Mills ’15: Let’s talk about the Ratty

Opinions Columnist
Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Sixty-five years ago the Sharpe Refectory opened its doors on our campus. No space has had more of an impact on the daily lives of Brunonians since. We eat there, we socialize there, we study there and some of us even work there. I would bet that by the time we graduate, we will have entered the Ratty far more times than any other University building.  I eat most of my 20 meals a week at the Ratty — I’ve never gone to class 20 times in a week, and I’ve never been to practice 20 times in a week.

The Ratty shapes our experience at Brown. Despite claims by Ratty apologists like my fellow columnist Duncan Weinstein ’17, it’s badly in need of renovation. But behold, that renovation is coming.

In President Christina Paxson’s P’19 strategic plan, “Building on Distinction,” one of the bullet points under the heading of “Campus Development” states that the “Sharpe Refectory and a number of residence halls are long overdue for renovation.” It’s about time.

Since Paxson released the strategic plan in October 2013, the University has been planning for a renovation of the Ratty. Administrators hired an outside consultant, Envision Strategies, to run student focus groups and compile data about the dining environment at Brown. You may remember taking an online survey last February or March as part of this process. It will not be a quick affair — as a senior, I know I will never see a new Ratty.

But it is imperative that we, as students, voice our opinions. I don’t want to be dramatic and claim that the Ratty has the capacity to define your experience at Brown, but it will certainly play a larger role than any other physical structure.

I don’t think the University is unprepared or unwilling to think long and hard and make the right decisions regarding the future of dining at Brown. We have excellent administrators running our food service, from Brown Dining Services Director Gretchen Willis all the way to the student managers and cashiers.

But we have a responsibility to future students and ourselves to make sure this project is done right. As a student body, we have demonstrated an excellent capacity to make our voices heard. We often exercise this right when we feel we have been wronged. Let us exercise it to make sure the University gets this project right — really right. If the University gets it wrong, students are going to pay for it with their wallets, stomachs and social lives. There is potential to damage or destroy the most-used communal space on campus, and doom 50 years of Brunonians to cold food and long lines. This issue should have its place in our conversations.

The way that we dine affects every facet of our lives. When I was in high school, I got tired of eating in the school cafeteria. We had fairly standard fare: hamburgers, pizza, small cartons of milk and the occasional steamed vegetable. But I couldn’t take it anymore. I was done with eating reheated and deep-fried food, so I asked my mom if she would pack a lunch for me. Within a month, I started to realize that I actually felt better. I could stay awake in class, I didn’t have a 2 p.m. crash, I was rowing faster in practice and so on. In subtle but clear ways, the food I was eating was improving my lived experience.

Dining is also a profoundly social experience, and part of planning for a new dining hall is making sure it functions as a social hub. Breaking bread and sharing a meal are some of the easiest ways to form bonds of friendship and community. I remember when I was a first-year, one of the easiest ways to make friends was to ask someone to go get something to eat. I still try to get lunch or dinner with the people I want to stay close with. I’m not saying that by not talking about the Ratty we’re going to lose our ability to do those things, or that we have poor quality food now. It’s just that the food we eat and the spaces we use to socialize are going to be shaped by the new Ratty. This project has the power to change what we eat, how we eat and how we interact.

Part of my inspiration for this column were three pieces that ran in The Herald recently: a Jan. 27 article on the Ratty renovation, a Feb. 3 editorial and the aforementioned column by Weinstein. I understand The Herald is not the sole indicator of what students are talking about, but it is a good barometer.

If you want to get more involved in the conversation, there are myriad ways to do so. The Undergraduate Council of Students just unveiled a feedback platform, WTF Brown, that allows users to make suggestions related to dining or other concerns, and the Ratty now has a suggestion box near the entrance. You can also join UCS to engage with administrators more directly or apply in the spring appointments process for any of the committees that have a say in the project, such as Residential Council, the Brown University Community Council or the Campus Life Advisory Board.

This project could be the largest and most expensive construction project that the University undergoes in the next decade. The old Ratty is still serving students after 65 years of operation; we’re talking a hundred million meals over the last half-century. I want to be a part of the conversation about what is going to be built to serve the next hundred million meals. Don’t you?

Walker Mills ’15 is chair of the UCS Campus Life Committee and would love to keep talking about dining via

  • too boring!

    “The Ratty shapes our experience at Brown. Despite claims by Ratty apologists like my fellow columnist Duncan Weinstein ’17, it’s badly in need of renovation.”

    There’s more to life than this, Walker. Free your mind.