Opinion letter to the editor

MIT misused survey data to take action against Senior House

A parent shares the results of her investigation into MIT’s participation in the Healthy Minds Study

To the editor:

In Spring of 2015, my son and about 1300 of his fellow undergraduates at MIT participated in a survey conducted by the Healthy Minds Study (HMS). When the final results of that survey were released one year later, the MIT administration took actions specifically focused on the residents of one dorm, Senior House, justifying it by mentioning survey data concerning mental health and substance use issues in the residence.

My son was dismayed to hear of the actions taken, since like other students he had believed the housing data gathered was based on the broad categories asked in the survey such as on or off campus housing, not by specific living group. Although, not living at Senior House, he was not directly impacted by the administrations actions, he stated that if he had known how the data would be used against fellow students he would never have participated.

When I reviewed the survey and the emails he received from MIT encouraging his participation, I had similar concerns. I spoke to Senior House residents, who were explicitly informed by Chancellor Barnhart that the HMS survey was the data source used to justify the actions taken against the house.

When I asked MIT for clarification, I received none. Jagruti Patel, the local principal investigator for the study in the Office of Special Projects, sent back cut-and-pasted boilerplate from the experimental protocol but refused to answer questions about the source of specific residence data and never provided a copy of the protocol itself, which would have listed the data variables collected. COUHES, MIT’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) which is responsible for ethical human-subject research at MIT, replied to my complaint by stating that this was an exempt study where specific individual data was not collected, so there were no problems found.

The whole point of informed consent, the cornerstone of ethical human-subject research, is that subjects are fully informed of the possible benefits and negative consequences of their participation. Neither the Office of Special Projects nor COUHES seemed to believe that the destruction of a student living group — the community in which a person may have lived for three or four years — deserved any consideration as a possible negative consequence of the study.

After my requests for information from MIT were stymied, I filed a complaint with the principle investigator for the HMS, Daniel Eisenberg at the University of Michigan. Unlike MIT’s IRB, the University of Michigan IRB subsequently found issues with the administration of the HMS survey at MIT in 2015, finding that the potential participants were not fully informed as to what metadata such as residence would be gathered via the survey URL. Without that information, a person would not be fully informed when consenting to take the study.

Because the Michigan IRB determined that there was merit to the complaint, the Healthy Minds study has revised the information provided to any students prior to their consenting to take surveys for the HMS, and in the case of the 2015 survey at MIT, the variable for residence was removed from the data set maintained by the principle investigator, but he could not confirm that MIT had also pulled the  residence variable from their own data set. 

To summarize, a study which was supposed to be helpful to the MIT community and to pose minimal risk for harm has instead been a source of genuine pain and suffering to students who believe their participation in the survey led directly to adverse impacts on their housemates and fellow students. As a both a parent of a recent undergraduate and as a social researcher, I am extremely angry that MIT used data obtained in a questionable manner to inform their policies with regards to any of their students, regardless of their residence.

The MIT administration has failed to understand the deep distrust they engendered in some students, parents, and alums based on their refusal to answer questions or acknowledge concerns about the HMS survey. A survey which students completed honestly, in good faith, was then used in a less than honest fashion against them, poisoning the atmosphere of the entire two years of negotiation over the fate of Senior House.

The events which led to this were likely unintentional: an inadvertent oversight by the study team at Michigan, who wrote the consent text and who may not have realized the significance of dormitories at MIT, and the team at MIT, who may not have realized that the consent form they were given was insufficient. This oversight would not have been an issue, however, if MIT had realized their mistake and either discarded data not covered by the consent form or informed students of their error and apologized for statements informed by study data. But they did not, contributing to the escalation of a conflict which eventually resulted in the destruction of the oldest on-campus living community at MIT.

The misuse of HMS data was not the only mistake made in this process, nor were its users the only ones at fault in the outcome. However the fact remains that the entire Senior House turnaround process has been rooted in data which most likely would not have been provided if studnts had been fully informed that residence level data would be collected. In order to mitigate the damage to the community and restore the loss of faith in the MIT administration, I urge the administration to take the following actions:

(1) Reopen Senior House to undergrads after utilizing the services of an outside mediator to work with residents and the administration to find more measured solutions to the issues in the house.

(2) Meet with representatives of the alum community to find a consensus with regards to positive alum involvement with Senior House.

(3) Chancellor Barnhart and President Reif should jointly apologize to the MIT community as a whole and HMS participants in particular for any pain or distress related to the study or actions informed by the study.

(4) MIT should ensure that any copies of the HMS survey data set  which contain information identifying living group be destroyed.

In my opinion, the administration's actions did not constitute ethical behavior or good science, cornerstones of MIT values. This is not the example to set for students, and  reflects poorly on an institution otherwise known for the caliber of its research. To the MIT administration,  please consider that how you meet this challenge can influence, positively or negatively, the relationship between students and the administration for many years to come. I hope you choose wisely.

Elizabeth Glaser, Ph.D., M.S.                                                            
Visiting Faculty, Kamuzu College of Nursing, University of Malawi