Student leaders respond to Pilot 2021
Student input is needed for a program that would affect all students across MIT
Last week, Chancellor Barnhart told The Tech that “MIT students” would be housed in Senior House this Fall, but could make no guarantees beyond this vague statement. Below this article on The Tech homepage was a story about the large decline in senior gift donations this academic year, fueled by student frustrations over a lack of transparency and student input in recent student life decisions at the Institute. With the revelation of this newest closed-door decision, it seems clear that MIT has yet to abandon this trend of limited student engagement that may further exacerbate the course of declining donation rates.
This week, Chancellor Barnhart clarified these previous statements in an email to Senior House residents. These students were informed that if they wish to continue living in the place they call home, they must now apply to live in a new community developed for the dormitory. Residents “whose applications are approved” in this “very selective process,” as well as New House students already scheduled to move in, will live alongside a large cohort of freshmen who will take part in Pilot 2021, a new freshmen living program.
It is concerning that this freshmen pilot program has been developed thus far with no student input, despite the fact that its impact will be felt by students all across campus. It seems the result of Pilot 2021 will be to introduce a predominantly freshmen living community, a policy topic that has been highly controversial among students in the past. The name itself could imply that, if successful in the eyes of its developers, this program will be expanded to other living communities on campus. If MIT seeks to move towards a new freshmen living model, they must go about this fundamental shift in the structure of housing with thorough student input.
However, the impact on other parts of campus is not only dependent on future expansion, but will be felt starting this fall. As Pilot 2021 intends to move more freshmen into Senior House than ever before, other dorms across campus will experience a significant reduction in the number of first-year students able to join and contribute to their communities. In addition, there is concern that this redistribution may further exacerbate overcrowding in dormitories on West Campus, in the event that the pilot does not attract enough freshmen.
Because its development thus far lacked student involvement, Pilot 2021 does not address the actual issues students face in their first year at MIT. Beyond replacing the Senior House community, it is unclear what problem this pilot program intends to solve, as it fails to address the real struggles of at-risk MIT students. Does MIT really believe mental health issues on campus can be remedied through mindfulness meditation, healthy-eating, and yoga? Does the Institute think freshmen who opt-in to an academically oriented dormitory focused on “career exploration” are the students who are in most need of the extra guidance and support?
In this pilot plan, they seem to miss what is important about Senior House and the MIT housing system as a whole. MIT living communities are not simply another vehicle for career development and academic exploration, but provide students a place of acceptance and an opportunity to learn life lessons that cannot be taught in a classroom. Senior House is a community of students who support one another, regardless of their identity or background, and these communities cannot be developed in a boardroom meeting or brought to life from a written proposal. Our housing communities at MIT are supportive and unique because they are organically grown by the students who inhabit them.
There is a way forward to preserve MIT’s unique values of student engagement and collaboration. In order for these new programs to be successful, MIT must secure support from students by including them in the conversation from the onset. We urge the administration to incorporate students in the selection of returning community residents and to guarantee transparency in this process. We further urge the administration to incorporate students in the development of Pilot 2021 in order to ensure this program actually addresses the needs of incoming freshmen and embodies the positive values of the Senior House community. Only through this teamwork between students and administrators can Senior House be built into a stronger community that upholds its best ideals: artistic expression, queer culture, and acceptance of all students regardless of their identity or background.
If MIT wants to remain such a unique and special institution, it cannot take on top-down initiatives at the expense of existing communities on campus and the erosion of student-admin collaboration. We pride ourselves on a culture of collaboration, and we must emulate that in student life decision-making in order to engage with a diversity of perspectives and uncover the optimal solution.
Sarah Melvin ’18, Undergraduate Association President
Yuge Ji ’18, Dormitory Council President
Ayomide Fatunde ’18, Panhellenic Association President
Robert Binkowski ’18, Interfraternity Council President
Sasha Rickards ’18, Living Group Council Speaker