On Monday of last week, I received a petition requesting that Baker College not restrict the hours of access to the Baker servery and commons during the lunch period.

On Monday of last week, I received a petition requesting that Baker College not restrict the hours of access to the Baker servery and commons during the lunch period. I take all concerns seriously, even if raised by a single student. In this case, the petition was signed by over 460 students. Since this demonstrates that the issue is of interest to many students, in addition to replying to the author of the petition, I have asked the Thresher to publish my reply in full so that I can share my thoughts with everyone.

 

On frequent occasions, conflicts arise between the interests of individuals and the interests of the larger community. These arise in everyday life and they arise at Rice. In these cases, the conflict is not a question of who is right and who is wrong. Rather, the conflict is a disagreement in a value judgment about the relative importance of the needs of the individual in comparison to the needs of the community. That value judgment can and does vary from case to case and from person to person. Indeed, an individual person may place greater value on the needs of the individual in one case and greater value on the needs of the community in another. This depends on one’s value system and the specific circumstances of the conflict. There is room for reasonable disagreement in virtually all such cases.

 

The issue of access to the Baker servery and commons presents us with one such case. The petition reflects the view that the interests of individual students in having unrestricted access to the Baker servery and commons supersede the interests of the Baker College community, and I do not dispute these concerns. That said, in this case, I disagree with placing these individual interests above the interests of the college community. In fact, to disagree directly with the petition, I believe it is the demand to place individual convenience over the college community which “undercuts many of the core principles that underlie the foundations of Rice,” rather than a limit on access undercutting those principles.

 

The lives of students at Rice have, for decades, been grounded on the strengths of their college communities. For the vast majority of students, these communities are both the pre-eminent strength of the Rice undergraduate experience and a major factor in their success both at Rice and after college. Indeed, we have turned to and relied on those communities just in the past two weeks.

 

Based on the values long expressed by our students, the university has invested heavily in supporting these communities with new facilities and sizable college government budgets, in addition to enormous investment of the time and talent of the college masters, resident associates, head resident fellows and coordinators. The goal of these investments has been the enrichment of the college experience.

 

In particular, we recognized 15 years ago that the opportunity to take meals together was vital to building strong communities, and we began a massive and expensive effort to create spaces to support that experience. The construction of 11 separate commons for dining and six shared or separate serveries, including bringing in talented chefs to encourage healthy social dining, has created for Rice students a community support structure unmatched at other universities.

 

In addition, we encourage students from different colleges to socialize over meals, which is why we permit the flow of students from servery to servery.  However, the goal of these efforts was never to create a campus-wide food court (to borrow a phrase from a former college master), where students ignore their own colleges in search of either convenience or taste. That result would be a threat to the social foundation of the college communities.

 

How then do we balance individual interests against the high priority given the college system by generations of students, faculty, staff and administrators?  An appropriate balance is created by the compromise proposed by Baker College and supported by me and the college masters and presidents. All students may still choose to have lunch at Baker. They simply need to wait a few minutes until 12:15, when the traffic has subsided. Or, if that timing is inconvenient, they can have lunch at the other five serveries. Or, if they are having lunch with a friend at Baker, they simply need to accompany that friend. The impacts of these restrictions are very minor when weighed against the real harm being created to the sense of community and interconnection at Baker College by excessive crowds. I am guided in this by the observations and wisdom of the Baker College masters.

 

In summary, if the demand from some students to eat wherever they want and whenever they want without even minimal constraint is indeed more important to the student body than the preservation of a college community, then I am concerned about what that means about the values of the Rice community.  And although I respect the effort that went into the petition, I remain committed to the importance of preserving the college community, and I will support the enforcement Baker College’s reasonable lunch rules.