Living in a housing-constrained world

The challenges of Freshmen on Campus, and why administrators make the decisions they do

To the members of the student body who do not follow campus issues, there are only two facts you need to be aware of to have an above-average understanding of what is going on:

1. MIT is committed to guaranteeing every undergraduate on-campus housing if they want it.

2. There are not enough beds on campus to provide housing for every undergraduate.

These two simple facts, and the pressures they create, are the source of nearly all of the sturm und drang of student vs. administration fights.

The Consequences of Living in a Housing-Constrained World

In 2001, MIT responded to the binge-drinking death of a freshman, Scott Krueger, by instituting a Freshmen on Campus (FoC) policy, the immediate effect of which was to reduce the revenue of MIT’s fraternities, and shift students from living in fraternities to dormitories. As a consequence of their reduced revenue, the next few years saw a steady draw-down of fraternity savings, and a rising probability of financial failure.

If a significant number of fraternities fail, their members would have to be absorbed into the dormitory system, something that is simply not possible given the number of dorm beds. And so, beginning in 2004, MIT began to subsidize the fraternity system through the Independent Residence Development Fund (IRDF). IRDF grants had previously been used as a way of making capital improvements to fraternity living spaces (making them handicap-accessible and so on) that otherwise would not have been made by independent living groups. 2004 saw a shift away from the use of these grants for that limited purpose toward covering the day-to-day expenses of fraternities. Today, MIT gives out $2 million dollars in aid to fraternities each year through this program.

For those who have taken 14.01, this subsidization of fraternity beds is unsurprising. Frat beds and dorm beds are substitute goods. MIT is committed to keeping the equilibrium quantity of dorm beds demanded below its fixed supply. FoC caused a drop in the demand for fraternity beds, and so to maintain the equilibrium, the relative prices between frat beds and dorm beds needed to change, either through a subsidy of frat beds, or an increase in the price of dorm beds.

The Set of Policy Alternatives

Of course, MIT does not like the idea of perpetually bleeding $2 million dollars a year to keep the FSILGs afloat. And so, over the past few years, MIT has sought to raise the price of dorm beds (thus increasing the number of students who voluntarily elect to join independent living groups and thereby reducing the amount of subsidy MIT has to give to fraternities). As part of this effort, MIT is poised to replace its subsidy-riddled dining system with something that passes on the true cost to students. This and other policy changes (though surprisingly, not the steady increase in dormitory rents) have caused considerable friction between students living in dormitories and the administration.

Don’t let MIT’s annual operating budget of $1 billion fool you; $2 million dollars per year is a lot of money. With the IRDF’s annual budget, MIT could turn any existing dormitory into free housing. They could buy every single undergraduate student a Big Mac for every single day of class at MIT. They could maintain the dining program as it is, refund all the cuts they made from the department of athletics, and still have enough money left over to give 20 students full scholarships.

There is a limited set of solutions to the frat-bed-dorm-bed imbalance. MIT could admit fewer students. It could build new dormitories. It could kick out graduate students from existing dormitories and give them to undergraduates. It could try to raise demand for FSILG living, either by raising the effective price of a dorm bed, making FSILGs inherently more attractive places to live relative to dorms, or through some other measure, such as ending FoC. But it cannot simply maintain the status quo.

In fact, in recent history MIT has pursued many of its options simultaneously. But all of these option come at a cost. Decreasing the number of students means fewer MIT engineers for society. Building dormitories costs a lot of money. Pushing out graduate students from their housing makes MIT a less attractive destination for graduate students. Changes to dining are unpopular, but unless students present a better idea, they are inevitable.

Moving Toward an Activism that Works

Undergraduate activists, such as the Campaign For Students (CFS) are very good at registering their discontent with MIT’s slashing of dorm goodies. What they are not good at is articulating an alternative. Do they want MIT to build more dorms? Do they want to grab dorms from graduate students? Do they want to let fewer students into MIT? With “raise spending, cut taxes, and fix the deficit” as their war cry, it is not hard to figure out why they are being ignored. Political effort directed at maintaining an unsustainable status quo is wasted and meaningless.

Moreover, CFS and their ilk have adopted an incredibly self-defeating view of how the MIT administration operates. To the average CFS member, MIT is a monolithic institution of evil or ignorant administrators bent on ending all that makes MIT good, and the way to defeat them is to organize a protest so large and awesome that it brings the system to its knees.

In reality, MIT is like any other bureaucracy. Its administrators have different ideas of what should be done. They make decisions with memos and meetings. They have a fairly rational view of the constraints they faces, and they debate a set of policies that fit within those constraints. If a bureaucrat goes into a meeting armed with the support of the students for his plan, that makes him much more likely to turn his plan into policy. But there is no inherent reason why students must be happy with the policies that the administration produces — there is no protest large enough to “win” against MIT.

To get a desired policy passed, students need to interact with administrators and navigate the politics of the bureaucracy. They need to have a realistic and clearly articulated vision, and then apply the appropriate pressures to enable bureaucrats to win debates on their behalf. They need to cultivate relationships with the deans and learn the geography of the administration.

Concerned dorm halls should be spending less time organizing protests and more time hosting deans and chancellors to dinners. At these dinners they should focus on listening rather than asking questions; not only do MIT’s administrators have a more complete picture of the constraints that MIT faces (and thus can help students make sure their preferred policies pass the realism test), but it is also much easier to find someone who agrees with you and give them your support than to change someone’s mind. When talking with any given administrator, the first thought that should be going through an activist’s mind is not “How can I convince this person that I am right?” but instead, “Will this person make a useful ally?” Even if their vision is wholly incompatible with your preferred policy, there is no reason to be impolite. Thank them for their time, and make a mental note to give your support to someone else — almost anything else is counter-productive.

Our Policy Priority: Ending Freshmen on Campus

Ultimately, relationships are not enough. Students must develop a plan for MIT that is not merely reflexive opposition to change, but instead solves the fundamental problem of limited undergraduate dormitory space.

In the long run, the best thing that MIT students can do to resolve conflicts in their favor is to aggressively support the development of new undergraduate housing and work hand-in-hand with the administration to accelerate the creation of new dorms that offer an attractive living space to students and have their own unique, desirable dorm culture.

In the short run, there is only one policy change that can loosen the constraints that MIT faces without further changes to dorm perks, and that is ending Freshmen on Campus. To many dorm activists, repealing FoC is a low priority, or worse, not even a priority at all (many activists seem ideologically opposed to fraternities, period). In reality, there is no better policy change available to achieve what the CFS and others have been fighting for.