Students, alums respond to Senior House depopulation and Pilot 2021

Campus attitudes range from vitriol to optimism, students organize protest

Current students and community members respond to Pilot 2021 and residents being removed from Senior House

Recent administrative decisions pertaining to the future of Senior House and its residents have elicited a strong and vocal response from students and alumni. Reactions range from cautious optimism to skepticism to horrified outrage, with varying degrees of the latter dominating the discussion on Reddit, Facebook, and email threads that are hundreds of messages long.

Students across campus are expressing support for students affected by the decisions. Alumni and students currently off campus have supported protests held on campus through donations.

Many students are concerned that Pilot 2021 and the removal of current Senior House residents are an indication of a trend towards freshmen housing and an attack on east-side culture.

Students have compared Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart PhD ’88 to malevolent, fictional figures such as Star Wars’ Chancellor Palpatine and Harry Potter’s Professor Umbridge.

Asked if she sees a role for the UA to encourage moderation in student rhetoric, Sarah Melvin ’18, UA president, replied that “we have to understand that the folks who are making these decisions really want to do what’s best for students. They’re coming to the table with a different view of how to do that. We have to do a better job of articulating that to each other. We have to view each other with respect and be sincere in our engagement. And that’s not just a comment on the administration, that’s a comment on the students as well.”

One Senior House resident posted to sh-current his concerns that alums were going to the press with incomplete ideas of what was occurring in the dorm while current residents had been keeping silent.  

Freshmen responses

There are a handful of current MIT students who have joined the MIT 2021 Facebook group. These upperclassmen have been providing freshmen with their takes on past disagreements with administrators and posting about prevalent campus opinions surrounding the Pilot 2021 announcement.

For example, one 2017 posted an approximately 1400-word long post that began “tl;dr background on shitty things the administration does to student life.”

Freshmen responded to this post with the sentiment that it was sad to see that so many things they were excited about at MIT were diminished and not what they thought them to be.

Allie Stanton ’18, vice president of DormCon and president of East Campus, made a post encouraging a more positive and proactive approach for freshmen to use Pilot 2021 to create their own communities that carry on ideals of acceptance and freedom that Senior House embodied.

One student in the group asked if other freshmen were going to try out Pilot 2021. His post was met with a mix of cries to boycott the program and others saying that the program looked interesting.

It seemed that Pilot 2021 would give residents “additional support and opportunities,” Jenna Himawan ’21 told The Tech in an email.

Himawan had not been considering living Senior House prior to the Pilot 2021 announcement, but once she heard about the program, she did give it serious consideration. She was interested in the career exploration opportunities and the availability of meal kits. Ultimately, Himawan said that culture is very important to her in her dorm ranking decisions and that she couldn’t be sure she’d fit into the Pilot 2021 program. As such, she decided against joining Pilot 2021, but said she might change her mind during REX.

“I feel fortunate to have been accepted to a school that is so concerned about student life that it is investing the resources necessary to support those living at Senior House,” Himawan wrote.

Another freshman, Adira Balzac ’21 wrote to The Tech that she was “surprised by the level of bias” in much of the information she’d seen from upperclassmen and said that at times information they gave was not factual.

“I saw one post where the poster said that ethical hacking was created by the administration to shut hacking down, but my parents (both alums and both hackers) were there when ethical hacking was started by the hackers in the 1980s to keep people from getting hurt trying to take down complex hacks,” Balzac wrote.

Balzac said that some upperclassmen have treated her “like an ignorant child for questioning the narrative that the administration has always hated Senior House” and that these communications have not been “warm or welcoming.”

There’s “a lot of anger towards the administration and refusal to consider the value of the Pilot 2021 program,” Balzac wrote.

Balzac was not originally considering living in Senior House because it previously allowed smoking, and is not considering joining Pilot 2021.

“[T]he whole thing feels very rushed and cobbled together at the last minute,” Balzac said, adding that it seemed to her that “the administration probably didn’t want to do this.”

Some in the 2021 Facebook group figured that if most freshmen ranked Pilot last, that nobody will live there. However, the chancellor countered this claim. She said that the administration will acknowledge there is a problem if many freshman rank Pilot last, but that leaving one dorm empty would cause crowding in other dorms, which administrators will seek to avoid.

Concerns about impact on minority, low-income, and LGBTQ students

Senior House is hailed as a welcoming environment for LGBTQ students and other marginalized groups. Some students feel that by disbanding current residents, the MIT administration is attacking these students.

An upperclassman in the 2021 Facebook group told freshmen that administrators misused data by neglecting to consider confounding factors such as socioeconomic status and sexual orientation when making the decision to exclude freshmen from Senior House last fall.

The chancellor’s office has stated that it analyzed graduation rates based on these factors and others, and found that graduation rates for disadvantaged groups across MIT were higher than rates for those groups at Senior House. The chancellor responded to other concerns about the data behind the decision last July.

Abigail Francis, director of LBGT Services told The Tech that it is hard to predict how changes to Senior House will impact LGBTQ residents but that her office is “committed to ensuring the equity and affirmation of all LGBTQ students, especially those impacted by this change.”

Yuge Ji ’18, DormCon president, said that how Pilot 2021 is implemented will determine if it will be as supportive an environment for marginalized groups as Senior House has been claimed to have been. Ji mentioned that creating spaces for LGBTQ students on campus is more than just including gender neutral bathrooms. It is creating “a place where all identities are not only accepted but overwhelmingly present and visible to those who might sometimes struggle to find a sense of belonging.”

Collectively, the heads of house support the chancellor's plan for Senior House, David Singer, associate head of MacGregor House and Undergraduate Head of House Convener wrote to The Tech. “There is nothing more important to us than students' safety and welfare.”

Singer said that the heads of house “celebrate the diversity of residential cultures” in MIT communities, but that they need to “prioritize student health above all else.”

“[W]e take pride in creating a welcoming environment for LGBTQ+ students and those from all socioeconomic backgrounds,” Singer wrote. “To any Senior House student looking to relocate to another dorm, the Heads of House say: you are welcome here.”

Students debate methods of taking action

Some students debated on ec-discuss whether or not to boycott, or otherwise subvert, next year’s CPW as a form of protest of the decisions surrounding Senior House.

DormCon, however, does not endorse those actions.

“We don't believe that it is a productive action. REX and CPW are our times to showcase our vibrant and unique cultures to incoming freshmen, and giving up on that opportunity in protest of this decision would be hurting the very thing that we are trying to show that we care about,” Stanton wrote to The Tech.

Students took to organizing a protest which occurred on campus Friday. In emails, students debated what the protest’s objectives are and strategized on how to achieve them on an email thread.

Students wrote a list of demands for administrators to take which included updating the community values of Pilot 2021 to incorporate more of Senior House’s existing values, information about who will be reviewing students’ applications should be released, and that freshmen-only housing not become a principle of MIT housing.

Melvin said that she was still optimistic about interactions with administration going forward. “This a hurdle, it’s not their decision-making at their best.” She said that the UA would work to make sure that in the future, students are involved in big decisions from the start, not just in negotiations on small decisions after the big ones have already been made.