Solving the World's Problems, One Pizza at a Time

One of the major reasons universities say they encourage the use of dining halls by students is to promote "community." That's nice, but it's one thing to get strangers who have no particular hostility toward each other to sit down and share a meal. It's something else when there is active animus based on politics, history, etc.

Which brings me to a fascinating piece I saw the other day. The article, titled "The Two-Station Solution for Campus Conflict," was written by Zeb Hurwitz, a Jewish student at the University of California-San Diego (UCSD) and describes a joint advocacy project between the school's Union of Jewish Students and its Muslim Student Association to increase the offerings of kosher and halal foods in UCSD campus dining halls. He was happy to report that as a result of their combined efforts, UCSD will be opening an all-halal dining venue with a separate station for kosher food preparation in 2016.

Kudos to UCSD and its dining services department for making it happen and especially kudos to the students from both sides of this contentious divide for putting their differences aside and working toward a common goal that benefits everyone. Universities have long maintained that their mission goes beyond simple "book learning" and encompasses a social education in which students experience interaction with a diverse set of peers. And that is where a campus dining service becomes more than a simple meal-delivery vehicle and becomes a facilitator of dialogue and a way to share a pleasant experience.

Consider that, despite the economic downturn, a number of major universities are in the process of implementing long-range plans to increase residential student populations. This was mentioned a number of times by schools as we were researching our College Power Players feature last year.

For example, at The Ohio State University, beginning next year sophomores as well as freshmen will be required to live on campus, meaning a significant bump in the residential student population at that huge school, where the longstanding tradition had been to flee to off-campus digs as soon as it was allowed (i.e., after freshman year). I recently visited the University of Mississippi, where a similar program is underway to increase on-campus housing.

The stated motive in both cases, as well as in others with similar ambitions, is to decrease the centrifugal force living off campus exerts on campus community by not only having students live together but eat together, as these schools generally require resident students to purchase meal plans that emphasize eating in communal dining halls. So less grab-and-go-back-to-the-dorm-room/apartment and more sitting down at a table with people you don't know but may find you like if you just say a few words to each other, whether they're wearing a yarmulke, a hijab, a crucifix or Thor's hammer.

Cynics will say another motive is to increase housing and meal plan revenues. Maybe. I can't speak for the motives of administrators as I don't often interact with them. But I do speak to dining directors on a regular basis and the overwhelming impression I get from them is a genuine desire to see their operations be catalysts for campus community. They crave that hospitality high that comes from pleasing customers they get to know because they see them regularly. You can't get that slinging grub in a corner QSR.

Moreover, just from a self-interest standpoint, in this era of remote control living where online education options are increasingly viable and attractive for a variety of reasons, universities need to have a differentiator. If your whole focus is the classroom, don't be surprised if students turn to lower cost and more convenient alternatives. But if it's the "college experience" and all the enrichment that goes with it from living and interacting with people different from you, then that communal living and dining component becomes a critical factor in marketing the in-person college experience.

It may be even more critical today, as illustrated by the example I started this rather lengthy screed with. Our interconnected world increasingly requires us to (at least) "just get along" with each other, and that starts with a simple hello. For young people, this is especially important as it will be their world to maintain after we old fogies pass from the scene. It would help considerably if they had some nice experiences in their early years, of meeting representatives of The Other and finding that they don't have horns on their heads or firebombs in their pockets…and they like anchovies on their pizza too!

U.S. college campuses are more diverse than ever as more schools look overseas to supplement their enrollments in the face of falling native birthrates. And in fact, many schools now brag about the number of countries represented in their student bodies. That's great but what makes it even better is if those international students mingle with native-born students and find that elusive common ground. Maybe even over anchovy pizza at the dining hall...

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