Opinion letter to the editor

Pilot 2021 is is a move in favor of student freedom, not against it

Perspective from an MIT professor and Senior House alum

My name is Mike Short (’05, PhD ’10), and I'm an assistant professor in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering. I'm one of relatively few to have both lived at Senior House and joined the faculty or staff at MIT, and I'm the faculty member serving on the Academic and Well-Being subcommittee of the Senior House Turnaround Team. I therefore would like to offer a unique perspective on the Senior House Turnaround Team and the recently announced Pilot 2021 program.

First of all, serving on the Academic and Well-Being Committee of the Senior House Turnaround Team has reminded me of the very best aspects of Haus. This is entirely due to the group of students and RAs with whom I've had the fortunate opportunity to work. Fierce individuality, an unusually strong sense of community, and a desire to forge one's path on one's own terms are the attributes I would use to describe the people with whom I have worked, as we devised ways to retain the most positive aspects of Haus while providing more opportunities for health and wellness than I could imagine. It has been, and still is, truly a privilege to serve on this committee, and it reminds me that Senior House is worth saving.

This last point is precisely why I support the Pilot 2021 program. In my brief three months living at Haus back in 2002, I was simultaneously drawn in by the culture, and strongly repelled by the rampant use of hard drugs and their effects on the people around me. There were so many great things about living at Senior House, and yet I could not remain there as I repeatedly watched my suitemates stagger out of their rooms, draped in blood and various bodily fluids, after a clearly harmful set of closed-door activities. I worried as I saw a close friend passed out in a kiddie pool full of nitrous oxide canisters, and observed a someone openly peddling a pharmacological cornucopia out of a briefcase more than once. These experiences desperately made me want to leave, despite never being forced or pressured into such activities in any way. Simply knowing they were happening, and that this unsafe culture was both widespread and accepted, was enough. Unfortunately despite the great effort this past year, it is precisely this self- and community-harming set of activities, continuing to this day, which led to the difficult decision - in effect a "hard reset" of the Senior House culture.

Today's Haus culture is strongly determined by both its current students and its alumni, meaning that the current residents are not as free as they should be to determine its future. The fact that this has been allowed to persist for so long clearly negates the all-too-frequent claims that the administration is trying to "whitewash" Senior House, or East Campus culture in general. If they were trying to do so, they would have already done it. The fact that smoking has been allowed inside Senior House until now would have been unthinkable on most college campuses. Steer Roast, which I remember as both a great celebration and a blatant disregard of personal well-being and Institute policies, would never have been allowed to exist. The Pilot 2021 program is, to me, a deliberate effort by the administration to let the current students of MIT define Senior House culture, not alumni who have neither right nor reason to impose their norms or their Haus memories upon current MIT students. This is a move in favor of student freedom, not against it.

Pilot 2021 is a concerted effort to decouple the truly separable good and bad aspects of Senior House. The strong community, the artwork, the universal acceptance of those who don't feel a fit elsewhere at MIT, and the unique outlook on life must be preserved. The drug-addled past of Towers, Steer Roast, and the self-reported higher-than-average unhappiness these things bring can and must be excised from Haus in order to keep it. If this separation cannot be done, then Senior House simply cannot continue to exist. MIT has a legal and moral obligation to protect the mental and physical and well-being of every member of its community, which is why recent incidents have forced its hand. Despite no legal obligation to do so, they appear to be giving the student body one last chance to redefine this unique culture on their terms. This is the administration giving considerable freedom to the future residents of Haus to perform this cultural hard reset on their own terms. Pilot 2021 isn't perfect, nor can any initiative ever be, and yet the more input it gets from all community stakeholders - especially the soon-to-be Senior House residents - the more successful we will be together.

To Cynthia Barnhart and the Chancellor's office, I applaud you for having the courage to do what should have been done a long time ago. The decision to temporarily vacate Senior House certainly wasn't easy to make, especially considering the still-active efforts of the Turnaround Team, and the sizeable disruption it will cause in many students' lives. I especially recognize your willingness to keep student culture in student hands, while providing the bare minimum amount of oversight to ensure that laws are not breached, and that student well-being is valued above all. This decision is, ultimately, in the best interest of Senior House and the entire MIT community.

To the soon-to-be residents of Senior House and all MIT students, it's up to you to do this right. You're being charged with the preservation of one of the oldest and most unique pillars of MIT culture. You're being given tremendous resources to pull this off. All you have to do is focus on the good. I can't imagine such a bountiful opportunity being granted at any other school, and I'm greatly optimistic to see what you will do with this chance.

To the members of the entire MIT community, I invite you to join in the discussions and bring your ideas to Pilot 2021, and whatever else may follow. Many of our fondest memories are of our undergraduate days, which is why we need to let the upcoming residents of Senior House create and foster their own community. We can all contribute meaningful ideas to the Pilot 2021 initiative, and as MIT President Reif often reminds us during difficult times, we are stronger together.