Plans of repopulation abandoned: Senior House to become graduate housing
Decision motivated by harassment, bullying, and other actions ‘against MIT values,’ Chancellor Barnhart says
Senior House will become a graduate residence starting this year, Cynthia Barnhart PhD ’88 announced to the dorm’s now-former residents in an email last Friday, July 7, citing the need for “significant change.” The dorm building, E2, is now officially referred to by its address, 70 Amherst Street.
This marked an abrupt escalation from plans announced last month to repopulate the dorm with a mixture of undergraduate communities, including the freshmen-based Pilot 2021 program. The reason for this, Barnhart wrote, was that senior administrators “no longer believe that first-year and continuing students living in Senior House next year will be able to define for themselves their own community values and living experience.”
Barnhart’s assertion in the same email that last month’s decision had been met with “misinformation, denials, and responses” that violated MIT values drew enormous backlash from the student body, many of whom concluded that the July 7 decision was punishment for all dissenting student reactions to the repopulation plans.
Barnhart later clarified to The Tech in an interview Monday and to the undergraduate body in an email Tuesday that she did not consider student protest to be against MIT values. She specified that theses violation were actions such as harassment of potential residents by former residents and alumni, as well as the bullying of students, including Senior House residents, who spoke up in defense of the administration’s decisions.
This clarification led to criticisms that the administration was engaging in collective punishment.
“We are disappointed that the actions of a few individuals have been the ones to set the narrative for the MIT administration, rather than the efforts of so many more individuals in the Senior House community and MIT community at large who dedicated themselves to moving forward in a positive direction over the past year,” Allie Stanton ’18, the Dormitory Council vice president wrote in an email on behalf of herself and DormCon president Yuge Ji ’18 to the pilot-2021 mailing list.
Barnhart refused to comment on whether she believed that it was only a minority of Senior House residents who engaged in behavior deemed inappropriate and pressuring, saying that the numbers do not matter if “the end result is that students living in Senior House wouldn't have a good experience.”
Barnhart acknowledged that the email she sent on Friday was “terse and didn’t have a lot of details,” saying that it “was on purpose” because the letter was written to Senior House students with whom she had been talking already working and communicating with verbally. Her “assumption” was that because she had been “working together and communicating verbally,” with Senior House students, they would understand what the email meant.
Undergraduate Association, DormCon, and Senior House leadership met with Barnhart June 23 and June 26, but how much of those discussions was communicated to the dorm community at large is unclear.
The chancellor said she later realized that because this decision affects students outside of Senior House, she should have notified all undergraduates.
“I think that I have to take some responsibility for the confusion that’s out there, and I’m working to try and help clarify that,” Barnhart said in a call with The Tech Tuesday evening. The chancellor emailed all undergraduates later that night with a formal announcement of the changes to Senior House and more details surrounding the decision.
The initial July 7 email seemed “incredibly rushed” compared to normal communications from the chancellor, Lillian Chin ’17 wrote in an email to The Tech. Chin was previously a member of the UA Committee on Student-Admin Collaboration, but no longer has ties to student government.
Clarification that it was actions such as alumni harassment that was against MIT values would have “dampened a lot of fears,” Chin wrote.
The “MIT values” that Barnhart referenced in her email were threefold. The chancellor said that MIT believes in “open and respectful discourse” such that individuals can “speak what they believe without retaliation and without being vilified;” that discussions “should be based on facts and not rumors and deliberate misrepresentations;” and that “students should be able to define their own community that is and living experience without outsiders exerting pressure and trying to control their decisions.”
When asked during Monday’s interview to respond to criticisms that Pilot 2021 was itself an attempt to define a living experience, the chancellor replied that Pilot 2021 was not about defining a culture, rather providing opportunities for students.
The Tech has previously reported that much of the programming of Pilot 2021 was based on either freshman-oriented programs that were successful in other MIT dorms or programs that students have indicated interest in on campus surveys. Participation in the programming, including the meal kits and wellness programs, would have been optional.
“Some students and some alumni definitely did not want to accept” the decisions announced earlier this June and “that change was necessary,” the chancellor said.
“Misinformation, denials, and responses”
The chancellor insisted that student protests such as the sleep-in which occurred outside the president’s office and the protest which occurred outside the chancellor’s office were not part of the reactions that violated MIT values, though many believed otherwise after the July 7 email.
Barnhart mentioned that she had expected protests.
“We believe it’s a healthy thing to do,” Barnhart said, adding that her office arranged to send food to the sleep-in.
Some individuals who spoke out about problems in the Senior House community were attacked and “in some cases bullied,” the chancellor said.
The chancellor told The Tech that someone had taken out a paid Google ad titled ‘False Research References’ “that was written to try to discredit the integrity and research of a junior faculty member,” Michael Short, who penned a June letter to the editor speaking in favor of Pilot 2021.
Professor Short wrote to The Tech that he has not personally seen the ads, but that he heard they were “unnecessarily hurtful, and rather childish.”
The ad in question linked to a website, guanolog.com, which now redirects to fdsal.com, a site “owned and operated” by Senior House alum John Hinsdale ’86, according to its about page. The website is devoted to investigating alleged unethical use of data by the MIT administration in Senior House decisions.
The ad also provided the email address email@example.com as contact information. A similar address, firstname.lastname@example.org, is included in Hinsdale’s contact information on fdsal.com. The contact page on shamster.com indicates that it too is “owned and operated” by Hinsdale. Hinsdale did not immediately respond to The Tech’s request for comment.
Hinsdale's site fdsal.com appeared to have been down after the publication of this article on July 14. On July 15, the site appears to work.
Apart from this ad, the chancellor did not go into detail about specific instances of attacks, because she didn’t want to “call out students.” She did not discuss particular cases of students and alumni refusing to accept recent decisions. She also did not discuss what specifically made administrators believe that the pressure for new residents to adopt Senior House culture would persist despite ongoing discussions with student leaders.
She emphasized that the transition to graduate housing is not intended as a punitive measure against those who engaged in the attacks and who violated MIT values.
Incentives offered for undergraduates to engage in “dorm swap”
Rising juniors and seniors who are 21 or older will have the opportunity to live in graduate housing in order to potentially offset crowding caused by removing E2 from the undergraduate housing system. There are several incentives available to undergraduate students who choose to live in graduate housing.
Current seniors planning to pursue a graduate degree at MIT would be guaranteed housing in a graduate dorm for their first year.
Undergraduates who opt to live in a graduate dorm will be able to choose between a $3,000 housing credit which will be applied to their Bursar's bill split between spring and fall semesters, or a free Basic 10 meal plan, which would otherwise costs $3,410 for the 2017-2018 academic year.
The chancellor told The Tech that all but one Senior House student got their first or second alternative housing choice for the coming year.
The first-year housing lottery results were originally planned to be released July 14, but due to these recent changes, results will be announced August 1, Jennifer Hapgood-White, associate director of housing assignments wrote in an email to freshmen.
Senior House head of house Jay Scheib asked to step down following the June 12 announcement about the depopulation of Senior House and Pilot 2021, but before the July 7 decision. According the chancellor, Schieb felt it was the “right time to step down” given the imminent changes to Senior House.
A former Senior House GRT informed the pilot-2021 mailing list that Scheib is in London this summer debuting a new musical. He has not, according to residents, issued any statement to Senior House regarding either decision. Associate head of house Kristen Covino will become the new head of house this fall. Neither Scheib nor Covino have responded to The Tech’s requests for comment.
Anshula Gandhi contributed reporting.
07/13/17: The article was updated to reflect new information concerning the possible origins of Google ad taken out about Professor Michael Short.
07/14/17: This article was updated to reflect that fdsal.com, a site linked to in the article, had been taken down after this article was first published. The article was also updated to include information about the delayed first-year housing lottery.
7/15/17: This article was updated to reflect that fdsal.com is operating now.