With two new dining locations opening in fall 2014 and three more upgrades planned during the next five years, the UT administration knew it needed more students to buy more meal plans.
But after students protested a proposed mandatory meal plan last fall, Dining Services and University Housing went back to the cutting board.
Using the same student feedback that effectively killed the original plan, UT now hopes to enact a new meal policy proposal in Fall 2015 – and the mandatory $300 Dining Dollars remain a factor.
This last component was the cause of student chagrin in November, when the Coalition Against Mandatory Meal Plans gained more than 1,500 Facebook likes and an entire website was devoted to amplifying student feedback. Using the slogan "#DontForceFeedUS," students expressed concerns over the proposal's burden on non-traditional students, lack of flexibility and financial cost.
But Jeff Maples, vice chancellor for finance and administration, and Frank Cuevas, executive director of university housing, think they've met student concerns in the new plan, which, pending Board of Trustees approval, will take effect in fall 2015.
"All the things that students told us they wanted to see changed, we've changed," Maples said. "We listened, and here's the result of that listening."
The current policy requires all Presidential Courtyard residents to buy a meal plan; all other students are free to choose. In 2015, the new policy will require all first year undergraduates who live on campus to purchase a meal plan.
"That's really not much of a change," Cuevas said. "Over 95 percent of on-campus freshman were living in those mandatory halls anyway."
For non-first year students enrolled in at least six credit hours, the policy requires the purchase of $300 Dining Dollars. UT will offer a meal plan that meets the bare minimum, but more expansive meal plans will also meet the $300 requirement.
At the end of each semester, any remaining Dining Dollars will roll into students' All-Star accounts, where they can then request a refund or use the money at participating All-Star locations.
In response to students who have long requested that Dining Dollars be available on the Strip, Maples said he hopes to add Cumberland Avenue restaurants to the list of participating All-Star venues. Though Dining Dollars will remain specific to Aramark retailers, Dining Dollars that roll over into All-Star will become usable at restaurants that agree to work with UT.
"We're going to offer it to any restaurant that wants it," Maples said. "But this gives Aramark the first chance to try to earn your dollars."
After the initial proposal, many students bemoaned the extra $300 they would be required to spend. In the amended plans, Cuevas pointed out that students who refuse to eat on campus can simply re-use the same payment each semester.
"You're only footing out the $300 one time," Cuevas said. "If you don't spend it in the fall semester, you could ask for the refund and apply it to the $300 in the spring.
"And then you can ask for the refund again – it's just managing your funds in a different way."
Changing the Dining Landscape
Meal plans are just the start of what looks to be several years of change in Dining Services. Construction on the new Cumberland Avenue facility is expected to finish by August 1 of this year; it contains a Panda Express and Raising Canes, as well as room for a third retailer in the future. Both will accept meal equivalency.
Also in the fall, the Fred D. Brown Jr. Residence Hall is expected to open, bringing a Tortilla Fresca and a new Subway to the west side of campus. The Subway currently in PCB will be moved so that the neighboring Chik-fil-A can expand from its current, limited menu operation.
Phase 1 of construction on the Student Union is slated for spring 2015 completion, a building that will include Qdoba, Salad Creations, Subway, Chik-fil-A, AFC Express and a Starbucks. Currently, the UC has a capacity of 425 in its eating areas; Phase 1 of the Student Union will have space for 1,200 students.
And by fall of 2016, the residence hall formerly known as Gibbs will be rebuilt, and with it, a 650-seat dining location. Maples said this location will be a "fresh food concept" – everything prepared on sight in front of customers. Aramark has opened similar locations at schools such as Florida State University and the University of Virginia, and Maples expects the concept will be a huge hit. When construction begins on PCB in a few years, there are plans to install a second fresh food concept.
Maples said they have "very little" faculty and staff participation in meal plans, but Cuevas said he thinks the fresh food will be more attractive. The way they see it, the mandatory meal plans and improved dining services will generate a "robust campus community."
"I would love to walk in and see faculty eating with students," Maples said. "The way we have this laid out will be very conducive to that."