Columns

Weinstein ’17: Proposed Ratty renovations reveal wrong priorities

By
Opinions Columnist
Thursday, February 12, 2015

After five years of discussion, proposals to renovate the Sharpe Refectory are moving along, as The Herald reported last week. Part of President Christina Paxson’s P’19 strategic plan, renovations would likely include a remodeling of the dining room, as well as the electrical, plumbing, heating and ventilation systems. Though these alterations could yield some positive improvements like new stations and more variety, a complete overhaul of the Ratty is unnecessary and likely very expensive.

First, there’s a lot of good to say about the Ratty as it is now. It’s the home of many Brown traditions: Fratty in the Ratty, the Ratty Challenge and Gail, to name a few. The square tables promote conversation; the chairs are comfortable. There’s always something edible, a variety of options and as much to eat as one could want.

Not to get too philosophical, but the Ratty is filled with symbolic harmonies: the square tables in a square building and the four food lines balancing each other in symmetry. The light filtering in through the windows, though its source is seldom noticed. The weird hanging circles, which I assume exist to dampen the ambient noise. The Ratty is, if you really think about it, a miracle of civilization.

Not only that, it’s a miracle of civilization that has been largely consistent for 50 years. It’s something generations of Brown students have experienced, something they all have in common. It’s one of few things that ties current Brown students — so different in so many ways — all together. It’s a place many people think of with nostalgia as soon as they go off meal plan.

On a more practical level, some of the arguments made for renovating the Ratty are flawed.

While the Ratty does have long lines during the lunch rush, so do Andrews Dining Commons and sometimes the Blue Room. When so many students have a lunch break at the same time, a line is unavoidable.

Next, there’s the argument that Undergraduate Council of Students President Maahika Srinivasan ’15 told The Herald that Ratty fare is so boring that “we’re looking at four days in a row of serving grilled cheese.” That’s a hyperbole. There’s usually grilled cheese once a week, often on Sunday evening. Everyone knows that. And sure, the Ratty could add another station or two. Sounds great. But that’s a tweak, not  a full-scale renovation.

One of the proposals for the renovation is a seating plan that would allow students both on and off meal plan to sit together. That idea, while admirable, seems both unnecessary and far-fetched. Andrews Commons, the Blue Room, the Ivy Room and Josiah’s are all better venues for students off meal plan to purchase food than the Ratty would be. It seems more realistic to expect that off meal plan students would purchase food than that they would bring their own. 

Could the Ratty be configured to be more friendly to students off meal plan? Sure. Does it have to be, given all the other options that exist? No.

Ultimately, the decision to renovate isn’t just about taste — literal or aesthetic — but about priorities. The Ratty works just fine, some would say better than fine. Instead of the renovation, the money could be used to improve the Ratty in other ways, like adding berries to the fresh fruit selection or adding more grass-fed meats. Or it could be put into other areas, like dorm renovations or financial aid. It’s not that the Ratty should never, ever change, but that a complete gutting of the Ratty is not the best use of limited University resources.

Provost Vicki Colvin told The Herald that Brown should strive to make dining a larger part of campus life, like at peer institutions. She cited the example of Princeton’s eating clubs, which, unlike the Ratty, are private. While I’m all for Brown facilitating student life, not every University decision needs to be about keeping up with the Joneses.

In fact, that kind of thinking can get very expensive, very quickly. Striving to match every other university in every aspect may prove financially impossible and even disastrous. While facilities are unquestionably important, the renovation budget ought to account for the 4.4 percent tuition hike recently approved by the Corporation and the projected $4.4 million operating deficit for fiscal year 2016.

When the University replaced the old Gate with Andrews Commons, it cost a whopping $56 million for more dining options and a new location that some students find aesthetically distasteful. The Ratty renovation would likely be even more expensive, since it would include a remodeling not just of the dining room, but also of the electrical, plumbing, heating and ventilation systems. That’s according to Richard Bova, senior associate dean of residential life and dining services. Clearly, we’re not talking about chump change here.

Hey, Dean Bova, if you’re looking for other suggestions, I wouldn’t mind some more Cajun chicken pasta.

Duncan Weinstein ‘17 can be reached at duncan_weinstein@brown.edu.

  • PPP

    Gail is a person not a tradition you jerk