Chancellor, reporters discuss Senior House turnaround

Barnhart describes plan in her own words

Friday afternoon, Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart PhD ’88 emailed Senior House residents about an “alarming” graduation rate there, and announced that, come fall, no new freshmen will be assigned to that dorm.

Around 11 a.m. that morning, reporters from The Tech sat down with the chancellor to learn for themselves what was going on.

Present were reporters Emma Bingham ’19 and William Navarre ’17, communications officer Kimberly Allen, and the chancellor herself.

What follows is a very lightly edited transcript of that conversation, which lasted about 35 minutes.

Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart: I wanted to share some information with you and I know you don’t know anything at this point so let me frame this for you.

Sometime in the spring, I starting looking at some data that, there’s no other word, is alarming. What I’m going to share with you today is the MIT response, I guess, or proposal. What are the steps we ought to take to address this?

I just want to say that we’ve had so many hours of thinking about this and a number of discussions, and I [can?] tell you with whom, because we so want to do the right thing for all of the students. So let me just throw out some of the data for you.

If you look at the four-year graduation rate at MIT, it’s about 84%. So we were looking at data... students coming in the fall of 2004 all the way up through those who graduated in 2015 — so I guess you would come in the fall of 2011 to graduate in 2015? — so we looked at that data.

One of the things we measured along with the four-year rate, five-year rate, six-year rate: we measured how many students in that period have yet to get an MIT degree. And that measures about 7.5%, 7.7% to be exact.

I then broke that data out by dorm. So what I was looking at, there’s a number of different ways to do that, I picked this way: I said “OK, let’s look at any freshman, let’s look at where they lived their first semester and maybe longer of course, and let’s assign them to that dorm.

And then let’s look at the four-year graduation rate by dorm. So, one of the startling pieces of information, and the real outlier, was the data associated with Senior House. So the four-year graduation rate was 59.7% and the percent of students who have yet to get their degree was 21.1%.

So, just looking at this data alone, we knew we needed to act. We have to do something. This is, you know, our mission. In come all you smart students, and so the expectation I’m sure that you have, and we have, is that we provide you with an excellent education and you succeed academically.

So, we’ve laid out — well, let me add something to that: in addition, we also are concerned about illegal drug use in Senior House.

So it was a combination of the data we are beginning to understand [that] has us deeply concerned, and we are laying out three steps that we want to begin immediately with the community.

So first, Senior House is closed this summer but it will reopen in September. So the first thing we want to do, basically, is double down on support for these students. So we’re going to reopen Senior House with an enhanced house team. So additional live-in staff, and we’re going to be adding new student support services.

I can provide more detail but let me lay out the three steps.

The second thing we’re going to do is what I think we do at MIT. I’ve been here a long time, first as a graduate student and then 24 years on the faculty. This is our way, right? We get data, we analyze it, we learn from it, we engage all the great problem solvers of MIT.

So in this case, we will engage the Senior House students, we’ll bring in faculty and staff, I’ll chair this turnaround committee, and we will work to understand what’s going on and come up with solutions that we implement and then think deeply about ways that we can assess if the wellbeing of the community and the academic success of the community — if we are addressing those issues well.

Then the third thing is, again, looking at this graduation rate data, we feel this is our responsibility to provide students with an environment where you all can succeed academically. And the data just sort of just shout out that that’s not what we’re doing here, and so no first-year students will be placed in Senior House this year.

So those are the three steps that we’re laying out.

It is essentially a plan of engagement, the MIT way, and we will start immediately this summer already working with the students and we will in earnest in the fall bring the turnaround team together and start to address this. So, I could go on, but let me stop and let you ask questions you might have.

The Tech (Bingham): Do you think that first-year students will be placed in Senior House in coming years? Is it difficult to say?

CB: It is difficult to say. The whole purpose of this effort is to figure out a plan for success, right? This is not a plan for closure. This is a plan for “how can we turn this around?” So if we can turn this around, yes.

I think one thing I’d like to say about this is I hope that students don’t hear this and say “oh here’s the first step to kill culture at MIT.” That is not at all what we are trying to do.

I mean, we’re the first to say there are great aspects of culture at Senior House. And we want to bolster those aspects of the culture. What we’re saying, though, is if the culture is one that doesn’t lead to academic success and wellbeing, yeah, true, we do want to end those cultures. But certainly, you know, we appreciate and we know how much students appreciate, the fact that we have dorms with different cultures that we celebrate.

TT (Bingham): Do you know how many spots will be empty at Senior House?

CB: I don’t have an exact number but every year Senior House gets around 30 freshman. I think the capacity of the dorm is about 140-ish. So what that will mean is that there will be 30 empty slots in Senior House and we have some ideas about what to do with those, but part of the work with the community will be to think about that. But I’ll just throw out some ideas.

When I said that we want to add student support services, here’s some ideas, to have for example an S^3 dean and a mental health clinician associated with the dorm. And offer office hours within the dorm, some of those office hours being in the evening. The idea is to lower the barriers to help-seeking. When you have some extra rooms, it is easier to have space to offer for meetings and things like that.

The other thing and again, we have to work with the community to understand, but as I look at the data, one thing that seems to stand out is that the Senior House community has an especially strong appreciation for the arts.

And so, perhaps they’d be interested in converting some of the space to art studios or something like that. That’s all great space-wise for Senior House, but of course has implications to the rest of the community. So, we’ve been in touch with all the heads of house and they are fully on board, working with us, support this plan and will be sending emails to their community members today, and we will find a way to make help absorb the extra students who won’t be living in Senior House.

TT (Navarre): Will there be additional upperclassmen moving there, maybe?

CB: So there’s kind of two sides to that actually. I didn’t mention, but in our letter we will say that students who plan to live in Senior House but decide because of the steps we’re taking that they want to move out of Senior House, we will help them make a move.

So, that’s the flip side.

This year, I don’t know that we have a “yes” or “no” solid answer to your question my sort of first reaction is what we would really like to do is double down on the support to the students of that community because it seems like they need our help. So rather than bring in more students to that community. It might make sense to keep the community the size it is. But, I don’t think that that is a hard and fast thing.

TT (Navarre): It could depend on how many upperclassmen wind up leaving?

CB: It could, right. The other thing we are thinking about is in some of the other dorms this coming fall, there is going to be a program of peer, I think they’re called peer mentors, and we’d like to explore whether that kind of model would work as well at Senior House, just... we’ll work with the community to see what kinds of support would work for them.

TT (Navarre): So, you mentioned illegal drug use at Senior House which obviously has not only… it’s sort of unfortunately both a health issue and sort of a political issue. How do you plan to address that in a way that doesn’t become “Chancellor Barnhart is cracking down on drugs and getting us in trouble” or something?

CB: Yeah. Well you know, that’s the thing. This isn’t about punishment. This is about support.

And, what we need to understand is, who needs our support and how we can help these students.

I think clearly what we see now is that the community does need help. If we look at the data we have. And so our plan is that we are going to give help and you know if … if that is seen as cracking down on drugs, then I guess that’s cracking down on drugs. But I see it as we’re trying to help our students be both well, and academically successful.

TT (Bingham): There’s been a lot of talk in the past few months about the Good Samaritan Policy, which I’m sure you’ve been involved in. I was wondering sort of, like, how are you going to adjust the help-seeking policies, at Senior House to help.

CB: That’s a good question that our incoming Vice President for Student Life, Suzy Nelson, she’s arriving on July 1, and I’ve talked to her already about this issue.

Just this week I received the final report with recommendations from the Committee on Student Life about this issue, so I reached out to our new Vice President and one of the first things that she and I are going to work on is exactly the follow up to this report and the idea would be that, before Sept. 1, before students come back, we will come out with communication about what we want to do with this. So, we view this as a really important element and we’re very committed to taking action to address these recommendations.

TT (Bingham): I was also curious, you mention having an S^3 dean and mental health clinician associated with Senior House. I was wondering if something like this would be implemented in any other dorms? It seems like something people have asked for in the past.

CB: Yeah, actually so “yes” is the short answer.


I’ve been talking a lot, as I said, with the heads of house. And in particular, Rob Miller, who is head of East Campus. East Campus doesn’t have space. And so he immediately said “do you think we could share, since we’re kind of close by these resources” and so I think that we’ll end up seeing how we can try to set up these maybe satellites in different places and have it like a shared resource for the dorms. Yeah, I agree with you. I think, as we brainstorm, I think one good outcome of this will be that as we brainstorm about what things we could do, they’ll apply to many of the living residences.

TT (Bingham): You also mention the turnaround committee. Do you know like who’s involved with this? Who else is gonna be involved?

CB: So far I know one person: the chair, [myself].

Honestly, we haven’t populated it yet, but I think that that is part of the process, too, of reaching out to the community.

So we will certainly have a strong representation of Senior House students. And I think that we also would like a good contingent of faculty. So one of the things that I think would be a good idea is to reach out to faculty who especially understand MIT student life, so some of those are faculty who were undergrads here. And there are actually a lot of faculty who were undergrads here.

So I think that’s part of the process: who would be the best people to bring together. You know, I think about this as there’s a turnaround team but this turnaround team is just kind of the nucleus, maybe, of the activity because, how I see this is as I think I said, very MIT-ish, you know, let’s look at the data, let’s be really transparent. Let’s problem solve and let’s assess.

So, while we’ll have this core turnaround team, they’re just gonna be maybe a piece of the overall group of people who will be involved in this. But, suggestions will certainly be welcome, we’ll work to figure this out.

TT (Navarre): So, one of the things I’ve learned about Senior House reading our own coverage and everything else is that a lot of the quotes and stuff that I’ve heard Senior House people say is that they really draw a pretty solid line between the house team and the administration.

I think that one of the things that upset them about when they got an RLAD was that they said “this is not a member of the house team, right and proper, this is a member of the administration” and it is unclear to me what that means exactly, but I guess given that there is this sentiment that they don’t want the administration in their home, how do we deal with that?

Do we try to integrate them better into the house team, do we just try to convince them that the administration isn’t bad after all, etc?

There is a strong difference of opinion here between the Senior House residents and the administration and I wonder how you’re going to solve that problem?

CB: Oh, I am really working on that, because you know I really do see this as a, this is a team that’s there to support, to help and in partnership with the students you know we have to work together to solve this. So that’s where I am coming at this from.

I wonder, just brainstorming a little, if as I have been thinking a lot about this lately, and I have reached out, I’m not sure if I have talked about, I’ve reached out to a number of faculty who were undergrads here at MIT and who were actually undergrads at Senior House, and so I’m wondering, maybe they could be a good facilitator in this, right?

Because maybe they’re not labeled “administration,” they clearly have a connection to MIT, the same kind that the undergrads have, and in talking with them what I found that is, to a person, they’re supportive of taking these steps.

So maybe the wall between administration and, the rest, maybe it gets blurred because there’s faculty who are sort of bridging that. So, that… I’m open to any ideas you have because I think it is critical that we figure out how we can work together as a team. I’m all on board for that. Everyone … every faculty member is all on board for that.

TT (Bingham): I was wondering if it’s possible for you to send us the data you were looking at?

CB: Sure, the data will be posted online, we’re actually going to have a link in the letter that shows the graduation rate data by dorm.

TT (Navarre): Do you, was there any sort of control for, sort of, selection bias. Maybe that people less likely to graduate are more likely to select Senior House? For example, maybe like, students who ranked Senior House first but didn’t get in, how they did?

CB: Yeah, oh, that’s actually a really good way to think about that. So, that’s something we’ll look at.

That’ll be part of the... see this is what’s gonna be great. Students are gonna have all kinds of ideas. What we do know is, like I was looking at this, last year something like just over half of the students who were assigned to Senior House didn’t select it as their first choice. Which means that just under half did, so, we could look at that.

TT (Bingham): So does that mean that all the students who put Senior House as their first choice got into Senior House?

CB: Probably; I don’t know the exact answer to that but I am thinking, based on what I’ve seen, that it is likely that if you put Senior House as your first choice, you got it, if you put Simmons as your first choice not at all clear, if you put Baker, not...

And the reason I say this is the number of students who put their first choices for — last year I think it was Maseeh, Simmons, and Baker far exceeded the capacity. So, but, what that meant for other dorms, is you were more likely to get your first choice, if you indicated that you wanted one of the other dorms.

TT (Navarre): I was going to ask how, specifically, do you plan to deal specifically with the drug problem? You know, again, that’s an aspect where there is probably a disagreement. Some people want to use drugs and you would prefer that they not. So it’s sort of not a communications problem, it’s sort of a fact.

CB: It sort of is a fact. I guess, dealing with, this is my thinking about this, I think we have to come back to what are MIT’s core values? And what is our mission? I think that the two pieces of information we are talking about here: graduation rate and drug use, if, you know, drug use doesn’t align with our core values, and it also doesn’t align with our mission, if it’s true that drug use is contributing to the lower graduation rates. So you know, I guess, I just have to kind of come out and say that hard drug use: MIT doesn’t condone it.

You know, we care about the wellbeing of our students and we care about the wellbeing of the community.

And I have seen firsthand how destructive drug use in a community can be for the community. And so, I think that as this turnaround team looks at the issues, they have to just take them head-on.

TT (Navarre): So do you anticipate, if there is this fundamental disagreement, do you worry, do you have plans to mitigate the option that students have of just leaving Senior House and moving to a fraternity or to live in an informal thing where they all sort of live together and continue as they’d prefer?

CB: You know, that’s of course, scary, right? If students say “ok well we’re committed to drug use, and if we can’t do it on MIT’s campus, we’ll move somewhere else and do it,” I worry for them.

But I also think that we have an obligation to all of our students to provide them a safe and healthy environment.

TT (Bingham): Do you think that helping to implement that environment would involve changing the help-seeking policy? What are you emphasizing when you’re trying to minimize drug use?

CB: I think that the help-seeking policies are critical to moving forward. So we have to — it’s a top priority. As I said, when Suzy Nelson arrives, we want to be really clear about what our policies are.

Right now, I think part of what I hear most from students is that it’s not clear what our policy actually says. And if it’s not clear, then it is not accomplishing what it should, so the first thing we will do is we will clarify what the policy at MIT is.

And I have to say that what informs my thinking about what that policy should be, of course, is informed by what we’re trying to do, for example here, and what we’d like to see across campus.

So I don’t really want to say now what I... I don’t want to foreshadow what this new policy might be, but just know that I really appreciate the importance of it and feel strongly about where we’re going with it.

TT (Navarre): I suppose that, when I first heard you talking and guessing what was coming, one of the things that was a guess was that randomized housing is on your mind, or on somebody’s mind. And that turned out not to be it, but...

I have a feeling that when other undergraduates read this, they will also have that in the back of their mind and I sort of, it could be good if you give some sort of idea on if that came up in the discussion or if that… you know, given the mind of the undergraduate is jump to that idea as what the administration might have in the back of their mind. But it’s unclear if that’s actually what’s happening in the administrator’s mind.

CB: So maybe what I should say about that is, so here we are faced with I think, how I would characterize, alarming data, right?

So what’s our response to it?

Our response is we need to engage the community and we need to solve this problem. So I say that because that would be the approach. The next time I call you in and say I have something to tell you, it will be of the same nature, it won’t be “oh, guess what we decided. You don’t mind, right? We’re just gonna do randomized housing and, uh, whatever else you don’t want.”

So, no that’s not the way we approach problems. And I think the fact that you even ask that question is a reflection of my style in this way, I mean, I went and talked to all different houses and it really was about, it wasn’t about saying “this is what I’m going to do and I’m telling you this” it was “ok here’s something that I really think a lot about, I wonder what we should do about it, what do you guys think?”

It was to engage you in the thought process.

So… do I think there are things we can do at MIT that might be good for student life? Yep, I do.

And, what I can say is the plan is, you know, to work with you, because I figure you have some ideas too. I am even thinking in the minds of students, it isn’t perfect. And, so, that’s the approach.