the new King Arthur Flour station in the library. Imagine if several stations of similar quality and of varied restaurants were installed in FoCo replacing the bland and tasteless food that is there now.

Town-wide usage

A student’s DBA should be accepted at all local restaurants that wish to participate in the program. This would improve town-gown relations and be beneficial from an admissions perspective. More importantly, this program will help DDS become more competitive. Allowing local restaurants to accept DBA will create real competition for the DDS and make a functioning market for student meals. In the real world, if your restaurant cannot attract many customers you must enact reforms or risk losing your job. This monetary incentive has been non-existent in the DDS. In the future, DDS managers would have a strong incentive to cut costs, improve quality, and better meet student needs. Conversely, the DDS could use this policy to make a profit if it charges students a certain percentage of the price as a convenience fee on all purchases at local restaurants-thus significantly raising revenue at little cost. This program would also greatly benefit students by providing them with more dining choices and the opportunity to better enjoy Hanover. Additionally, the principle of specialization will once again come into play. International, ethnic, and other interested students would be able to get better quality ethnic food at a lower price from specialized ethnic restaurants than they would from the generalized DDS.  By making the Dartmouth student meal market competitive, all parties will benefit.

Internal Competition

While having a discussion with a DDS employee at the Hop, he suggested I try the new Bagel Chips. This new product takes old Hop bagels that otherwise would have been discarded, seasons them, bakes them, and serves them as chips. This ingenuity and creativity needs to, and must be, rewarded. Internal competition should be fostered within the DDS (perhaps by providing a monetary incentive) to lower costs and increase quality. Competition is a powerful driver of human ingenuity and should be leveraged internally (and ideally externally) to increase efficiency, quality, and decrease cost. SmartChoice currently punishes internal competitors such as Collis and The Hop by forcing freshmen to buy meal plans that limit them to FoCo (meal exchanges are a rip-off as I pointed out earlier).

The new SmartChoice program is worse than I expected. Food quality has dropped and prices have risen. Often, I have to grab dinner with someone at FoCo and end up just eating a slice of pizza or two because I am either disgusted by the other options or simply not hungry. I’m paying for the right to sit in a social space. Everything I loved about the Dartmouth plan is gone – and has been replaced by an unwieldy money-grubbing monstrosity known as SmartChoice. If you are on any plan but the SmartChoice5 (the only one that offers any modicum of liberty resembling the old plan), change immediately. If you are a freshman, well, I’m sorry, I guess Dartmouth really doesn’t care about you.