Some Thoughts in the Dark

After they lost power to their cash registers, KAF's employees opened up their pastry and sandwich case and started giving away leftover food to feed hungry undergraduates. This response contrasts markedly with that of the nearest DDS establishment at Novack. There, rather than opening their refrigerators to feed students, they locked them and used empty shelves as Robespierre-style bulwarks to guard against theft.

After they lost power to their cash registers, KAF’s employees opened up their pastry and sandwich case and started giving away leftover food to feed hungry undergraduates. This response contrasts markedly with that of the nearest DDS establishment at Novack. There, rather than opening their refrigerators to feed students, they locked them and used empty shelves as Robespierre-style bulwarks to guard against theft.

At around 4:30 on the afternoon of May 27, a major storm swept across the Connecticut River and onto the Dartmouth campus. Its heavy winds and driving rains lasted for less than an hour, but its effects long outlived the last thunderclap; for, shortly after the storm began, there was a particularly strong gust of wind and a loud rumble from what sounded like a nearby lightning strike. Lights around the Green began to flicker, and then went out, plunging students into the dark.

Although early emails from Frank Roberts, Dartmouth’s Associate Vice President of Facilities Operations and Management, suggested that power would be restored imminently, residents on campus had to wait until after midnight to be reconnected to the grid. In the meantime, most of campus’s dining establishments were shuttered and many of Dartmouth’s web-based service applications were unavailable to undergraduate use. Students fled to the few off-campus restaurants that still had power. And those who had cars slogged to the Panera in West Lebanon to find a working electrical outlet so they could finish their papers and problem sets.

Naturally, such a predicament bred a great deal of frustration among those living on campus. Throughout the evening, students could be heard complaining about their inability to eat and do work with a mixture of amusement and anger. In one instance, an irate undergraduate threatened to send her Boloco bill to Parkhurst since she was left without access to the on-campus dining options she had been forced to pay for. In another, a student spoke angrily of not being able to adjust his Non-Recording Option ahead of the midnight deadline and threatened to sue if his GPA were penalized for it.

Although cooler heads ultimately prevailed and no legal or financial action was taken, there is little doubt that reactions like these were comically disproportionate to the circumstances at hand. But while it’s easy to dismiss the above as the drivel of some entitled millennials, much of the frustration that produced these complaints is more reasonable than it might first appear. After all, power outages – much like death and taxes – are one of life’s unfortunate constants that even the most hyper-litigious of Ivy Leaguers have to learn how to live with. But as is true with these others of life’s constants, one can learn a great deal about those around him by how gracefully they handle such inevitabilities when they finally come. And in this case, it seems that Dartmouth has quite a bit of room for improvement in dealing with even the most banal of surprises:

The DDS Difference

This is particularly true of the operating managers at the College’s own food purveyor, Dartmouth Dining Services (DDS). As the proverbial whipping boy of undergraduate culinary savants, DDS has been no stranger to criticism over the years. Whether it is complaints about the inconsistent quality of its meals or public outrage over an admission to its profiteering ways on David Newlove’s LinkedIn page, many undergraduates have found a great deal about their on-campus dining options with which to take umbrage. To their rather long list of grievances, however, many students can safely add yet one more concern: dependability.

During the seven-plus hours that campus was without power, all four of DDS’ main eateries were closed to undergraduate diners (other than to serve up the occasional cold cut in two locations). The only place on campus that remained fully open was King Arthur Flour (KAF), whose third-party management did its best to keep serving students in the dark. After they lost power to their cash registers, its employees opened up their pastry and sandwich case and started giving away leftover food to feed hungry undergraduates. This response contrasts markedly with that of the nearest DDS establishment at Novack Café. There, rather than opening their refrigerators to feed students, they locked them and used empty shelves as Robespierre-style bulwarks to guard against theft. As one Facebook post noted wryly: “[D]uring this power outage, KAF is GIVING AWAY their food whereas Novack has used shelves of food to make barricades. That’s the DDS difference.”

Meal Plan Monopoly

Such a stark example doesn’t just suggest the College’s own food purveyor is more interested in managing toward its bottom line than students’ best interests; it also raises some larger questions about its ability to fulfill its own mandate for food service on campus.

As any undergraduate can tell you, Dartmouth families must buy into one of DDS’ $1,800+ meals plans for each term that their student lives in one of the dorms, Greek houses, or affinity centers on campus. Because the plans are structured around time sensitive meal swipes and non-refundable debit accounts, the College has effectively created a “use-it-or-lose-it” type of culinary system that disincentives eating off-campus and gives the College’s own dining service an enforced monopoly over eating options around the Green.

As The Review has noted elsewhere, this arrangement is far from ideal in even the best of circumstances. But in the event of a power outage, it becomes borderline abusive. Given the structure of the plans, many students were effectively charged for a meal that they had no way of consuming during the seven-hour blackout. Such an arrangement strikes us as rather unreasonable: after all, is it really fair for the College to fail to provide a service that it has already compelled undergraduates to pay for? We at The Review think not, and suggest that next time, before it locks up its fridges and bars access to Novack, DDS should be more concerned with delivering on its pledge to “meet the dining and nutritional needs of campus” before guarding against the occasional missing bag of Sun Chips.

(Em)powering Public Relations

Beyond the moribund failings of DDS, the blackout also had a funny way of spotlighting another peculiar trend on Dartmouth’s campus: the rise of the “public relations state.” As anyone who has been on campus in the last four years can tell you, the College has seen more than its fair share of negative headlines. During that period, the good folks in its communication and public relations division were likely busier than most. But now that most of those negative headlines are a thing of the past (knock on wood), it seems that many of them are still on high alert.

This trend was on display for all to see on Wednesday evening, as revealed by the timeline of campus bulletins:

  • Shortly after the campus lost power, community members received two initial emails from Frank Roberts, Dartmouth’s Associate Vice President of Facilities Operations and Management, assuring them that the College and Liberty Utilities were working on resolving the matter as quickly as possible.
  • A few hours later, as campus remained dark and students’ patience grew increasingly thin, those emails were followed by an update from Director of Safety and Security Henry Kinne, who explained that Liberty Utilities had amended its timeline from “within the hour” to sometime “soon.”
  • By 11:09 PM that evening, however, the unenviable task of updating the campus had moved from the folks in the operations and security offices to the big guns in communications. For the rest of the night, students and staff got word of revised timelines and the ultimate restoration of power not from Mr. Roberts or his facilities staff, but from the College’s recently appointed Vice President of Communications, Justin Anderson.

Although Mr. Anderson and the members of his team seem to be quite good at what they do, we at The Review can’t help but question the rationale for their involvement in transmitting internal messages about a campus power outage. In our minds, this is an issue to be handled by the folks in facilities and operations management, not by the College’s crack public relations squad. Have the events of recent years made Dartmouth so image conscious that it can no longer separate issues of internal infrastructure problems from those of external crisis management? We certainly hope not, but when a routine power outage becomes the purview of “an award-winning broadcast journalist [with thirteen years of experience] at ABC News,” it’s hard not to wonder if only way the College knows how to deal with a problem in the post Lohsean Era involves a PR team.