Some student concerns as Senior House turnaround commences

Senior House’s turnaround that Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart PhD ’88 announced over the summer is well underway with committees tackling substantive issues, but the turnaround has not been a completely smooth process.

For upperclassmen across campus, the arrival of freshmen to the dorms signals the beginning of a new year — but for some Senior House residents, who did not welcome freshmen into their community this fall, the year does not seem to have begun.

Tensions from last spring persist, and residents are having a difficult time adjusting to the new semester without freshmen to provide the dorm with a fresh perspective, energy, and enthusiasm.

“It’s very hard as a community to grow and look forward when you don’t have freshmen,” Senior House President Sarah Melvin ’17 said. She added that the building is “also just kind of empty — a lot of empty rooms. It’s just not as dynamic as it usually is. There are a lot of locked doors.”

Residents have expressed frustration at the lack of clear-cut criteria from the administration. For many residents, their primary goal is to reach a position where freshmen are allowed to live in the dorm again.

Mehendale said, “Right now we’re being asked to define the metrics for our own success, but it’s kind of confusing because we haven’t been told what we did wrong, so we’re not sure what [the administration is] looking for.”

The Turnaround Team is made up of the Steering Committee and four supporting committees, which handle issues surrounding community, self-governance, academic and personal well-being, and space. Each committee includes undergraduate Senior House residents, alumni, faculty, and an administrator.

Initially, several undergraduate committee members, including co-president James Handy ’18, were unable to attend scheduled Turnaround Team meetings due to time conflicts. However, after residents brought the issue to light, the Chancellor worked with students to reschedule the meetings.

The committees have been working on a variety of projects including substance-abuse prevention and an alumni mentorship program. The space committee has created dedicated study spaces and held a meeting in September to hear resident suggestions and requests for the new rooms. In addition, Senior House is purchasing an Athena Cluster per student request.

In addition, construction to convert first floor rooms into apartments has been ongoing since August. The apartments will house a visiting artist as well as Kristen Covino, the new assistant head of house.

At the beginning of the school year, the construction started early each morning, causing issues for students living nearby. However, with the assistance of administrators, the hours were negotiated to a later time, and construction will be halted during finals week. Barnhart stated that the construction will be completed before Thanksgiving.

Senior House is known for its often unconventional and sex-positive REX events. However, these events are, in some ways, more for show and tradition than to provide an accurate representation of day-to-day Senior House life.

Senior House resident Ru Mehendale ’20 said that “people in Senior House perpetuate the rumors because we don’t want students moving here for the facilities, but that’s something we’ve tried to stop doing because it’s not a good reputation to have.”

In a previous article in The Tech, a freshman cited Senior House’s air conditioning and nice facilities as a reason he wanted to live in Senior House, so residents’ concerns are not unfounded.

However, residents worry that the administration was basing decisions off rumors and stereotypes rather than from the reality of daily life at Senior House. Going forward, Senior House will be hosting more events and hopes that freshmen will take the time to visit and learn more about the culture in a hands-on way.

In this vein, Senior House residents have raised concerns that the data supporting the administration’s conclusions was inaccurate. In an article in The Tech in July and again in a recent interview, Melvin requested the names and dates of the surveys used, but Chancellor Barnhart declined to provide the source of those data she used to make her decisions.

Some residents felt that the original announcement about the turnaround had an accusatory undertone, especially since the source of the data remains unknown. More information about the number of students who replied, the type of survey, and the method of analysis is needed to make a definite conclusion on the claims about drug use the Chancellor made in the email.

The email did link to hard data about graduation rates, but Senior House residents say that data — which cites rates from 2008 to 2015 — is no longer representative of Senior House’s current culture.

The students in the data no longer live at Senior House — many have not for almost a decade — and Senior House residents assert improvements have been made since then.

Melvin said “it’s frustrating because I think we’ve been doing a lot to make the culture healthier over the past few years, and that is not always acknowledged.”

The abrupt announcement of Senior House’s closing to freshmen caused issues for some families, especially those with existing tensions. The data presented in the email — highlighting low graduation rates and drug use — caused anxiety for some parents, who wanted their students to move out. Some students did move out, while others argued to stay. In an email, Barnhart stated she was unaware of these issues and was unable to provide a statement.

The Turnaround Team committees will meet next week to discuss progress and future plans. Barnhart did not provide any goals in her statement to The Tech but said she believes the result of the October meeting will be a set of concrete goals for the school year.