Senior House is a vital refuge for its residents
First, let me introduce myself. I’m a professor at Michigan State University, in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. I was an undergraduate at MIT for four years (1998-2002) and lived in Senior House the entire time. This letter is to share my personal experiences with the dorm, observations of its impact on my life, and raise questions with regard to the treatment of Senior House residents. As a woman in science, I never felt like I fit anywhere. But I belonged in Senior House.
Agreed on axioms:
Campuses have to be safe.
We aim to build a supportive community for the students, built with the consent of those students.
Serious criticisms of the dorm have been raised, notably, low graduation rates and drug abuse. I never did drugs at Senior House, nor did I ever witness anyone doing drugs. I helped at Steer Roast, sober in all senses of the word, to ensure the safety of residents and guests. But, drug and alcohol abuse is a widespread problem across college campuses nationally, and should be taken seriously.
Where is the evidence that Senior House is a more harmful place for students? As I will discuss later, students may come from different backgrounds, and concentrations of these students may bring down graduation rates. How was drug use on campus measured?
How does this solution solve the problem of drug and alcohol abuse across campus? I fear we are ignoring a broader issue by focusing on one
place. Redistributing residents does not reduce use, it merely reduces standard deviation.
To counter these negative stereotypes of Senior House, let me share my own experiences and how they have helped me in my profession. I believe that Senior House significantly widened my worldview, which has given me increased empathy and skills when interacting with the undergraduates whom I interact with. Let me give some examples:
I walked past a room and someone invited me in to watch "Live at the Apollo", a talent show in the famed Harlem theater. I’m white, and from a predominantly white state. I thought I knew "everything". Hah! There was this whole big world right in America I'd never heard about; never saw broadcasted.
The halls are covered in murals. I am not an artist, but by the end of my senior year I got up the nerve to make my own mural based on a comic book. Others of us coped with tragedy or success by writing on the walls. There was something freeing and safe about being surrounded by our creations.
People cooked in the kitchens not just because they liked to cook but because they couldn't afford not to. That was a real eye opener to me, given that I grew up always having food and never worrying about finances.
The House’s culture of openness created a safe space to talk about sexual abuse. I experienced early on the discomfort of hearing about someone else's pain, and the ugliness in the world I was shielded from. I have learned firsthand to let victims lead, and offer support without judgement. In my current job, I need to be ready to support survivors of violence.
The students I interact with as a professor come from a wide variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. I now understand that I don’t know where many of them are coming from, and that I need to listen. In science as well, being open to culture has been helpful for the 500+ person collaborations I am a part of.
The culture of Senior House is derived from its values:
Taking care of each other.
Individual freedom and communal responsibility.
Where are these values in the actions taken against the residents of Senior
House? Where are they in the new program planned for Senior House (Pilot 2021)? Why were they omitted?
Senior House was there for me, and there for many people I knew when they were hurt, abused or run down. In those horrible dark times, you need a lifeline. At Senior House, it wasn’t just one person. It was the physicist who encouraged me to continue in science. It was the the GRTs who were there with health information. I remember one particularly terrible night when I was very sad. I walked around a silent House and found my way to Towers to watch the night sky. I met someone up there I hadn’t met before, and we just sat and talked about the insomnia and faced the uncertainty of the future together.
I think about the rising concerns over mental health on college campuses. I think about the students I talk to who are anxious and stressed to their limits, for very real reasons. And if I could make Senior House at MSU, I would in a heartbeat, because it was a unique support network. I don’t have hard numbers, but I do know that the positive experience I had at Senior House was contrasted by 5 deaths to suicide in my first two years of MIT. I suspect Senior House could have saved the freshman of my class year who killed himself after coming out to his parents. With the changes to Senior House, and the fact that it has students who have more challenging backgrounds, how do we make sure they aren’t isolated? That they are safe?
Now let’s talk hard numbers. What are we doing about MIT's documented higher than average suicide rate? Can we learn from Senior House’s unique culture about how to support students in new ways?
Most critically, what are we doing to support the current residents of Senior House who are having to re-apply to their home?
Please also note, that none of what I’ve said negates serious concern related to drug use or unsafe behavior which can hurt students. But, I’m writing today because I see a real harm in the solution proposed. Students, even if they have not had anything to do with unsafe behavior, will be dispersed and lose their support network. In addition, we are missing a chance to learn from a place that made me stronger in my career, a better person and a better global citizen.
Kendall B. McConnel Mahn ’02