Senior House no more: community reacts with disappointment, fear, and anger
Miscommunication and secrecy plague student-admin interactions
The decision to turn Senior House into a graduate dormitory, announced last Friday by Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart PhD ’88 to the Senior House community, has been met with condemnation from vocal MIT community members.
As was the case after the earlier June decisions to repopulate the dorm, the vagueness of the initial communication from the administration gave rise to rampant speculation and rumors from students and alumni alike.
Days later, the chancellor and student leaders individually sent lengthy emails to paint a clearer picture of the situation. How effective these follow-ups will be in influencing future conversation on the issue remains to be seen.
Student, alumni, and community responses
The Tech has seen emails from students, alumni, and community members since the June announcements ranging from disappointment to vitriol. Some students and alumni brainstormed how to move forward in a positive way. Others questioned the validity of data used in previous decisions regarding Senior House, how much information they should share with the press, and discussed how to dissuade undergraduates, and later, graduate students, from living in E2 next year, in order to preserve Senior House culture.
The Tech was forwarded an email from an alumnus who claimed that Barnhart needed to be “eliminated from the Institute” and asked “How can we make sure she never has a job in education for the rest of her miserable life?”
“[M]y father has earmarked a large amount of money through charitable remainder trusts for MIT, and I'm going to work with him to make sure they never see a penny so long as Cynthia Barnhart has a job,” the alum wrote.
J. Maunsell ’19, co-president of Senior House, responded to this email discouraging the amount of “vitriol” that has been “directed personally” at Barnhart for recent decisions and emphasized that these decisions were made jointly by senior leadership which includes the chancellor, provost, president, and vice president of research. Barnhart asserted that the decisions related to Senior House were made collectively by the senior leadership at MIT.
Maunsell’s email was met with another scathing response from another alumnus who suggested that Barnhart is not qualified for her job and doubted that recent decisions were made in conjunction with administrators other than the chancellor.
It is unclear if this type of distrust and discourse contributed to administrators’ belief that Senior House community members would not accept decisions and would not allow new residents to define their own communities, but The Tech has seen similar sentiments and rhetoric present in other emails on Senior House-related mailing lists around all major announcements regarding Senior House since the start of the turnaround last June.
Websites owned by another Senior House alum, John Hinsdale ’86, are linked to the attack ad put out against MIT Professor Michael Short who submitted a letter to The Tech supporting Pilot 2021. Hinsdale has not responded to requests for comment, and whether he bought the ad is unknown.
The chancellor said that the ad was an example of a violation of MIT values and an example of a reaction to Pilot 2021 and the repopulation of Senior House that led administrators to believe that new residents faced undue pressure, which ultimately led to the decision to remove undergrads from E2.
Barnhart said that some students and alumni “definitely exerted pressure and tried to control the decisions of New House students and first-year students.”
In a joint letter to undergraduates from the UA and DormCon, Allie Stanton ’18, the vice president of DormCon, wrote that “former Senior House residents and alumni were in extensive contact with soon-to-be Senior House freshmen through a private Facebook group” and this was cited by the chancellor as a source of external pressure on new residents.
“There was a fear that residents of the dorm would be expected to do things such as add former Senior House residents and alumni to guest lists, help facilitate events Senior House formerly held, and otherwise work to preserve a culture that they did not necessarily identify with,” Stanton wrote.
“We would like to emphasize that the administration’s main concern was that outside pressure on residents, particularly if someone was in disagreement, would be inappropriate and would not result in a positive residential experience,” Stanton wrote.
The Tech has seen emails written by Senior House students shortly after Pilot 2021 was announced that called on students to “infiltrate” the Pilot 2021 program in order to preserve Senior House culture.
Other students, including Stanton, discouraged the use of the word “infiltrating” and instead encouraged more positive engagement with the program. Tesla Wells ’20, an East Campus resident who headed the keep-haus-a-home movement, also discouraged the use of the word.
Wells stated in an email describing the movement that its goals were to “focus on preserving the SH culture at Haus and on the East Side through the duration of new period at Haus...by emphasizing and communicating the importance of Senior Haus’s core values (respecting differences, taking care of each other, personal freedom/communal responsibility) to new residents.”
Barnhart refused to comment on whether this and other similar individual initiatives constituted part of the external pressure that might prevent new residents from forming their own culture.
“I know a lot of you won’t believe me when I say this, but there really is no conspiracy to take down the east side or whitewash any of the undergrad dorms,” Stanton wrote in a separate email to a pilot-2021 list on behalf of herself and DormCon President Yuge Ji ’18. “We are also disappointed that the administration could not envision a more constructive solution.”
In June, students and alumni created a parody site, pilot2021.com, which featured a video of President Reif relating students to world-changing “products” of MIT and Apple CEO Tim Cook’s 2017 commencement addresses spliced with footage of yoga and, meal kits, and students as products. The website advertised the “sale” of MIT students, seemingly insinuating that Pilot 2021 was a ploy to help MIT students be more marketable to industry employers.
Another protest site is Save Senior House at saveseniorhouse.mit.edu. The website features a list of demands, including to undo the graduate housing decision and to “let the majority of SH residents live in Senior House by abolishing the application process.”
The website also lists a demand that “all decisions made about the future of Senior House, or any other living group, should be done with the knowledge, input, and consent of the residents.”
Aside from a Cambridge Day article, most news outlets, including those that reported on the initial announcement of Pilot 2021, have thus far remained silent on the newest decision regarding Senior House.
In all her communications with The Tech, Barnhart has expressed a reluctance to revisit old debates and controversies about the nature of the “dangerous behavior” that violated the turnaround and concerns about the use of data in making housing decisions, instead emphasizing her desire to focus on supporting students going forward.
Anna Kazlauskus ’19, the president of G@MIT, confirmed that Barnhart and Nelson had met with leaders of LGBTQ groups on campus, but noted that it would be difficult to recreate the organically formed LGBTQ space that Senior House provided.
Student leadership involvement and miscommunications
Barnhart told The Tech on Monday that DormCon, the UA, and Senior House student leaders had been made aware of the possibility of changing E2 into a graduate residence approximately two weeks before the July 7 announcement.
She later clarified in a call Tuesday that she had voiced this possibility, in addition to her concerns that new residents were being pressured to maintain Senior House culture by former residents and alumni, in a June 23 meeting. She and Suzy Nelson, vice president of student life, met with Maunsell, Ji, Stanton, UA President Sarah Melvin ’18, UA Vice President Alexa Martin ’19, and former Senior House resident Jacob Higgins ’19, in addition to another former Senior House resident and a Senior House alum.
This version of events was disputed by some of the student leaders present at the meeting, however.
Melvin told The Tech that she found out about this decision a few hours before the announcement email was sent and did not have input in this decision nor prior knowledge that it was being considered.
“According to our notes and my personal memory, Cindy [Barnhart] never used the phrase graduate housing in any of our meetings before Friday,” Melvin wrote in an email to The Tech, although “[the chancellor] did briefly mention that maybe students shouldn’t live in the building,” but Melvin said she “interpreted this as an expression of [the chancellor’s] frustration with the external pressure in response to the Pilot 2021 decision.”
But Higgins recalled in an email to The Tech that “the Chancellor did say that worst-case scenario, they might have to turn SH into ‘grad housing,’ using the phrase.” He further speculated that the chancellor may have issued the ultimatum in response to pressure from the senior administrative team.
Barnhart herself could not definitely confirm during the Tuesday call whether or not she had used the exact phrase. In a later email she wrote that she conferred with Ji, and that both agreed “that graduate housing in Senior House was brought up but not the focus of the meeting,” and that “students didn’t seriously consider it as an option.”
“Regardless, we weren’t given the chance to respond to this ‘proposed’ change in housing plans and weren’t asked for feedback on any such change,” Melvin wrote in her email.
The general amnesia regarding the discussion of such a contentious topic – turning the entire dorm into grad housing – is nonetheless troubling. The meeting was not recorded.
And the chancellor voiced her agreement when The Tech pointed out that it’s concerning that so many students on the call were on completely different pages from the administration and from each other.
Students who acted independently of the negotiations between student leaders and administrators may not have recognized that these negotiations were taking place. Some on the pilot-2021 mailing list asked if student government was even operating in the summer.
A student on the pilot-2021 list suggested that it was time to start compromising. Other students and a former Senior House GRT replied that compromise had been occurring the entire time, pointing out that compromising is a major role of the student leaders who had been meeting with administrators on behalf of their constituents.
The future of student-admin relations
In an email to The Tech, Lillian Chin ’17 wrote that when students place their trust in elected leaders, they are also expecting that the administration will include those leaders in important decisions. Chin was previously a member of the UA Committee on Student-Admin Collaboration, but no longer has ties to student government.
Others agree: a petition draft sent to pilot-2021 yesterday evening by Katherine Paseman ’18 included among its demands that all decisions which affect the MIT undergraduate community be approved by a vote from the UA and other student representation bodies. The updated version of the petition, however, which can be found here, no longer includes this demand.
But Barnhart made a comment in Monday’s interview with The Tech that casts doubt on the already low likelihood that the administration will acquiesce to such a demand.
Elements of “shared governance in our dormitory system” did not apply in cases like the situation surrounding Senior House, which constitutes a “reset,” Barnhart said.
Ultimately, insufficient communication between administration, student leaders, and the student body since the announcement of the turnaround has made fact-based discussion and compromise difficult from the start. Administration and student leaders have both cited a firm dedication to protecting students’ privacy as the reason for secrecy. But the resulting information void has led, as Chin pointed out, to an exacerbation of students’ mistrust of administrative action.
Anshula Gandhi contributed reporting.
07/14/17: This article was updated to include a more accurate statement about how the chancellor viewed the attack ad placed on an MIT professor. The article was also updated to include more specific information about the keep-haus-a-home movement. Additionally, the article was updated to relfect that Katherine Paseman does not live in MacGregor and the petition she is associated with has been updated to no longer include a demand for a UA vote.