As you may have noticed during Parents’ Weekend, the folks tend to be impressed with odd aspects of our school. Particularly noticeable are their expressions upon entering one of UC Santa Barbara’s finer dining halls; it’s as if the huddled masses had just reached Ellis Island. After the initial shock wears off, they proceed to give a grim verbal picture of the eating conditions in their day. According to my dad, you were lucky if you could choke down your industrial sloppy Joe before anyone put a cigarette out in your milk.

We’re told to appreciate the “luck” that has been bestowed upon us by decent cafeterias, but aren’t they exactly what one would expect? As time passes, humanity advances. Just as our streets are no longer covered in horse excrement, our academic cuisine is no longer limited to rubbery veal and, for the vegetarians, peanut butter. Civilization, as it always seems to do, has improved, and with it have our qualitative demands on college food. To remain competitive, universities must now offer some modicum of gastronomic enjoyment, but do they truly excel? More importantly, should they?

It can be fun to identify the incentives bearing on our beloved dining halls, preferably over a plate of their food. On the simplest level of reasoning, it would seem that they have no incentive to make their food anything more than technically edible; after all, the meal plan requirements mean that a sizable portion of their clientele – the on-campus freshmen – is guaranteed. Why not make it easy and just let the apple-cheeked neophytes subsist on stale rye and gruel?

As cost-effective as such a menu might be, word would eventually get around, slowing applications to a trickle. The high school graduates dead-set on becoming Gauchos would opt for an early off-campus life so as to avoid having to purchase 19 trays of crust and slop every week. The very existence of the dining halls would then be obviated in favor of local eateries. Not only would the run on Freebirds likely cause a riot or two, but the removal of on-campus food service jobs would engender massive unemployment among the students who, God bless ’em, don’t want to take a drug test.

So the comestibles provided by the dining commons shouldn’t be patently awful. However, they can’t exactly try for a Zagat 30, either. Because of the flat-price structure, the hungry student’s incentive is to ingest as much as possible so as to minimize his cost per unit of food. If his dining hall of choice is serving, for example, white tiger sushi slow-roasted over moon rocks, he can easily increase the value of what he consumes well beyond the amount he pays. Great for him, but the management won’t be thrilled.

Thus, the situation – let’s call it “The Tragedy of the Dining Commons” (apologies to Hardin) – is this: while they risk extinction by serving cardboard-like fodder, they face a similar fate by offering excessively delicious chow of which the prepaying student will, quite rationally, eat hugely expensive amounts. The target, then, is a vaguely defined point somewhere between “crappy” and “pleasantly surprising” on the tastiness spectrum. It has got to be enjoyable enough to keep the kids coming back, but not so much so that they’ll run roughshod over the already-subsidized budget.

The consequences are amusing. Goodness-but-not-greatness isn’t an easy mark to hit, though on certain days – white sheet cake, anyone? – the dining halls seem to have it down to a science. At the same time, students do their damnedest to maximize their utility with the incentives presented them. Brownies, for instance, are cheap to produce. They’re also just appetizing enough that some repeatedly return for more, at no additional cost. The intersection of these conditions results in the girl across the room who, bricks of chocolate stacked five high on her plate, wonders why she’s fallen victim to the freshman 15. The college environment may change, but, alas, the traditions stay the same.

Daily Nexus columnist Colin Marshall wanted this column to be good, but not great.