Rutgers Dining Scandal
The Disconnect Between Universities, Students, and the Local Community
Most middle class Americans know that putting their children through college can be a massive undertaking. Even as the nation’s economy begins to deteriorate, the cost of a college education continues to increase. Many frustrated individuals seem to believe that the chief goal of most universities is to make a profit rather than to provide an education to its students. While such a claim may seem cynical, maybe there is some truth to such an idea. A recent dining scandal at Rutgers: The State University of New Jersey, seems to hint that economics and not enlightenment is the ruling in the American University.
The scandal involved a charity initiative in the New Brunswick based university that began in mid-December 2009. The program, which was started by Rutgers Alumnus Charlie Kratovil called “Operation Robin Hood” aimed to use the take-out policy at the university’s dining halls to provide food for a local soup kitchen. Rutgers’ dining policy allows students to use their pre-paid meal swipes to either eat buffet style in the university’s dining halls or take out a limited amount of food in special containers. Kratovil and others working on the project simply had students donate several of these containers to his organization, which would then ferry them to a local soup kitchen.
The plan seemed perfect, since almost every Rutgers student has a surplus of meal-swipes at the end of each semester, and these swipes are prepaid and do not roll over to the next semester. The money which many of these students had paid for the meals would not go to waste. Instead, they would go to hungry mouths in a region of Central Jersey which has been hit hard by the recent economic downturn. However, university officials shut down the operation after only two days, when members of the charity organization were escorted out of the Brower Commons dining hall for soliciting illegally. More suspiciously, however, the school discontinued its takeout policy, which had been intact for many years prior to this incident. While many may see the police involvement as merely a security issue, students and many faculty at the college believe that the cancellation of the takeout policy is proof that the school’s motivations were economic.
One Rutgers sophomore remarked, “We already paid for the meals, it’s not like they give us money back for the meal swipes we used , or let us use them in the next semester… they’re our meals, we paid for them and we should be able to do whatever we want with them.”
Indeed, the meals, which have been purchased by students and their families and paid for in advance do belong to the students. The university should not only allow the students to donate their meals to a charity if they wish to, but it should expect that they will use all of their meal swipes. The fact that the university withdrew its takeout program is a strong indication that the sudden increase in food being consumed was the primary concern. This means that the university did not expect the students to use up all of their meal swipes: essentially indicating that most students’ meal plans were a vehicle for money making rather than a beneficial service.
The scandal has, however, shown many glaring problems with the mentality of University administrations. First is the fact that Rutgers administration so swift in responding to students using their full quota of meal swipes, which shows that the university, a state university at that, was looking to make a profit by charging students for meals that they would not use. Indeed, this has been among many recent shortcomings by the university in terms of student services, which have included a decrease in scholarships to the school as well as many temporary housing areas to house overflow from the college’s overcrowded dorms.
Central New York is home to 8 college campuses, including Ithaca’s own Cornell University, which recently announced many changes in infrastructure which will supposedly alleviate its losses from the economic downturn. However, after seeing how one university made its economic decisions, Ithaca residents, students, and university employees may care to take more than just a cursory look at local colleges’ plans.
Finally, this story shows a great disconnect between university bureaucracy and their local community. New Jersey, which is an overwhelmingly middle class state, has been affected very strongly by the collapse of the financial, technology, and pharmaceutical sectors, which employ a large number of state residents. The fact that Rutgers chose to maintain a dining policy which not only overcharged students, but also prevented efforts to support the local poor is evidence of the growing divide between the nation’s wealthy and its middle class. From this scandal to the recent bailout of many spendthrift corporations, residents of Central Jersey, Central New York, or any other part of America should be aware of this growing problem.