Culinary Institute Of America Provost Responds To Protest

Tuesday, The New York Times reported that about 90 students at the Culinary Institute of America were protesting the supposed lowering of education standards at the culinary institution. Since then, the debate on the worth of going to culinary school, and whether the industry has been inundated with wannabe celebrity chefs, has been revived, as the students not only voiced their opinion on the quality of education, but also the cost.

We called up CIA provost Mark Erickson yesterday to chat about what he felt The New York Times article misrepresented, what changes he is looking into, and whether or not he feels the desire for celebrity chefdom has permeated the students. And while Erickson feels that some issues are based on false information, he does note that he will be looking into being more liberal with student dining options (currently, the dining plan is almost a part of the curriculum), and being more strict about the dress code. "We want the students to have a voice but we also want the students to use their voice based upon facts and informed opinion," Erickson said.

The Daily Meal: So what exactly were your reservations about what The New York Times reported?
Mark Erickson:
By our calculations there were 73 students [The New York Times reported 90] out there at the largest gathering. That represents less than 4 percent of the students; it's more than what anybody would like, but it's a pretty small percentage of our student body.

TDM: One of their concerns was that the requirements for incoming students have become lax.
The indicators that you would track, like high school GPA, high school class rate, and, we don't require SATs but more and more students have submitted them, they have risen to some degree. Some students seem to be of the thinking that we have eliminated the work experience requirement, which is actually not true. [We require] six months of relevant work experience, as it has been for the past 14 years.

TDM: Did you end up changing rules for relevant work experience?
For a brief period of time back in the '90s we required one year of work experience. But the thing we did change within this past year was we opened relevant work experience to include front-of-house experience, so working as a waiter or as a server or as a bus boy in a restaurant... We want our students to come to this institution understanding the rigor of this industry, and [front-of-house experience is] relevant because students who work in the front of the house are demonstrating the same level of commitment and rigor that somebody in the back of the house persists with.

TDM: Well, students also felt that others were simply there to become celebrity chefs.
There may be a student here or there who has stars in their eyes when it comes to the potential of being a food celebrity. And it's not impossible. Just like every young person who plays football maybe wishes they'll be the next Peyton Manning. But I think if they're honest with themselves they recognize that the reality of that happening is very slim. We're very realistic with our students; that's why work experience is so important. This isn't an industry of glamour but it's very rewarding

TDM: So many students don't "make it big" so to speak, yet they invest so much money in the education. What did you think of students displaying their student loans?
I think the topic of the cost of higher education has become part of a national conversation. I think when one really digs into the facts of the costs of higher education versus the long-term return, the math is still very convincing. There's a difference between how people define the term chef. If you're talking about cooking in line some place you may not need to go to culinary school. But getting a solid education in the culinary arts that also includes business skills? There's no doubt in my mind that an individual with that kind of background is going to accelerate more quickly and have a greater opportunity to rise to levels of leadership.

TDM: Do you feel some students were justified in thinking there was a decline in the student body?
Some of the other things are in some ways the kinds of things that you would expect to see, where one generation thinks that the next generation has it easier. Most of those gathered yesterday were upperclassmen and they're looking at students coming in as freshman. "Oh, these students aren't as good as us, aren't as committed as we were." That pervades probably any institution. I think I have a qualified opinion, in my 36 years since I graduated from the CIA and since 1984 when I became a faculty member here. I can tell you that the quality of our student body has never been stronger.