The RBA Flytrap

As a freshman, I had the audacity to make friends outside of my living group. Only blatant disregard for geographical constraints could have led me to bond with people who lived on the other side of campus. But this distance would not make much of a difference because I could simply switch dormitories during Residence Exploration, right? Not for a freshman temped in Next House. Unfortunately, being “temped” in Next House is equivalent to being “permanently-placed-for-the-first-year” in Next House. This is because Next House comes with the baggage of Residence-Based Advising.

RBA attempts to build a community of students who share the same academic advisor. Yet, in doing so, it severely limits the students’ advisor and seminar options and prohibits them from participating in first-year housing lotteries by forcing co-advisees to live in the same dormitory. However, both RBA dormitories — Next House and McCormick Hall — attempt to emulate the non-RBA system by allowing freshmen to choose where in the dormitories they live. Many students will thus forgo the benefits of living in proximity to their advising group by instead living near their friends. Since both dormitories are quite large, it is possible for a freshman to go through the year without seeing the bulk of his or her advising group.

During REX, my footloose friends were running around to eat fondue at MacGregor, or to Jell-O wrestle at East Campus. Meanwhile, I stood on the sidelines with increasing resentment for the program keeping me out of the advertised freshman experience. I could only speculate about how different my experience might have been if I had been given the prerogative to choose my living group.

The choice provided in REX that allows students to move to wherever they fit best is one of the most exciting parts of the freshmen experience and one of the best-loved memories amongst MIT upperclassmen. Why should such a defining experience be taken away from a select group of freshmen, simply because they are in a particular advising group? Is there any benefit to forcing freshmen to interact with their advising group when they will inevitably choose their own circle of friends?

In last spring’s Undergraduate Association “Dorm Storm” survey, 74 percent of students agreed that RBA should not be mandatory and that its dormitories’ residents should be allowed to participate in REX. That’s 74 percent of the student body, not just students in RBA (though the dormitories polled included Next House). This simply reinforces the idea that those who don’t want to be a part of RBA shouldn’t be held to it. Last semester’s UA Vice President Ruth Miller ’07 wrote, “Mandatory Residence Based Advising strikes me as a black mark in an otherwise warm and sunny orientation system.” She lived in Burton-Conner.

Furthermore, even though the Housing Office maintains that the lottery is completely unbiased and that the lottery algorithm was “developed to maximize happiness,” this tends not to be the case for students who rank RBA dormitories in their top four choices. In response to an entry I wrote earlier about the RBA program, another student commented, “We can divide students into two sets — those that rank RBA dorms in the top four, and those that don’t. The latter set is big enough to fill most of the non-RBA dorms, so the system maximizes happiness by putting the former group of students into RBA dorms. Net result: as Ruth Miller wrote, 83 percent of students that received their third choice dorm got stuck in RBA. The statistics are pretty unambiguous: a student in the RBA flytrap has typically received a lower dorm preference than average. By [Assistant Director of Housing Robin] Smedick’s ‘happiness’ algorithm, RBA students are measurably less happy.” If the RBA-housing combination was truly aimed at maximizing freshmen happiness, it would permit students to move in and out of the program after gaining a feel for the dormitory culture.

While supporters of RBA maintain that the program is only instituted for as long as the students want it, we must question which population of students this statement refers to. It certainly is not the population of current freshmen who must live in Next House or McCormick Hall for all of their first year. A current ’11 wrote to me, “I placed Next as my third choice unknowingly, but it just seems like after so many complaints that they would have done something to change their system. I will be forced to be satisfied with whatever I end up with eventually, but it just seems like they should be willing to show a bit of leniency.” Her roommate agreed, saying, “We were rather foolish to put Next in our top four.”

As a program dedicated to students’ happiness, RBA should be making the students’ needs and experiences their priority. If the mandatory one-year housing rule is not lifted, RBA should at least reassess how to better run the program based on current student opinion. After all, the distinctiveness of dormitory culture is at the very core of MIT student life, from the lemonade-dispensing toilets of East Campus to the falling pianos of Baker House. MIT should not stand to exclude anyone from that — least of all our audacious freshmen.