Student Living Demands Student Input

As we students enjoy a passing resemblance to having lives and would be delighted to contribute meaningfully to MIT’s decisions regarding how students live — that is to say, regarding housing — we are continually dismayed at how little attention the administration pays to student input. But are we surprised? A reading of The Tech’s archives suggests that even “ten-yeared” students should be anything but.

In 1994, there were plans to renovate East Campus and Senior House and convert them to graduate housing. Many students were concerned about the loss of tradition, and then-Undergraduate Association President Vijay P. Sankaran ’95 said that “the students in Senior House and East Campus weren’t consulted in this decision at all” (The Tech, Nov. 8, 1994). According to Sankaran, then-Senior Associate Dean Robert M. Randolph “indicated … that he did not want student input until after the planning stages were through.” Yet undergraduates said they wanted “to be involved in the decision making process” and graduate students wanted not to be forgotten as “second or third order effects” (The Tech, Nov. 8, 1994).

In 1995, the Strategic Housing Planning Committee recommended Ashdown House be converted to undergraduate housing and its residents be moved to a new dorm at the site of Sidney-Pacific. Graduate students expressed concern about the safety and inconvenience of the new location and worried that their “community is going to be destroyed.” Thomas H. Burbine PhD ’00, then-chairman of Ashdown said, “All contact we’ve had with the administration was initiated by the graduate students. They never asked us what they thought” (The Tech, Jan. 11, 1995).

In 1996, students’ concerns about Senior House renovations over the summer came to be ignored. Contrary to the wishes of residents, the dormitory was not available for temporary housing for Orientation week, and heavy construction near the end of term began at 7:30 a.m. Students were not even notified (The Tech, June 7, 1996).

In 1998, the announcement that all freshmen would be housed on campus starting in 2001 “came as a surprise” to Duane H. Dreger ’99, then-president of the Interfraternity Council (The Tech, Aug. 26, 1998).

In 2001, a letter entitled “Seek Graduate Student Input” described a controversial change made by senior administrators, contrary to student feedback, that would have reduced common space in the design of Sidney-Pacific graduate dormitory. Fortunately, the administration later met with graduate students and were convinced otherwise (The Tech, March 23, 2001).

In 2004, a summer housing task force proposed dividing undergraduate dormitories into “conference houses” and “residence houses”; students would be kicked out of the former for the summer to make way for visitors. After student outcry and input from Dormitory Council, a compromise was reached, so only parts of some dorms would become conference houses (The Tech, March 9, 2004).

In 2006, when MIT planned to construct a new graduate dorm to replace Ashdown House, students expressed anger that they had been left in the dark for several months and had only been asked for input 30 days before a deadline. Ashdown Housemaster Terry P. Orlando said, “Basically there has been no student input … We were all frozen out of this.” This is a stark contrast to Dean for Student Life Larry G. Benedict’s declaration that “there is plenty of time for quality student input …” The situation was akin to that of Sidney-Pacific in 2000, where student input was not sought until the design was “very advanced” (The Tech, Feb. 28, 2006). Several letters to The Tech highlighted the plight of students: Sanith Wijesinghe PhD ’03, a former Graduate Student Council president, wrote, “[A]dministrators have consciously kept the community in the dark by making decisions behind closed doors” (The Tech, Feb. 28, 2006). Later, administrators agreed to receive more student input.

In 2007, rumors surfaced that Burton-Conner’s kitchens would be removed and replaced with undergraduate rooms. Though the administration said the rumors were baseless, wary undergraduates, aware of what had come to pass about NW35, started petitions and bills in the UA Senate, describing the kitchens as “focal points” of community (The Tech, March 6, 2007).

In 2008, MIT informed Green Hall graduate residents that they would have to move out within six months without previously telling them of the plan to move Kappa Alpha Theta into the building. GSC President Leeland B. Ekstrom G said he was “amazed” and “troubled” by MIT’s decision-making process. Similarly, UA President Martin F. Holmes ’08 said he had heard nothing about it, even in December. The Tech did not say whether it was a surprise to Kappa Alpha Theta as well. Green Hall residents are “unhappy,” “very upset,” and “displeased with the short time frame,” and fear the loss of their sense of community (The Tech, Feb. 12, 2008).

If a secondary theme can be perceived under the astounding profusion of poor decision-making, it is that a sense of community, something intangible and not easily observed by aloof administrators, is easily forgotten when students are left out of planning. Students are not interchangeable parts, and to treat them as pegs to be shuffled about between lumps of brick and concrete grossly devalues their experiences.

Whether it is a stomach-turning aversion to engaging students in fruitful discussion, a long-standing institutionalized oversight, or merely a myopic inability to learn that students’ needs matter, the administration demonstrates time and time again how it chooses to disregard students when making decisions affecting how they live. To see administrators treat students as responsible adults, and their concerns as worthy of respect, would be a pleasant surprise indeed.

Zhou is a member of the Class of 2007 and a current graduate student.