Administration decides to resettle Senior House residents, citing “unhealthy behavior” during last year’s turnaround period

Residents criticize admin’s actions and claims, decry lack of student input

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A hack appeared on Kresge lawn Thursday in response to the removal of current residents from Senior House and Pilot 2021.
Daniel Gonzalez
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The Tech received this redacted screenshot of Senior House house meeting minutes from May 17

All current Senior House residents will need to go through a “selective” application process in order to live in the dorm next year, Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart PhD ’88 announced in an email to Senior House residents June 12. Undergraduates not in Senior House were not officially notified of this decision.

Barnhart said in an interview with The Tech that it was “devastating” to learn that “very serious, unhealthy behavior” occurred throughout the dorm’s turnaround period and that “negative aspects of the culture persisted” in Senior House despite what seemed to be promising progress throughout the fall semester.

As a result of these findings, MIT’s administration decided that current residents would be moved out of Senior House, the chancellor said.  

Residents told The Tech the problematic behavior cited by the administration was drug-related and included the purchase and distribution of drugs.

Other notable changes include the unprecedented banning of cats and smoking in the dorm. Murals in bedrooms will be painted over but administrators will work with students on “different ways to preserve” other murals, David Randall, senior associate dean of student life and wellbeing, told The Tech in an email.

Barnhart said moving students out of Senior House created another challenge: how to fill the beds in Senior House so as to not cause overcrowding in other dorms. She and other top administrators decided to use the space to house displaced New House students, first-year students, and some upperclassmen who are to be selected in the application process.

Throughout last week, students took to mailing lists and social media to express their frustrations and anger with the decisions, and organized a protest which occurred on campus Friday.

Behind the decision to resettle residents

When asked how many students were involved with the “dangerous behavior,” the chancellor only responded that the problem was “widespread,” and indicated that students living in Senior House would be “implicated” if she disclosed further details. She later elaborated that administration had found that the situation involved “widespread knowledge and acceptance” of the dangerous behavior.

Barnhart similarly cited “dangerous behavior” as the reason for canceling Senior House’s annual Steer Roast this past spring.

Barnhart said Senior House students were aware that having all current residents move out of the dorm was on the table, but students did not have prior knowledge that a program like Pilot 2021 was being considered.

Sabrina Madera ’19, co-president of Senior House, said that residents generally didn’t know what exactly the chancellor was considering, but assumed that the dorm would likely be depopulated.

Madera said that residents were in conversations with the chancellor’s office throughout the semester and suggested solutions such as continuing the turnaround next year and removing the “individuals found doing the dangerous behavior.”

The uncertainty around when students would receive a decision about the future of Senior House was incredibly stressful for students throughout the final weeks of the semester, Madera said.

After the announcement last Monday, it seemed to Madera that most of the input Senior House residents gave was “not taken into account.”

Madera said that the idea of having an application process to live in the dorm was something that came out of discussions she had had with the associate head of Senior House, Kristen Covino, but that it wasn’t Madera’s “favorite idea.”

The head and associate head of Senior House did not reply to requests for comment.

“Dangerous behavior” and investigating drug use in the dorm

The Tech received a lightly redacted screenshot of minutes from a May 17 Senior House house meeting during which administrative representatives told residents that the MIT Police received information about “ongoing drug purchases, ordering, and distribution” within the dorm.

The Tech confirmed with two Senior House residents that a house meeting occurred on May 17 and that the minutes were authentic, but was unable to reach the police for comment

Senior House resident Sienna Ramos ’18 said that administrators launched an investigation as part of a review process in Senior House, interviewing students about their drug use and their knowledge of drug use in the dorm.

Participation in the interviews was “completely voluntary” and “[s]tudents were provided with a number of procedural safeguards, including the ability to have an advisor accompany them in the interview,” Barnhart told The Tech in an email.

However, Ramos said that while participating was technically optional, administrators encouraged all residents to attend the interviews. Residents were told that “not cooperating would make things worse for [them]” and residents were generally worried that Senior House would be closed entirely, so many students chose to participate in the interviews, Ramos said.  

“It felt like we were all going through a [Committee on Discipline] process, except the majority of us hadn't done anything wrong,” Ramos wrote to The Tech.

Ramos mentioned that administrators seemed to not believe residents who told them they didn’t know anything about drug activity in the dorm and that administrators “seemed to only accept evidence when it already fit their idea about what was happening” in Senior House.

The minutes reported that 75 percent of residents participated in the interviews and that the interviewers discovered “distribution patterns” of drugs both among Senior House residents as well as outside of the dorm.

The chancellor confirmed that a majority of residents participated in the interviews.

Privacy of information during the turnaround

The chancellor and Senior House leadership both confirmed to The Tech that they were working together to respect students’ privacy with regard to the “dangerous behavior” in the dorm, especially after students responded negatively to the amount of information administrators shared last summer with the community regarding the decision to disallow freshmen in the dorm.

“[It was] my understanding that the students wanted us to keep this private,” Barnhart said.

Madera confirmed that Senior House residents expressed a similar desire for privacy, but said it “felt like a double-edged sword in the fact that it benefited individuals' privacy and was something administration did not want to be public, but was detrimental to the community as a whole.”

“I think there's a better way to handle [the secrecy] than we did. That's on both [students and administrators],” Madera said, explaining that they should have further discussed the extent of the secrecy.

“I was afraid to talk about it with anyone, even with UA and DormCon,” Madera said. “There was this fear that if I said something, it would get back to administration and show that we weren't acting in ‘good faith’ by respecting the terms of the agreement and we would effectively lose all trust, jeopardizing the entire community.”

Madera told The Tech that residents were under the impression that if they spoke out against the review process in any way, that the administration would be compelled to reveal information that residents preferred to keep private.

A common narrative among Senior House students is that they often felt that talking to The Tech or other non-residents would jeopardize their position in the turnaround.

The chancellor was visibly shocked upon hearing that students were under this impression and said that this was not the situation as she understood it. “I think every student can talk to whomever they want about whatever they want,” Barnhart said.

Progress and setbacks during the turnaround

In December 2016, the chancellor announced that everyone was “on the right trajectory … to welcome first-year students back to Senior House in the fall.”

“I think a lot of residents believe that the culture did get dramatically better this year,” Sarah Melvin ’18, president of the UA and member of the Senior House turnaround team said in an interview with The Tech. “There was a significant reduction in substance use in the community, and people were focusing more on positive projects and academics.”

“But,” she added, “you can’t expect a whole community to be fixed in a few months.”

Melvin told The Tech she was given the impression that the pressure to take extreme action came from senior administration, rather than from DSL, in response to a perceived insufficient change in the situation.

Melvin said that various programs discussed in the fall as part of the turnaround were never given the chance to be implemented. These programs included alumni connections, peer mentorship, hall chair positions, and drug and alcohol training beyond the single screening event that took place. There was an emphasis on student input in carrying out these programs — something that’s lacking, Melvin said, in the Pilot 2021 framework.

The “turnaround process all but stopped after IAP. The chancellor stopped scheduling the larger committee meetings and a lot of the smaller committees sort of petered out,” Melvin said. “So it was frustrating to hear the chancellor say that they tried, that the turnaround was a chance for the students to improve — but they didn’t really give us a chance to implement all the stuff we discussed.”

“Senior House residents acknowledge the community is struggling with drug abuse and mental health,” Melvin said. “But the philosophy of the turnaround was to build relationships and support networks, which are now being taken away from residents.”

Concurrent with the turnaround, an Institute committee consisting of faculty, administration, and students discussed the future of smoking at Senior House. Melvin, a student member of the committee, speculated that the recent decision to ban smoking was a unilateral decision that ignores the recommendations of the committee, which did not push for such a ban.

Moving forward: upperclassmen in Senior House

Upperclassmen will be able to apply, via a “selective” process, to live in the dorm and will have the option to apply as an “upperclassmen resident” or as a Resident Peer Mentor. Both types of applicants need to list one to two MIT faculty or staff members as references.

It is unclear how many residents will be allowed to return to Senior House.

In order to be considered for a role as an RPM, students must be a full-time undergraduate with a 4.0 GPA or higher. The position is compensated with a reduced housing cost.

New House residents scheduled to move into Senior House this fall will not have to fill out the application.

Barnhart emphasized in her email to Senior House that the application process will be highly selective. All students who apply to live in Senior House will also have to fill out a housing preferences form ranking other dorms in order to secure a housing assignment while their application is being reviewed.

Barnhart confirmed to The Tech that all current Senior House residents who are not admitted to live in the dorm come fall will be guaranteed other on-campus housing. The email stated that a relocation team will help students relocate with groups of friends. Students will be able "to select up to two friends to move with" and also to "connect to another group of 3 friends who also want to move to the same building" for a total of six in a "friend group," Kim Haberlin, senior communications officer for the chancellor, told The Tech  in an email. 

The chancellor said that around 15 New House residents were slated to move into Senior House, but once the decision to move residents out of Senior House was made, more beds became available and several New House communities were given the option of moving to Senior House while New House is renovated.

“It’s entirely up to the New House students if they want to switch into Senior House,” the chancellor said.

Several students who had previously been confirmed to transfer into Senior House this fall through the normal dorm transfer process told The Tech that the housing office informed them they need to change their housing plans and that they can apply, like current residents can, to live in Senior House as upperclassmen students or peer mentors.

Barnhart says that her office has discussed continuing some of the resources for current Senior House residents that were introduced during the turnaround such as connecting the students with the S^3 dean who held drop-in hours in the dorm.

6/18/2017: The article was updated to state that groups of up to six students would be able to move together as part of the relocation process, not up to three as previously stated.