Barnhart addresses concerns about Senior House turnaround

Official response from Senior House includes open letter and petition

Correction: A previous version of this article reported Senior House president Sarah Melvin's class year incorrectly. It is 2018, not 2017.

Following Chancellor Barnhart’s announcement June 10 that Senior House would not be permitted to house freshmen in the fall due to exceptionally low graduation rates, many students voiced concerns about the data analysis which led to the response, the future of GRTs in the dorm, and in particular, the effect of the policy against freshmen. The Tech spoke again with Barnhart to address these issues.

Senior House also put together their official response, led by president Sarah Melvin ’18. The response includes an open letter and petition, as well as a collection of letters submitted by the community.

The data on Senior House: causation and transparency

The Senior House community and others expressed many concerns about what they saw as a lack of sufficient data analysis. They were concerned that the analysis did not account for self-selection into Senior House and lower graduation rates among underrepresented minorities, low-income groups, and the LGBTQ community. They also asked whether more data would be released to the public, expressing worries about transparency.

Chancellor Barnhart PhD ’88 said she and others have done “a lot of extensive analysis” that she did not share in her initial email to the community. She plans to share all of her data and analysis with Senior House residents and with the turnaround team she will be assembling. She said she does not want to release it to the MIT community at large because she wants “to be careful about privacy and stigmatism.”

When asked about whether she and her team were able to show that Senior House caused lower academic performance, she said they were “not proving causation … just pointing to data that is really troubling.” They have tried hard to “understand [the problem] more deeply” and to figure out if they can “point to something around causation,” but they still “can’t explain why the graduation rates are what they are.”

“This is MIT’s mission. We owe it to every student to have the opportunity for an excellent education,” she said.

However, she wanted to emphasize that they “weren’t trying to define success.”

“We aren’t saying that everyone follows the same path, and we surely aren’t saying that students who take leaves and follow alternative paths are a problem.”

She briefly discussed her analysis of graduation rates based on gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, LGBTQ identity, and more. She said that graduation rates for disadvantaged groups across MIT were higher than rates for those groups at Senior House. It’s “the same really large gap,” she said, “so again, that’s very troubling.”

The chancellor also responded to claims that the decision about Senior House will put LGBTQ freshman “at risk.”  Barnhart references survey responses that show that there are other dorms with a significant LGBTQ population and that members of the LGBTQ community living in these other dorms respond affirmatively to questions such as “I feel at home in my community,” “I feel I have friends I can talk to,” and “I feel supported.”

The response from Senior House

Senior House president Sarah Melvin ’18 released an open letter in which she countered some of the chancellor’s proposals with suggestions of her own.

Melvin agreed that increased student support and mental health services would be a great benefit to residents, and noted that these services should be expanded to include all dorms. She suggested increased drug and alcohol safety resources, a peer tutoring program, study spaces in Senior House, an alumni-student mentorship program, and a freshman mentorship program.

She also created a petition, now linked from the Senior House website. The petition condemned the lack of student input into the process that led to the announcement of the Senior House turnaround and called for the administration to “pause the planned changes to Senior House, and ‘start from the drawing board’ with a truly inclusive process that will aim to improve academic progress at Senior House, as well as address the specific needs of diverse student populations in all of MIT.”

UA president Sophia Liu ’17 sent an email to undergraduates urging them to support Senior House by signing the petition or submitting a letter of support.

In her open letter, Melvin also called for freshman to be allowed to FYRE into Senior House this fall, despite the fact that no freshman will be placed there initially. She says that freshman will “[r]evitalize the community, direct its growth, and are most capable of designing a positive future for the dorm.”

The chancellor says that MIT realizes that students care deeply about having freshman in their dorms, but that “in light of the data that we have, we don’t feel we can look [new students] in the eye and assure them that [if they live in] Senior House that we can provide them the experience we believe MIT should provide every student.”

“What we’re saying is, let’s hit the pause button, let’s focus on the community members, let’s understand the underlying problems.”

Barnhart said that only six freshmen ranked Senior House as their top choice in the summer housing lottery.

Further concerns: GRTs, space, and cost

The chancellor also addressed concerns about what would happen to the Senior House GRTs and their partners. She said the three (out of four) who aren’t graduating this year have all been invited back to be GRTs in Senior House for the upcoming year.

Barnhart said this “could be a more intensive year for the GRTs” and they are “working with them to define specifically what that means in terms of time commitment and responsibilities to make sure that everyone is on the same page about what it is we need to do to support the students.”

The GRTs also face challenges in terms of physical space in Senior House. The new enhanced house team might displace some of them from their apartments. Plans are being worked out as to where they could be placed instead. These plans will depend on what decisions are made about the use of spaces in the dorm and how quickly new spaces can be constructed.

One of the options offered to the Senior House GRTs was to resign their positions. If they were to take this option, they would still be paid their stipend and given free housing in a graduate dorm.

Barnhart said she did not mean for the community to interpret this offer as a sign that they were trying to push the GRTs out. That was “not at all what that was meant to say,” she said. She simply wanted to “provide GRTs with information” and not “force [them] to do something [they] don’t want to do” (i.e. participate in the Senior House turnaround).

It is unclear as of yet whether the capacity of Senior House will permanently decrease due to changes in the spaces there. It will depend upon how feasible it is to create temporary spaces to accommodate new live-in staff that could be converted back to student spaces.

The chancellor also wanted to reassure the community that the cost of living in Senior House would not increase due to the changes.

Could this happen in other dorms?

Some students have expressed concern that other east side dorms might soon face similar action because together Senior House, Random Hall, East Campus, and Bexley Hall had the lowest four graduation rates according to the data released by the chancellor’s office.

However, the chancellor said “this isn’t a mission to get graduation rates up” and they’re not “measuring the success of MIT … or individuals by these graduation rate statistics.”

She said other heads of house see this as an opportunity for them and their students to examine what could be improved in their own dorms. Both students and heads of house have asked for resources such as increased access to mental health services, improved spaces for studying, and better spaces for holding large group gatherings.

“I hope that the end result is that we will see improvements across the board that students want and will be driving that process,” Barnhart said.

William Navarre contributed to reporting.