Walker assessment is still not complete

Discussions of repurposing Walker must consider student groups currently there

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Several of Walker Memorial’s student groups, pictured in this December 2010 file photo. The Walker Memorial Assessment Team is evaluating the feasibility of using Walker as a space for Music and Theater Arts, but student groups have not yet had to find a new home.
Photos by Melissa Renée Schumacher; photoillustration by Jessica liu—The Tech

Although the building has been under assessment since Oct. 2010, the 95-year-old Walker Memorial will see no changes for the rest of the academic year. Plans to repurpose the space for the Music and Theater Arts (MTA) department remain unsettled, with no set deadline for completion.

Opened in 1917, Walker is one of the original buildings on MIT’s Cambridge campus. Today, it is home to several student groups, a third floor gymnasium often used as a large exam space, and Morss Hall, one of the largest event spaces on campus.

The assessment of Walker began when Associate Provost Martin A. Schmidt PhD ’88 and Director of Campus Activities Complex (CAC) Phillip J. Walsh announced in 2010 that research was underway to consider Walker as a venue for the MTA department. In addition to providing MTA with a hub and performance space, a repurposing project would address much of the deferred maintenance on the aging building.

“Walker could not only enhance Music and Theater, but the building itself could also greatly benefit from revitalization,” Schmidt said to The Tech in October 2010.

A major question centers around where to relocate the groups and activities currently in Walker Memorial. While some of these groups simply require a large venue from time to time, others, such as WMBR, the campus radio station located in the basement of Walker, have customized their space to their needs. The Graduate Student Council (GSC), led last spring by President Ulric J. Ferner G, held meetings to gauge student group opinion, and advocated to administration officials tasked with making the decision.

The administration also held an open meeting in February 2011, soliciting concerns from the community and giving an update on the status of the assessment. These efforts eventually grew into the Walker Memorial Assessment Team (WMAT). WMAT is tasked with capturing the essence of how Walker is used and generating a report to upper-level administrators. These administrators will then decide how and whether to implement the repurposing project. WMAT consists of Provost Schmidt, a student representative from the GSC, Association of Student Activities (ASA) and the Undergraduate Association (UA) as well as several other administrators and support staff.

“I believe that if people are using this building, they’re using it for a good reason and to advance the mission of the Institute,” Schmidt said at the meeting in February. “It is the Institute’s responsibility to find space for the different student groups and facilitate their move, should they have to move.”

Ferner, who was originally concerned about the administration’s efforts to engage the student groups when the issue was first presented, felt that the formation of WMAT greatly improved the quality of communication between the affected student groups and the administration.

“I would like to compliment Professor Schmidt on the excellent job he’s done improving student engagement,” Ferner said in May. “It’s not easy to collectively survey student opinion like this. I’m amazed at the amount of work that’s been done, the progress that’s been made, and the transparency of the whole process.”

WMAT had originally guessed a decision would be made by summer 2011, but the process has been taking longer than expected. The administration hired an architect last spring to create a design for the space that will cater to MTA’s needs. The design has yet to be completed and is still undergoing revision by MTA and WMAT. As of December, WMAT completed the work of talking to each of the student groups that would be affected by Walker’s repurposing and created with summaries for each group that capture how the groups use the space. As of publication, WMAT has yet to finish compiling a final report.

“We’re doing a lot of sensitive work with regards to this matter and have come up with a lot of interesting sites [for potential relocation] that we think people might not have thought much of before,” WMAT GSC Representative Brian L. Spatocco G said in December 2011.

Whether or not Walker Memorial will be repurposed for MTA has yet to be determined and may not be for some time. Groups are still allowed to book space in Walker for the 2012–2013 academic year and Schmidt said that there is now no set timeline for the decision. The future may be unknown, but for now, Walker and Morss Hall are here to stay.

“The design process is still ongoing,” MTA Department Head Janet Sonenberg said in December 2011. “Nothing has been settled yet.”