May 17, 2013

Don’t sugar-coat it

In light of recent dining hall health code issues, UChicago Dining’s explanations prioritize public image over honest accountability.

One of the intangible benefits that every college likes to claim to provide to students is “improved communication skills.” This claim is vague enough to be irrefutable. Provided with enough writing assignments and sufficiently dedicated teaching assistants, most students should be able to exit college with the ability to string together sentences that conform to the conventions of Standard English, perhaps with a fancier vocabulary to boot. However, higher education’s ability to teach communication skills goes beyond papers and slick classroom presentations: Another important pedagogical tool is that of showing by example. Alas, in the case of UChicago Dining, examples of questionable communication practices are as plentiful as the significant health violations recorded by city inspectors over the last few months.

Back in December, UChicago Dining posted a Cathey Dining Commons Closure FAQ on its Web site that said, in part, “We will…solicit more regular feedback through our student advisory groups regarding how they and their peers are experiencing the dining commons.” I think we can all agree that soliciting feedback is great. Students in recent months have been unstinting in sharing their opinions about campus dining.

It should be noted, though, that soliciting feedback is not quite the same as responding to feedback. The more recent Cathey and Bartlett Dining Commons City Inspection FAQ really embodies what Jim Carrey’s character declares in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: “Constantly talking isn’t necessarily communicating.” My favorite part of the FAQ is this question: “Is Aramark receiving preferential treatment because of a longstanding relationship with the University?” Though “frequently asked questions” is not an expression to be taken literally, I get the impression that the original questions were posed rather differently. It appears that UChicago Dining is obliquely referring to students’ questions about a potential conflict of interest due to Aramark’s former CEO sitting on the University’s Board of Trustees. That’s a heck of a lot more specific than how UChicago Dining phrased the question.

The analysis of the University’s relationship with Aramark is probably best left to those who are more familiar with business than I, but I’d like to further explain my quibble with UChicago Dining’s practices. My stance on taking questions is that one ought to either answer them directly or reject them outright if they do not seem to merit a response. Coming up with new questions that one would rather answer is not a useful approach to anyone else. Reading the dining hall FAQ is like reading something that was written with a kind of reverse Quick-Quotes Quill: Instead of using a pen that twists innocent remarks into tawdry rumors, UChicago Dining turns specific criticisms into bland statements. UChicago Dining isn’t communicating; it’s managing public relations.

Given the state of communications between students and UChicago Dining, you have to wonder whether there are obstacles to communication within UChicago Dining as well. In a message posted in April, the UChicago Dining Web site stated, “The fact that we had two sets of violations in the same facility during the same academic year, especially after the rigorous steps taken last fall, raises questions we cannot fully answer.” Who formulated these “rigorous steps”? Who was accountable for ensuring that these “rigorous steps” were taken? And by whose standard are we judging these steps to have been, in fact, “rigorous”? Perhaps not everyone was on the same page as to what would be sufficient to prevent future health code violations. Throughout the various missives posted on the dining hall Web site, no individuals take responsibility for the failed inspections. You won’t find “the buck stops here”–style statements anywhere.

UChicago students have been criticized for how they’ve chosen to communicate their complaints about dining (e.g., via posts on the Overheard at UChicago Facebook group), but I think that they deserve credit for clearly expressing what changes they would like to see, such as cleaner food-preparation areas. In contrast, UChicago Dining seems to be deliberately obfuscatory. Responding with boilerplate is not going to regain the confidence of students. It feels as though we are merely being humored when we provide feedback. The University may be teaching us how to communicate in our courses, but it’s teaching a very different lesson in the “real world.”

Jane Huang is a third-year in the College.