Opinion guest column

RLADs will support — not replace — current house teams

Feedback is still being gathered; dormitories will have time to engage in discussion

Last Tuesday, I wrote to the housemasters with the announcement that I had decided that the role of the Residential Life Associate in the residence halls should be enhanced, so that the residential system could better support undergraduates living on campus. The plan I announced would increase the number of RLAs, so that one could be assigned to almost every dormitory, and would increase the required education and experience, so that students, housemasters, and GRTs would have access to a higher level of expertise.

This proposal emerged over the past year, as I met many times with individual students, with groups of students, with student support staff, with faculty, with alumni, and with parents. These meetings occurred within the context of what we all know was a very difficult year for our community. The death of a single student hits all of us hard; three deaths are almost impossible to comprehend. As the person who reaches out to the families after each tragedy, I know in a very deep way how agonizing and difficult these events are — and I share the widespread sense that we need to respond not only with compassion but with constructive change.

To help me understand the range of issues pertaining to student support on campus, I created a working group drawn from support staff, faculty, GRT/graduate students, undergraduate students, and housemasters, who spent the past seven months examining every aspect of our student support system, and identifying opportunities for improvement.

Out of these interactions a clear theme has emerged: we must take action to strengthen the student support systems within our living groups. While we have many great elements in place — housemasters, RLAs, GRTs, Deans-on-Call, S^3, Mental Health, and others — there are still opportunities to enhance our students’ well-being and sense of belonging.

It has become clear from the full range of our discussions that one of the most compelling of those opportunities is to enhance the Residential Life Associate positions. RLAs are full-time staff members who work closely with housemasters and other staff within the residence halls to assist in the critically important roles of advising, counseling and educating our students. In addition, they provide counsel and support to House Teams and other staff. We currently have five such positions serving the undergraduate dormitories. Expansion and enhancement of the RLA positions could:

Give housemasters more time to help students deal with personal issues by freeing them up from some operational tasks.

Assist GRTs in learning how to help students who need advice dealing with personal issues: roommate conflicts, relationship challenges, pressure, stress and depression, personal safety.

Provide additional Deans-on-Call.

Provide additional student support personnel within our student living groups.

In concert with other student-support staff, provide suggestions and guidance to students on leadership development: how to run a meeting, coordinate an activity, mediate a disagreement, communicate to diverse groups.

Assist housemasters and Residential Life staff with the recruitment, selection and training of GRTs.

What also came through clearly in our discussions about student support and house governance are several important principles:

Housemasters remain the head of the team — responsible for building community, encouraging personal growth, and setting the academic tone of the dormitory.

The working relationship between GRTs and housemasters and between GRTs and students should remain the same: GRTs would still work directly with housemasters and students, while also coordinating with the RLAs on administrative details and operational issues.

Academic advising remains the domain of faculty.

Input on hiring of RLAs should involve housemasters, GRTs and students.

Recently, I sent a letter to housemasters that described some of these improvements. I probably came across as overly final in my thinking. Removed from the context of an ongoing group discussion (the letter got posted publicly online), my letter left some with the impression that I am finished seeking input on the RLA changes that I am recommending. In fact, I am actively soliciting feedback from the relevant parties and am using it to refine our idea.

While some undergraduate dormitories are ready and eager to move forward with these enhancements, others need more time to digest, discuss and debate these changes. I do not think we should slow down those houses that are ready, so I plan to enable them to implement changes to the RLA system. But I also think we need to allow other dormitories time to engage in the discussion, so I have asked the UA and DormCon to work with the student leadership of those dormitories to foster a dialogue within each of those houses — students, GRTs, housemasters — during the first few months of the fall term. I will ask that these house leadership teams then share with DSL staff their perspectives on the proposed improvements to the support systems.

You know that I take very seriously the value of student perspectives; the independent thinking of our students is what makes MIT MIT, and I have a great patience for different points of view. But in this moment of urgency, I don’t have patience for lost time or lost opportunities for progress. We must find ways to improve the support for our student body, and we must find ways to strengthen the community within. Together, we can make a good system of student support even better.

Eric Grimson PhD ’80 is the Chancellor of MIT.

Anonymous almost 12 years ago

Hey Buddy,

First off, how about using a proper venue for these messages? Emailing housemasters doesn't reach everyone. The tech doesn't reach everyone. Try emailing the entire student body. How can a dorm be "ready and eager" for the change if it hasn't even been properly notified?

Also, please don't try to downplay the changes by suddenly saying your just improving RLAs. The tone set in your initial email indicates that RLADs constitute a dramatic change to residential life at MIT. We saw the letter you didn't want us to see, and we can tell how big you really think these changes are.

Consider what has happened since your initial letter:

1. A housemaster was so concerned about the changes, he/she leaked it to the entire campus

2. There has been student outcry across campus

3. 40 GRTs, the people students trust the most, signed a letter condemning the changes

4. On the UA Idea site, the second highest ranked idea is to remove Deans Colombo and Humphreys altogether

Despite this, you decide to push forward in specific dorms (which you conveniently haven't listed), and then have the nerve to say you "take very seriously the value of student perspectives".

You were my professor in 6.01 and I thought you were fantastic, and an excellent candidate for Chancellor. But wow have you swayed me with this one. Maybe the UA should push for your removal, too.

Anonymous almost 12 years ago

This letter is remarkably disingenuous, and incredibly disappointing from a man who has made an effort to build a reputation as a straight shooter.

The most disingenuous part is: "Recently, I sent a letter to housemasters that described some of these improvements. I probably came across as overly final in my thinking. Removed from the context of an ongoing group discussion (the letter got posted publicly online), my letter left some with the impression that I am finished seeking input on the RLA changes that I am recommending. In fact, I am actively soliciting feedback from the relevant parties and am using it to refine our idea."

This is simply false, unless "ongoing group discussion" "ongoing group discussion between Grimson, Colombo and Humphreys." The fact is that when the letter was sent to housemasters, it was presented as final, over major housemaster opposition. Only after the letter was leaked to the student body was the plan opened to any 'input.'

Further, the RLAD position as articulated in this letter is very different from the RLAD position as articulated in the letter to housemasters. It is incumbent upon you to tell us what in this Tech letter represents an announcement of an official change in policy in response to outcry, and what is you massaging/rearticulating the same job description so that it seems more palatable to the student body.

Comparing the two letters:

-Are they RLAs (Residential Life Associates) or RLADs (Residential Life Area Directors)?

-Will the RLA(D)s be supervising/managing GRTs, or will housemasters?

-Will the new RLA(D) position 'increase required education and experience,' or will existing RLAs, with their current education/experience, be promoted to RLA(D)s?

-Is the RLA(D) position one primarily focused on student support, or is it one where student support is listed 6th out of 8 in the list of duties?

-Will students have input in the hiring of RLA(D)s, or will they be hired and installed over the summer, meaning students gone for the summer will have no input at all? (Actually, this contradiction exists within this very letter as well.)

It is truly a shame that these three student tragedies are being used to push through policy changes that very clearly (reading the job description in the letter to housemasters) could not have possibly been actually designed to try to address the underlying issues that may have contributed to the suicides. This is transparent and very disturbing.

Anonymous almost 12 years ago

For reference, Chancellor Grimson's original letter to housemasters is here: http://imgur.com/a/oCW7k.