Letters to members of the MIT Administration
Students and alumni respond to the decisions that will affect Senior House
Editor’s Note: Below is a small sample of the many letters sent by MIT students and alumni responding to the administration's decisions that affect Senior House. Many of these letters have been shortened from their original versions, and all are reprinted here with permission from their authors. More full-length letters are available on the Senior House website.
I’m only two weeks into my internship. Today in the middle of the workday several MIT alumni approached me: “Are you okay? Do you want to take a few hours before dealing with work? What dorm do you live in?” I had no idea what they were talking about. “Check your email.”
When I interviewed for internships, and when I talk to colleagues/friends about my MIT experience, only a small portion of the conversation consists of academics. I made things that worked; I made things that broke; I gained a deeper understanding of materials and machine design by intentionally making things that worked then breaking them. I helped design a rollercoaster, organized its construction, tore it down. I am currently living in an apartment in California with a Moving Day collapsable kayak that I designed and partly built in my dorm’s basement. When I talk about MIT, I talk not only about things I’ve tried but also the friends I made and the amazing things they've done. Some of these friends graduate in the prescribed four years. Some take gap years, time on leave, or extra internship time. Some change their interests and major halfway through and rush through to graduation. Some finish early.
MIT is unique. Its current students and its alumni have affinities to their dorms like other schools have school pride. I like our diverse dorm culture. I like that MIT's incoming students are currently treated as adults able to choose their own living environments with the freedom to expand comfort zones, find a niche and not worry about fitting in, and/or a little bit of both. As a freshman, I especially appreciated living with a “family” of upperclassmen to support me as I fumbled around MIT. As I gained experience and knowledge, I appreciated that MIT gave its students more freedom to try and make new things than any other school I’ve seen. Now, I appreciate meeting alumni and discovering that they too take pride in their living groups and their time at MIT. Alumni who have never overlapped with me care about what is happening to Senior Haus and by extension to the undergraduate community and how the news affects me.
I am privileged. I’m straight; I’m a natural US domestic; I have a supportive, stable family that with financial aid allows me to not worry about money, identity (race, gender, or otherwise), and drama. I came into college with robust mental and physical health. I made friends fairly easily and have not had to be their sole support link for mental health or otherwise. I knew fairly early on what I wanted to do with my life and therefore have had a straightforward curriculum. My vices are mundane: caffeine most days, alcohol maybe once or twice a month, overambitious schedules every other term. I'm on track to graduating within four years with little issue, but my path was relatively easy. Others walk harder paths, and by living with them I am lucky to have gained some perspective.
I am biased. I live in East Campus, so when I look at the data presented as evidence for illicit drug use as a causal reason for lower graduation rates (of people who have chosen Senior House as a first-term dorm) I am skeptical. Senior Haus, characteristic of the East Side dorms, presents itself as a welcoming environment for, and has a higher concentration of, students exploring new identities (in gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc.) than they had at home often resulting in internal/external conflict that has to be dealt with along with academics. But I won’t be hypocritical and only consider some data and not others: Senior Haus, characteristic of the East Side dorms, also presents itself as a welcoming environment for, and has a higher concentration of, students exploring new experiences like drugs. Some of these drugs are legal (I like caffeine and alcohol and exercise-rush), and some are not. I won’t argue the correlation between living groups and lower graduation rates, though I question the validity of using first-living-group instead of most-time-spent-with-living-group, which completely ignores FSILGs (generally not an option to incoming freshmen) and transfers. I also question the leap of assigning drug use as the primary causal reason for lower graduation rates, since I can think of so many other factors.
I am privileged and biased. My use of drugs is all legal, I have few major stresses in my life, and I have had the joy of experiencing East Campus and making friends who also have pride in their living group and MIT. I am privileged because East Campus still has freshmen and the ability to build things, knock things down, and continue to develop East Campus culture towards its residents’ interests. Bexley was not so lucky. New House is not so lucky. And now, Senior Haus will no longer be so lucky. I am biased because I am afraid outsiders will look at East Campus and our scary wooden structures, dyed hair, weird traditions and say “These people could better spend their time studying.” I am afraid that if this continues maybe conversations between MIT summer interns and their colleagues will only consist of classwork and not creative personal projects. I am biased because after talking to fellow interns and colleagues, I think the undergraduate experiences of Caltech and Harvard are honestly boring. That was my impression as a prospective freshman; now I’m at MIT.
I’m still a student. I haven’t advanced enough in a career to completely support myself, much less have the ability to influence MIT policy with donations. I want to go on to grad school, and so will continue to have very little influence for quite some time. As a student, I don’t have to consider external factors that would pressure me to emphasize graduating in four years. As a student, I am biased towards treating freshmen as adults and letting them continue to choose their living groups — even if data is provided that suggests one living group has a significantly lower graduation rate than others. I think disallowing freshmen to join a living group is a severe blow to the community and implore the Chancellor to reconsider this action. The Chancellor has a responsibility and advocacy for undergraduate education and student life; going directly to disallowing freshmen instead of substance-education programs or other measures seems more like cutting support as opposed to providing it.
Sometimes I look back and think I’ve done a lot for East Campus and MIT student life. Sometimes I look back and think I’ve done very little.
I am only one voice affiliated with only one dorm, but I hope MIT will give future undergraduates as rich of an experience as it has given me.
Thank you for your time,
Ava Chen ’17
Dear Chancellor Barnhart,
1. How is it known that the lower Senior House graduation rate is due to the Senior House environment rather than other factors such as common demographics and/or risk factors among those choosing as freshmen to live in Senior House?
2. Is it possible that Senior House could be fostering HIGHER graduation rates for the set of students who, as freshmen, self-select as Senior House residents due to a high degree of sympathetic and beneficial peer support among a group sharing common factors such as demographics, personality, sexuality, and world view, which may predispose them to higher risk of failing to graduate?
3. Is it possible that forced dispersion of freshmen who would otherwise choose to live in Senior House could, by denying the critical opportunity for sympathetic peer support, INCREASE the risk of failure to graduate for this subpopulation?
As someone who has successfully practiced multivariate data analysis professionally over the course of several decades, I am alarmed that you mislabel graduation rates as “data” rather than as outcomes. I am equally alarmed that, should the answer to question 3 above be in the affirmative, it would be very difficult to detect and measure the additional harmful outcomes which the new Senior House freshmen housing policy would inflict on the affected students.
I am very concerned that dispersing more vulnerable students to other dormitories — students who would otherwise choose, as freshmen, to live in Senior House with those they perceive as highly sympathetic and supportive because of shared demographics, personality, sexuality, and world view — may deprive them of precisely the kind of support that increases their chances of success.
It may be far better to focus on ways of enhancing the success of those living at Senior House without eliminating what may be the most critically important benefit available to those freshmen: feeling at home and living among supportive peers in Senior House.
Richard Kramer ’75
Editor’s Note: Senior House president Sarah Melvin posted the following letter on the dorm website.
Dear Chancellor Barnhart,
I too am troubled by the statistics you shared with the MIT community this past Friday. Few people care about the health and success of Senior House residents more than myself. I know many of the stories behind the numbers you cite; where you see statistics, I see faces.
I would like to say that I am grateful that you are in support of a dedicated mental health professional for Senior House. This is something that we as a community have requested for years, and I only wish it could have happened sooner. I also applaud the expansion of S^3 services, which student groups have been working toward, and I think that all dorms could benefit from this program.
However, I think some of your proposals are potentially harmful for student wellbeing. As you are aware, Senior House contains a very large queer population. LGBT freshmen and freshmen who are questioning and confused about their gender identity and sexual orientation often choose to live in Senior House because they know that they will be accepted by their neighbors. These students often come from backgrounds and high schools where they felt marginalized and isolated, but in Senior House they find a place where they are no longer outcasts. It is incredibly important for students to feel safe and accepted where they live — and Senior House has played this role for many of its queer residents. I, and many other current residents, feel it is extremely important that freshman are given the choice to live in our community. It is also essential to acknowledge that the LGBTQ population that is so integral to the Senior House community is at significantly greater risk for mental illness and substance abuse, and we must provide greater support for these students.
I share your goal of improving academic performance among Senior House residents, decreasing drug use, and fostering supportive communities. Below is a list of proposals that I believe are well suited to reach this goal:
1. Senior House receives a dedicated mental health professional, and all consultations between students and this mental health professional will be HIPAA compliant. Many residents come to MIT with existing mental health issues; providing them with accessible medical care is crucial to their success at MIT.
2. All current Senior House GRTs are allowed to remain in Senior House GRT apartments. GRTs are an essential part of the student support structure. Many residents already have established relationships with our GRTs and feel comfortable going to them when they are struggling.
3. Senior House has S^3 office hours within the dorm. Ideally this program is expanded to all dorms, as all MIT students could benefit from it.
4. Mandatory prevention programs are created and run by our mental health professional, that outline the risks of drug and alcohol use and provide information about mental health and substance abuse resources on campus. This program is required for all residents and will run annually for new residents. A committee of students is formed to work under the direction of our mental health professional, to engage in ongoing improvement of these materials and programs, with the aim of creating programs that have real impact.
5. Dedicated study spaces are created in Senior House, similar to the space that exists in Maseeh. Currently, Senior House lacks this resource, and therefore, studying and socializing often occupy the same spaces. It is crucial that we provide residents with spaces designed specifically for academic use in order to promote better study practices within the community.
6. A peer tutoring program is created to run in this space, where residents volunteer to tutor other residents who may be struggling in classes where they excelled. While statistics show that Senior House residents take longer to graduate, the dorm is also home to many students who excel in some of the most rigorous courses of study at MIT. Some of these students have expressed interest in providing academic support for other residents.
7. An Alumni-Mentorship program is established with the goal of connecting successful Senior House alumni with current residents to provide them with academic and career advice.
8. Freshmen, while not given Senior House as an option in the housing lottery, will be allowed to FYRE into the dorm if they still wish to live in Senior House despite these statistics. Upperclassmen will also be given the option to transfer into the dorm. It is crucial for MIT students, especially freshmen, to find housing on campus where they feel completely accepted by their peers, and I believe Senior House provides this for many students. I also believe that freshmen are necessary for a successful turnaround in Senior House. In every living group, freshmen are the future. They revitalize the community, direct its growth, and are most capable of designing a positive future for the dorm.
9. A freshmen mentorship program will be established that matches freshmen with upperclassmen who share similar academic interests and have excelled in their coursework.
10. A “turnaround team” chaired by Chancellor Barnhart and consisting of faculty, campus student leaders, Senior House residents, and Senior House GRTs, will help implement these changes and establish clearly defined metrics to evaluate their success. Senior House residents will work with the Chancellor to choose dedicated members of the MIT community to serve on this committee.
11. The Chancellor’s Office and turnaround team will oversee the process of procuring appropriate funds to implement these changes. Funds should not come from the House budget or from increasing cost of living in Senior House, an MIT residence that has historically been home to many low-income students.
As troubled as I am by these statistics, I am also deeply concerned about the lack of transparency and student input in decisions that so greatly affect the lives of MIT students. I have already stated that I care greatly about the residents of Senior House. I also know their struggles and their support structures. I have long been concerned about mental health and substance abuse issues in Senior House, and I have thought extensively about these issues and how to best aid my community. I am frankly offended that I was not consulted about this matter and that my input was not valued. This process has been disrespectful to MIT student government as an institution and to the student leaders who work tirelessly for their peers. If your intention really is to engage the community, it is important that trust is built and that decisions are reached together. In the present state, students are fearful of the administration, and this fear will need to be addressed before we can start working towards our shared goals.
I want to again emphasize that I share your concern for the Senior House community. I would like to work with you and others to establish creative solutions for the unique challenges faced by the residents of Senior House.
Sarah Melvin ’18
Senior House President
Dear Chancellor Barnhart,
At times, to live in a dorm like East Campus is to nail the inside of the soul to the wall. For the administration to take stock of these bleeding walls and then recoil is for the administration to finally witness the same face it bared — at least in some part (and in many different forms) — to all its students. To me, well beyond its murals, the walls were an easel, a prison, a tantrum, a splash zone, and a lifeboat. They absorbed and echoed my love, my hatred, my collateral damage, and as they pressed in I pressed them back and I grew stronger, and I thanked them for keeping me sheltered under snowy Boston skies in the only life I knew how to live.
Many dark murals, themes, mythologies, and stories are historic and cherished on the East Side of campus because they testify to the fact that for MIT to build the students that it does, it has always had a dark side, and it always will. And to live next to these things and not meet their creators is to be reminded every day that there were students — nearly all of them, in fact — who did make it out despite their pain, and in the end, nearly all of us will too.
Chancellor Barnhart and other administrators dislike that there are many students who must take more than four years to escape from our coloring-book-wallpaper East Side asylums, and yet are simultaneously excited by the now apparently High Art that they produce. To see this administration’s confliction is to see it attack MIT itself. It is to see MIT having a crisis not with the dorms, but with the very shadow that it casts upon them. It is to see them hold down and order the student-sufferer to get in line and suffer like Normal People.
Why does the East Side have the “scary dorm”? Because MIT is scary and dark, and the East Side is where we have allowed that truth to shine most brightly.
To take on the “responsibility to provide students with an environment where [they] can succeed academically” is to accept that that environment is unique to each student, that it is in resonance with the many faces that MIT itself takes, and that it will not always be as Technicolor as the administration might dream. In their MIT News emails, administrators are proud to showcase East Campus when it builds a roller coaster, but they do not admit to the MIT roller coaster that built those in East Campus. I know that the administration is fiercely proud of us (or at least the parts of us they currently understand), and that their concern for our well-being is genuine and sincere, but they betray a lack of vision, trust, and self-awareness.
Looking back, IHTFP — and I am forever grateful to have lived in a dorm that admitted it. I know I wouldn’t have made it otherwise.
Always in good faith and as one voice among many,
Maximilien Baas-Thomas ’16
Dear Chancellor Barnhart,
I’d like to share a couple anecdotes of why freshmen need to find a home they can be happy in.
As a freshman, I had visited most of the dorms during CPW. By far, I had the best experience in Next House, and yet when it came to choosing, I put down Maseeh as my first choice — it was a safer choice, closer to campus, still new enough that the incoming freshmen classes would make up a disproportionate share of the residents and thus in theory a better dorm for freshmen to live in ... and it was okay, but I struggled. I didn’t find I was making a lot of friends there — my corner of the hall had about 14 freshmen and two upperclassmen. I never connected with any of them, and the freshmen never really came out of our rooms or hung out in the lounge.
In the spring, I did abysmally. I overextended myself in many extracurriculars, searching for the community that I didn’t have in Maseeh, and I eventually found it toward the end of the semester, in the Association of Taiwanese Students and Next House. ATS was incredibly welcoming, and I made incredible friends there. Much of ATS exec was living in Next House at the time, so I began hanging out there, and I finally discovered home. The upperclassmen were incredible — mind-bogglingly successful, inspirational, and caring.
This particular set of upperclassmen, mostly 2014s and 2015s, was key in revolutionizing Next House’s culture, most notably starting Next Big Thing and Next Haunt, our giant building event for CPW and REX, and our escape the room haunted house, respectively. They built infolounge, a dashboard we set up in the lounge to see important events, upcoming birthdays, how long until the next shuttle, or even the menu in dining that day. They also built Nigel, an exit sign with googly eyes that we installed in the lounge, which also happened to be an AI that could talk to you, query WolframAlpha and Wikipedia, knew the birthdays and hometowns of everyone on hall, as well as many other things, and probably approached Siri in ability, built by a few college students over the course of a couple weekends. Incidentally, Victor, one of the primary founding members of all of these things, graduated in 4.5 years — he took an extra semester to attempt to add a minor in Course 2, as well as to take 2.009. Hunter, another instrumental figure in many Next House activities, graduated in 5 years — she helped direct Next Act and was one of the leads for Next Big Thing.
Seeing these wonderful engineering treasures inspired me to change majors — I thought as a freshman that I wanted to be a chemistry major, but after seeing the incredible things Next had built, I switched to 2A. After realizing my interests lie a bit more in computer science, I added 6 as a double major, and it’s been an incredible decision for me.
Finding a place that you belong is difficult — many students come into MIT and exit MIT as very different people, but finding a home where you are welcomed and celebrated is instrumental to success at the Institute. Preventing freshmen from choosing Senior Haus is a huge disservice to them because many would have found a home there, so I urge you to reconsider this decision.
To end, I’d like to ask a few questions, to understand the process better and figure out some ways to move forward.
1. Could you release the full set of data that would include confounding factors to graduation rate, so that these may be considered appropriately?
2. Why were no current students or GRTs contacted to be involved in the decision-making process?
Thank you for your time,
Landon Carter ’17
I am writing today as I am deeply disturbed by the handling of, and methods of obtaining, the data on student drug abuse used to support the argument behind the new measures announced Friday. I’m a Senior Haus resident, but my opinions are my own.
An extensive mental health survey was given to students in spring 2015. This survey covered questions on the student’s financial situation, academic performance, drug use, sexual habits, sexual assault history, religion, self-image, and of course, mental health. Students were told that the survey was confidential, and that their candid input would help improve the MIT student experience.
The aggregated results of this survey — namely, self-reported data on drug use — were presented to the Chancellor several months ago and used as part of the rationale for the measures announced on Friday to Senior House residents and the wider MIT Community — including alumni, faculty, and parents. The Chancellor explained this to GRTs and house residents in a June meeting held after the announcement.
I do not think it right that these measures were made in the name of student mental health without consulting a single student. As many have expressed, they seem highly punitive. An estimated 30 empty rooms, with no freshmen or transfers in a house of 146, and only vague indications of future policy reconsideration is the start of depopulation, and an existential threat. And I find it especially galling that this survey data, given voluntarily and in trust, would be used against the student community in this fashion. The survey questions were incredibly personal in a number of ways and their answers should have been treated with more consideration for the students who believed that they were better informing mental health professionals, not providing fodder for widespread public shaming and the breakup of their community.
I agree that the results are troubling, and we should definitely work on understanding and fixing them. I don’t think the culture is perfect and residents have been working on ways to improve the community and make it a more welcoming environment. We would have loved the opportunity to consider more quantitative data and use that to implement new and better methods. But we were not told, and I am deeply unsettled by the way that the administration has chosen to approach this.
Haus residents have been pushing for additional mental health resources for years. The measures given by the administration — which they informed us were non-negotiable — involved removing GRTs, who are integral to our community support structure, and displacing them from their apartments in favor of live-in administrative staff. The students provide input in selecting the GRTs in a months-long process over the school year. One such GRT, chosen over the last few months, had been informed that she no longer had a job. Only after follow-up meetings with the administration was it decided that our GRTs were allowed to stay in their designated apartments.
We have long-standing community interfaces with the administration in the form of the House Team — the GRTs, the House President and different student committees — for providing student input on issues which affect us. They were all notified on Friday, after the fact, even after The Tech interview given by the Chancellor, which was in the morning. No one had even tried to discuss the graduation rate statistic — a statistic whose utility, both as a measure of success and as a mathematically sound statistical inference, has been questioned by the community — with us before putting out a press release and emailing it to our parents.
The Chancellor’s office has access to self-reported data on which dorm is the most depressed, which living group has the lowest aspirations or the lowest GPA. Which living group experiences the most sexual assault. Which living group is drinking the most. And the administration has demonstrated that they find it acceptable to unilaterally decide what actions to take from this, without even the pretense of input from the students affected.
I think these survey results are incredibly valuable and have the potential to bring aid to where it is needed. Chancellor Barnhart, I respect that you are taking action and pushing for improvements. But it must be done through working with the students affected, or else you will lose their trust entirely. Unfortunately, the handling of this survey data may have already severely crippled administrative ability to get honest feedback.
As a final, important question: question A6 on the survey asks about living situation, but breaks it down by ‘on-campus residence hall,’ ‘frat or sorority,’ ‘ILG,’ and others. We were certainly never told that additional information would to be tied to our survey answers. How did you acquire the dorm-specific numbers?
Thank you all for reading,
Anvita Pandit ’17
Dear Chancellor Barnhart and Professor Bertschinger,
I am writing to add my voice to the growing chorus of concern about MIT’s plans for Senior House.
I am an alum from Senior House, of course. I graduated class of 1993, Course 8, with a reasonable GPA of 4.6/5, within the standard four years. I also later brought my NSF Astronomy & Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellowship to MIT in 2002 to 2005, before I was hired as a faculty member at the University of Amsterdam, where I am currently an associate professor. I am a success story from MIT, about to join the roughly two percent of female full professors in the hard sciences in the Netherlands, and I guess maybe ten percent in the U.S.
As an academic, who also served for several years as the director of the graduate program in Astronomy & Astrophysics at my university, I completely understand why you are concerned about an anomalously low graduation rate for any dorm. I also understand the need to react in a public way, to satisfy various demands of parents, donors, alumni, and of course, to avoid anything that could adversely affect the reputation for a high-quality education that MIT offers to its students. As a proud product of that education, I have a vested interest in seeing MIT maintain the quality and the special atmosphere that I feel MIT offers, in comparison to all other top tier universities.
However, I do not believe I would have made it through without the support network I found at Senior House. My grades do not reflect the moments of utter despair and panic I sometimes felt, such as in my first semester when I realised that my background in science was nowhere near as strong as seemingly everyone around me. I resented the students who blithely ate whatever they wanted at the student dining halls, when I could only afford a basic plan and then mostly had to cook for myself. I also had to work to support myself, luckily managing to eventually get a paying research job, to which I credit the start of my career. I had to work summers. And I had a mentally ill father who was unemployed, erratic and a cause of great stress. I managed to fund my degree at MIT by working, taking out the largest student loans allowed, receiving a lot of scholarships (thank you MIT!), and using the money my mother could scrape together to match the modest parental contribution (thank you Mom!). But still there were times when it looked like we were not going to manage, and I lived with the stress of wondering if I would have to drop out because of financial reasons.
I believe that Senior House holds a higher concentration of people who, like I did, dedicate a higher fraction of their mental and emotional energy to some kind of struggle, whether it is because they are from an underrepresented group or a lower socioeconomic class (and in many cases, both). I succeeded at MIT because I found people there with whom I did not feel ashamed, who could understand my struggles because they had their own struggles, and where I could just relax and be myself.
Part of the responsibility MIT has in fostering a more diverse student body is to recognize the underlying causes for lower metrics and try to help rather than further stigmatize. The struggles many Senior House students face may correlate with higher incidence of mental illness. Does this contribute to lower graduation rates? Of course it does. Is Senior House the problem, as the approach currently chosen by the MIT administration would suggest? I do not think so.
I am all for an approach that helps students at Senior House get more support, to help them achieve academic success. However, I come out strongly against the decision to close the dorm and prevent incoming freshmen from choosing Senior House. There is no way that this decision can be seen as anything but singling out Senior House as a problem dorm, and it will stigmatize and traumatize exactly the group MIT should want to help. What sign does this send to future applicants from these groups? You would be taking away the chance for new students from nontraditional and diverse backgrounds to find that home away from home, and support network, that may allow them to feel part of a community at MIT and succeed.
What is happening at Senior House reflects the problems faced by a more diverse student body, and if MIT truly wants to foster “community and equity,” closing the most diverse dorm to incoming freshmen simply sends the wrong signal.
Sera Markoff ’93
This is an abridged version of Markoff's original letter, which can be found here.