RLAD proposal stirs policy debate

Student gov’ts and GRTs express concern over process

This fall, many dorms will see new faces in their house teams in the form of Residential Life Area Directors (RLAD). RLADs will live in the dorm and assist housemasters and Graduate Resident Tutors (GRT) with administrative and operational tasks. These changes were revealed last week, when an anonymous source leaked a letter, written by Chancellor W. Eric L. Grimson PhD ’80 to MIT housemasters, that spoke of imminent changes in residential life. The information caught many students and GRTs off-guard, sparking campus-wide controversy and debate.

Grimson said that the RLAD position came out of an ongoing effort to improve student life at the Institute, especially given the three student deaths last academic year. “I share the widespread sense that we need to respond not only with compassion but with constructive change…We must take action to strengthen the student support systems within our living groups. While we have many great elements in place…there are still opportunities to enhance our students’ well-being and sense of belonging,” he wrote to The Tech. (The letter can be found on page 5, in The Tech’s opinion section.)The RLAD position would replace and expand on the role of the existing Residential Life Associate position (RLA).

Anonymous email leak

On June 2 at 1:43 a.m., an anonymous email under the alias “Tim Beaver” was sent to many campus mailing lists, alleging a “major, unexpected change” to the residential life system at MIT. The sender also included a link to a letter that Grimson had sent to the housemasters on May 29, describing the addition of nine RLADs that would be hired and moved into MIT’s undergraduate dorms byFall 2012.

“The RLADs will have broad oversight of the day-to-day management of house operations, including: management of the GRTs, responsibility for student-related issues such as advising, student government, student conduct, and student support, coordinating with the House Manager to ensure that the building is well-run and well-maintained; and assisting you in your roles as the intellectual leaders of the communities,” Grimson wrote to the housemasters.

The leaked letter stated that Burton Connor, Maseeh, McCormick, Next, Simmons, Baker, MacGregor, New, and Senior House were to see the new RLADs in the fall. However, since the leak, Grimson has said that while the majority of dorms will have an RLAD in time for the beginning of the semester, some dorms will have the opportunity to hold off and have more discussion before changes are made.

“There are some houses that are absolutely ready and we will move forward with them. There are other places that need more time for dialogue to give students a sense of what is going to happen,” he told The Tech in an interview on Wednesday. Students from these dorms will have the opportunity to collect residents’ opinions and present them to Division of Student Life (DSL) staff during the first few months of the fall term; Grimson declined to comment on which dorms these would be.

East Campus, Random, and Bexley will not have an in-house RLAD, though they would still be supervised by one, in addition to the normal house team. Grimson said that these three dorms were not included because of size and other factors.

Controversy on campus

The leaked letter, dated May 29, 2012, sparked discussion on campus-wide email lists, with students and GRTs alike expressing concerns and surprise since this was the first time many had heard of the changes. In fact, the same day Grimson sent the letter to the housemasters, the GRTs had a meeting to renew their contracts with Henry J. Humphreys, Senior Associate Dean for Residential Life and Dining.

The contract had no mention of the RLAD developments, and only contained some small changes like dates on which GRTs had to be on campus, and clarifications on the pet policy. According to Kyle W. Gilpin G, a GRT on Fifth West in East Campus, “The impression we were given was that the GRTs would continue to report to their housemasters, and we were told, in very vague terms, that there were proposals on the table to change residential life.”

On various dorm mailing lists, some students suggested that the RLADs would disrupt the normal GRT, housemaster, and student communication lines, while others criticized the seemingly top-down nature of the decision which came at a time when most students had already left campus.

A large part of the campus controversy stems from the manner in which information about the RLAD position was released. “When we are told one thing,” said Chris L. Follett VIII G, who is a GRT on Third East at East Campus, “and there is information leaked that says something else, there are some questions about what the motivations are.”

Since the leak, Grimson has said that he plans to work closely with students, GRTs and housemasters in implementing RLAD changes. “There will be student input — for example, when dorms get a new housemaster or GRT, they participate in the selection process, the same will go for the RLADs. It’s important to figure out how RLADs are going to fit into each dorm.”

Grimson is also working with the Undergraduate Association (UA) and Dormitory Council (DormCon) to determine how to best solicit student input.

Particularly concerning to many was the wording of the RLAD job description, especially the perception that GRTs would be overseen by the RLADs.

GRT Concerns

Some GRTs were concerned that the RLAD position described in the leaked letter would undermine trust between students and their GRTs. In a letter to The Tech, the GRT body expressed their concerns with both the decision-making process and the RLAD position itself (their letter can be found on page 5).

Follett emphasized that the goal of the letter is to start a dialogue. “The GRT body has no desire to have a giant fight about this — we really want to have an open discussion about student life.”

According to Follett, GRTs have a unique ability to communicate with students because they have lived with students and have similar educational experiences. “There is trust that is built from having a similar background. Having a housemaster that GRTs can report to only enhances that system, because they provide a different perspective on the same experience.” Follet says that students may have concerns talking to their GRTs if they know it will be reported to an administrators, because administrators tend to come from a different background and have potentially different goals. Undermining the communication line with GRTs, says Follett, undermines mental health at MIT.

Charles Lin G, former Tech editor and outgoing GRT who has served for four years at Burton Connor said, “It’s sad when changes like these are made without any input. It erodes student trust in process and administration as a whole. We have really tight bonds with people because students know we are not the eyes and ears of the administration. We’re here to give advice and be mentors, listeners.”

Gilpin stressed, however, that receiving only a letter without much context left many unanswered questions. There is not yet enough information to determine exactly how the RLADs will impact student life at MIT, he said.

“The effect will largely depend on how the position is implemented. If the RLADs become administrative oversight and end up having a really large involvement in student government or conduct, the culture could change significantly. If there is a perception that GRTs are responsible to the new RLAD position, that trust will break down and students will no longer feel comfortable coming to their GRTs to talk about sensitive issues.” However, Gilpin noted that if the RLADs remained in a support position by helping out with administrative tasks and event-planning, they could be beneficial by eliminating some of the burden on GRTs and housemasters.

Though Grimson’s leaked letter says that the RLADs would have “broad oversight” of the day-to-day management of house operations, Grimson clarified in an interview with The Tech that GRTs will still report directly to the housemasters. “The idea that we are inserting people between housemasters and GRTs is incorrect,” he said. The housemaster and GRT relationship will remain unchanged, and the RLADs will be in a mostly support role, he added.

UA Response

Two days after the leak, representatives from the UA and DormCon met with Grimson, Humphreys and Dean for Student Life Chris Colombo to discuss the changes and the potential impact on students. “From this point forward it looks like the conversation between [students] and the administration has the potential to be a very healthy one,” wrote East Campus president Robert M. Johnson ’13, in a letter to his dorm’s residents. After the meeting, the decision was made to allow some dormitories originally slated to receive RLADs in the fall to have more time to consider alternative approaches to improving student support.

Jonté D. Craighead ’13 told The Tech that the UA and DormCon want to allow dorms to discuss the new policy and present their views to the DSL. “We want a process by which each of the dormitory communities, including students, housemasters, and GRTs are allowed to discuss how they would like the residential support system in their community to work,” he said.

Craighead says this dorm-specific approach was discussed as an alternative to a more centralized approach. He emphasized that “the kind of norms for culture and expectations for what is acceptable are very different for each dormitory, so it doesn’t make sense for even the UA or DormCon to say ‘this is the boiler plate for all solutions on campus.’ Where we can provide support, however, we will.”

To this end, the UA has launched an “Idea bank,” which allows for online discussion about student support and the RLAD developments. Craighead say the Idea bank was launched to provide the community with an opportunity to move discussion away from “unproductive comments that were taking place in large part on the mailing lists,” to a discussion about how “we as a student community could provide solutions for the residential support systems.”

Considering the tragic events of the past year, the administration and the student government are under pressure to strengthen the support system on campus. “Just saying ‘no’ to RLADs without suggesting an alternative solution is not going to be a very effective proposal,” Craighead said.

Everyone is wondering who “Tim Beaver” really is.

“He ruined my Friday night,” joked Craighead. “But he probably improved some other night weeks in the future…At the end of the day, things are moving in the right direction.”