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There are days when I want to deliver marijuana to whomever is in charge of this University, so that they need not plead mere stupidity when they are asked to account for their actions. Tuesday was such a day. Penn announced that all freshmen will be charged $3,444 for a 17 meals-per-week plan -- proceeds to benefit Dining Services -- because not enough students were paying voluntarily. Actually, the decision wasn't announced, it was discovered. And the student Dining Advisory Board didn't have a clue. Funny how bad news never gets its own press conference. This is not, however, a column about crime reporting. It is a column about crime. In this case, the crime of mugging. The victims are two in number: the freshman class and the profiteering U of P. This is their story. Dining Services has a problem. As students eat more meals in dining halls, they become less likely to sign up for another meal plan. The drop-off is particularly sharp between the first and second semester of freshman year. As a result, Dining Services is perennially cash-poor and customer-short. Now, if you are reading this while sober, you will probably conclude that the problem is some combination of bad food, high prices and the fact that variety is the spice of life. The role of bad food and high prices is fairly intuitive. As for variety: meal plan or no, there will always be times when it is easier to stop by a food truck or more enjoyable to head out to a restaurant with friends. In all seriousness, there is a word for people who have the time and the inclination to eat 17 times a week at Dining Services. That word is unaffiliated. If you have a work-study job, participate in an extracurricular activity or play a varsity sport -- hell, if you're taking five classes and have midterms next week -- there is no way you have the time for 17 meals a week at Stouffer Commons. Penn officials are, of course, oblivious to this brand of common sense. From their perspective, it is readily apparent that the real problem lies with the student body and its incomprehensible refusal to deliver sufficient quantities of appetite and money to Dining Services. The solution is obvious: Remove the opportunity for error. Unfortunately, upperclassmen could not be saved. They are already creatures of habit, and more likely to cry "Wolf!" at any rate. And then there are freshmen. Gullible freshmen. Freshmen with parents who will pay for anything. A perfect market for high-price, low-quality PennFood. Tour guides have been instructed to sell the plan to prospectives trooping across the campus this month, but that's hardly necessary. What's another $4K between you and your alma mater? Not much, perhaps, but students aren't the only ones being hurt by this idiocy. In the long run, Penn is also damaging its own ability to provide high-quality service. Other than truth, justice and the American way, that is the most important reason why mandatory dining plans are a bad idea. Allowing people to spend their meal money as they please encourages Dining Services to keep prices low and quality high. Competing with food trucks and local restaurants for student business is a good way to keep Penn's leaden bureaucracy on its toes. Forcing students to underwrite dining operations irrespective of their quality is an equally good way to ensure that nothing ever changes for the better. There are already too many reasons for Dining Services not to care what students think. For starters, the dining halls have an inherent advantage over other sources of food: they remain the only place on campus where your parents and/or financial aid package will pay for your dinner. They remain a good place to see friends. And sometimes, an unlimited amount of mediocre food is exactly what's needed. Now, with the impending death of competition, there is even less reason to take students seriously. And any incentive to keep prices down or food quality high goes right out the window. Which brings me to today's fortune cookie: The right to blackmail students is like the right to shoot yourself. It is best exercised with extreme caution. And never while high.

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