Drew Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow: The Revolutionary History Of Commons

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In 2012, Drew University was featured on a short list of “The Top Ten Worst Campus Dining Halls” published by Medical Daily. Unfortunately, the ten-year-old list still comes up in conversation among students who complain about the campus food. Yet, many students who host these complaints are unaware of the interesting history of dining on Drew’s campus. Therefore, this week’s article will be dedicated to the rich and surprisingly fascinating history of The Commons, how students fought for dining reform on campus in the late 1960s and how the students of today can do the same! 

Obviously, as long as students have been attending Drew University they have needed to eat. For students in the early 1900s, this meant eating meals in Embury Hall before S.W. Bowne was built to serve as student housing and the main dining area on campus. Early students of the Seminary School and Brothers College were treated to full sit-down service complete with waitstaff. This classy dining experience was realistic for a small student body, but as the Second World War came, so did the Navy. Once Navy men were being housed on Drew’s campus, the waitstaff was done away with.

In the late 50s, dining services were moved to the newly constructed University Center. As college became more mainstream for young Americans, Drew’s student population continued to increase. By the 1960s the University Center Dining Hall, which was able to “comfortably serve” 350-400 people for lunch, was no longer able to keep up with the student body of around 1,200, according to an Oct. 10, 1969 edition of “The Acorn.” Students responded. 

Photo of students enjoying a meal in S.W. Bowne Hall courtesy of the 1945 edition of “The Oak Leaves”.

According to the same edition of “The Acorn,” in protest of the overcrowded conditions, “approximately 250 students brought their food trays to the Mead Hall porch” during their lunchtime to partake in “a student-sponsored ‘eat-in.’’’ These students provided the University with a list of eight demands, which included: “1) expansion of seating facilities for meals into UC, 107, 2) more kitchen utensils, 3) a new belt and a new ‘pig’ 4) functional soda machines 5) a new water cooler 6) waterproofed, electrical equipment 7) more respect for SAGA 8)reduction in admissions until dining facilities expand.” Students, pictured below, occupied the steps of Mead Hall with lunch trays in hand, but their action didn’t stop there. Damages to features of Dining Facilities, such as the water heater, occurred and were reported as “attempted sabotage.” There were also reports of someone on campus stealing nearly 1,000 dining trays following the “Eat-In” outside of Mead Hall. No one was caught or charged for the destruction or theft. 

Students demanding change to the dining experience on campus were met with the promise of a new and improved dining facility once funds were fully available. Still, a student speaking at the Rally was quick to point out that “the new dining hall [was] being used as an excuse not to repair old facilities.” Student demands were met with changes to dining in the UC in an attempt to make mealtimes more enjoyable. The “new dining hall” being promised would turn out to be the University Commons we’re all familiar with today. The new building was estimated to cost $1.6 million according to a Nov. 14, 1969 edition of “The Acorn,” and construction was to begin in March 1970 and take an estimated 15 months to complete. The funds to build The Commons would be secured on a loan from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. While some students felt that their demands for more spacious dining facilities that could seat up to 800 people were met, others saw the problems that the student body would continue to face for the next two years. While the struggle of feeding so many students out of such a small facility continued, the dining company welcomed suggestions from students in order to foster an open line of communication. 

The Commons opened as a dining facility in 1971. Following the construction of the building, a mandatory meal plan was imposed for all students in order to help pay for the new facilities. This meant that all 1,200 students were to be fed out of the same kitchen, but a new dining room meant a more spacious experience. The director of SAGA, the dining company of the time, helped to maintain the open line of communication between the dining service and the student body. Working with the Vice President of Student Government, the director created a poll to determine what students wanted out of their dining experience. 

Photo of students, some with lunch trays in hand, take to the steps of Mead Hall to stage an “Eat-In” in protest of the overcrowded conditions of campus dining facilities courtesy of the 1970 edition of “The Oak Leaves”.

Some students continued with their dining activism even after The Commons was constructed. In 1972, Student Government sponsored a “student lettuce boy-cott in support of the farm workers struggles,” as mentioned in the Oct. 13 edition of “The Acorn” from that year. SAGA’s director did not object but instead reminded the students that it was their right to organize on campus. 

While dining looks quite different today than it did in the late 60s and early 70s, some things remain the same. Drew Students still have a lot to say about the dining experience on campus. With some students paying upwards of $5,000 to eat on campus, they should have a say in the quality, experience and changes they wish to see. 

While protesting the University has largely fallen out of fashion, today’s students do have direct lines of communication with the current dining company Aramark, if they choose to utilize them. They can also speak with Stu Gov’s Dining Concerns Committee, which meets bi-weekly, or they can submit their comments to this form. Students also have access to the manager on duty who can help solve any issues that may arise while they are enjoying their meals. For information on the Manager on Duty when eating in The Commons, check the big sign across from the counter where people swipe in. Dining on campus should remain accessible for all students who have spent their money on meal plans, and hopefully, it will. 

Featured image of students enjoying a meal in the newly contracted commons courtesy of the 1973 edition of “The Oak Leaves”

Jocelyn Freeman is a sophomore triple majoring in History, English, and Chinese

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