An open letter from a graduating senior
Lessons on community from Bexley
Last Thursday, I had the immense honor of receiving the Compton prize, which is awarded to students for work that supports the welfare of the MIT community. I cannot even begin to express my gratitude for the people who have supported me throughout my time at MIT, as well as to the people who took the time to write letters nominating me for the award. However, something that President Reif said in his remarks, quoting one of these letters, gave me a pause. I want to briefly respond to it here.
The comment in question was from a former Bexley resident, who wrote to thank me for making sure that the students who were forced to leave Bexley would find a home in a different dorm.
I want to emphasize that my role in the Bexley closing story was trivial. I just did my job as room assignment chair of my own dorm. The real praise unequivocally belongs to those individuals who stepped up to help their community. They were unelected and anonymous residents of Bexley, and to this day their efforts remain largely unrecognized. They answered the call to help their community when it needed them most. In doing so, they did the entire Institute proud. If there is any serious example of true leadership at MIT, that was certainly it.
So that’s the first reason I’m writing this letter. I want to make sure that credit goes where it’s due.
But there’s more to it than that. I remember the night we first learned Bexley was closing. It was in the Bexley basement (the “Bexment” to anyone who has spent time there), where some folks from other dorms came to join Bexley residents writing letters to the Chancellor. It was about two weeks before the end of the semester, so people were taking turns writing and working on school work. But every so often the Bexley folks would suddenly leave the room. I asked them why. They explained that they were checking up on someone lying in bed upstairs. He was not feeling well, and they were making sure he was okay.
Bexley was a family in the most fundamental sense of the word. Its members cared about each other as people, and their dedication to one another was human, flawed, complex, and spontaneous. If most of us feel support from our communities, the residents of Bexley felt genuine love. The dorm, in other words, was a home. Once you joined, no matter who you were, you were always taken in.
The cruel reality of Bexley’s insularity was that its successes were private and hidden; only when something went wrong did the dorm catch the public eye. Now more than ever, it is important for other dorms to explain why they care so much about the battles they fight. Luckily, they can take inspiration from a beautiful section of this year’s Technique, which published photographs and heart-wrenching poems and letters about Bexley. I urge everyone, especially administrators who spend time working with students, to spend a few minutes and read those memories too. If you ever find yourself wondering why students care so much, I am confident that those pages will be enough to explain.
As I graduate, I am confident that MIT will continue the dialogue about how to support communities that flourish on autonomy and free expression. Of course, such communities can be scary; they are closed off, unpredictable, almost structurally unaccountable. But there is clear evidence that they work for some students, and for them, they mean the world. And the twist, of course, is that once a community is gone, it’s gone for good.
So I just want to end this letter with a simple appeal. To all those future student leaders and administrators working on issues that impact student life, try and take the position of the weird dorms seriously. It may seem like senseless complaining, but I swear it’s coming from a good place. As Hunter S. Thompson once wrote, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
With that, thanks to everyone who spends their time working on improving student life — be they administrators or student leaders, with a title or without. It is your dedication that makes this place so remarkable for all of us. And thanks to all the family, friends, and strangers who in one way or another helped me personally over these past four years. It has been an incredible journey, and I couldn’t have done it without you.
Leonid Grinberg is a member of the Class of 2014. He lived in East Campus for all four years and was EC Vice President in 2013.