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ResEd’s Response to Suites Residents and Stanford Students

Note: For Miles Unterreiner’s response to this piece, click here.

We appreciate the passions expressed these past few days about the future of the Governor’s Corner Dining Societies (GCDS) that serve the 250 residents of the Suites. It is clear that students care deeply about the chefs in the Suites, and that even more of you are passionate about preserving student management and independence in operating the dining societies and elsewhere on campus. Having worked with student management for the better part of a decade, that is music to my ears.

While I spoke to some students yesterday afternoon, many of those in attendance were frustrated by my answers. Many were also thoughtful and reflective and stayed to speak with me about the realities of operating student management in a large, complex University system.

For those of you who weren’t there, I wanted to provide the facts of the matter and explain the dilemma of the University as it relates to the GCDS. And in full disclosure, I was a resident of the Suites and as chef Tony suggested yesterday, I enjoyed and benefited from the dining societies myself. I understand what students are seeking to preserve but given contemporary challenges we cannot simply say “it worked well for thirty years, leave us alone we don’t want to change it.”

I say this because the University is operating within many new realities, including an increasingly litigious society and increasing legislation, regulations and mandates. All the while, the service expectations of our students and parents are also increasing. And our responsibilities to maintain health and safety, and to assure financial accountability, remain.

In Residential Education we work very hard to support Stanford’s long-time tradition of providing students with management learning experiences and decision-making autonomy even when the model isn’t the most efficient or cost-effective. It is, however, more and more difficult for any entities to operate independently on campus without more university oversight and controls.

In the case of the Suites, the current student-management model operating the GCDS has faced difficulty. While more recently student leadership of the GCDS has worked hard to enact University recommendations stemming from an internal audit that took place three years ago, when we initially outlined our concerns we felt the refrain was overwhelmingly ‘just leave us alone, it works fine the way it is.’

Yesterday many students expressed frustration that it takes a protest or a petition to get the administration to listen or to prompt compromise, but it works the other way around too. As I said to Miles [Unterreiner] after the rally, we have worked with GCDS management for the last two years trying to address legitimate concerns outlined in that University audit, and when students come to the table with ‘leave us alone,’ it’s hard to make progress.

We have come a long way but it has not been easy. Many of you asked for the truth. The truth is the University is currently defending three lawsuits related to the dining societies. Additionally, as ResEd has worked to incorporate a structure that meets University expectations while preserving student management we also have had to lend funds to the GCDS in order for them to be solvent and make payroll.

Its student managers have been reticent to discuss real strategies to reduce costs and to ask beloved chefs difficult questions about their compensation packages, compensation that was set at time when the GCDS did not have to respond to the trend in litigiousness I reference above.

We understand that GCDS wants to pay their chefs well, but the current Suites food service model is expensive to operate – more expensive by $600-per-student-per-year than what students in most residences pay for board. Causing further concern is that the University has to provide a greater subsidy to Suites students who receive financial aid.

These are just some of the complications that ResEd and the Governor’s Corner Dining Society student managers have been working to try to overcome during the past two years. We haven’t found a workable long-term solution but, as I also told Miles [Unterreiner] yesterday, I think we might be closer than we both thought.

We would also like to state that of the various conspiracy theories circulating about the rationale for changes, none are true. Our dilemma is simply a matter of balancing students’ desire for independence with the University’s obligations to mitigate risk for all concerned and to be accountable for the money paid by families and through financial aid.

We do not believe we have been acting in error in our attempts to address the aforementioned issues, but you’re right – we need to be able to state clearly where the concerns are and provide examples not just to GCDS leadership but to Suites residents as well.

We want the most robust, rewarding and well-run system possible, and we welcome recommendations from the Suites residents about the best way to preserve as much of the independent model as possible, while meeting the modern-day requirements of our legal, structural and financial realities.

The current GCDS managers have not expressed confidence that it can be done in the short term. But there are student-management models on campus such as Stanford Student Enterprises (SSE), in which students make independent management decisions, but are also accountable to an advisory board of University staff and officials. Perhaps there are best practices from SSE that can be adopted for the Suites. Or maybe something completely new.

We want to be clear that we do want the Suites experience to be a successful and rewarding one. We are optimistic about the possibilities if students are willing to hear all sides of the argument and collaborate with us to address tough questions.

Moving forward, we look forward to working together to preserve as many learning opportunities and experiences for student management as possible, while still meeting our responsibilities to all students and abiding by the rules of a host of regulatory entities. And all while not exposing the University – or its student managers – to unnecessary risk.

Thank you for your ongoing interest and passion to be involved in finding a solution.

Nate Boswell ‘99 M.A. ‘09
Associate Dean, Residential Education

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