Opinion letter to the editor

Senior House students respond: the chancellor’s allegations are unfounded

Dear MIT Community,

We are writing to ask for your support for the students of Senior House and the entire MIT undergraduate community, by contacting President Reif and expressing your agreement with the steps enumerated at the end of this letter.

By now you may have heard that the residents of Senior House are being evicted from their home, and the entire dormitory repurposed for graduate housing, due to unspecific allegations of dangerous behavior and pernicious cultural norms. As a self-selecting undergraduate residence, Senior House is a safe space for a number of traditionally marginalized populations at MIT including members of the LGB population (40% of Senior House residents), underrepresented minorities (URM, 37%), low-family-income students (31% with family incomes under $80,000), and other politically disenfranchised groups. It is a traditionally progressive dormitory, being the first at MIT to go co-educational (in 1970) and more recently the first to implement gender-inclusive housing (in 2013). It is one of the most visible examples of the uniqueness and strength of MIT's undergraduate housing system, long an exemplar of MIT's proud commitment to standing out from the crowd by virtue of its diverse ideas combined with shared values.

We believe the surprise destruction of this community constitutes unilateral and ill-considered decision-making as well as collective punishment, both of which are antithetical to MIT's values, and raises serious concerns about implicit institutional bias at MIT. The treatment of Senior House and the assumptions made about its culture are different from those applied to more mainstream dormitories, and Senior House residents have received a distinct lack of representation from LGBTQ/URM administrators amongst those who have chosen to determine the residents' future.

One year ago the MIT President and Chancellor announced the beginning of a "turnaround" process for Senior House, purportedly due to concerns regarding low graduation rates and drug use, both of which are endemic to the historically marginalized groups served by Senior House. The allegations of drug use were backed up with data from the "Healthy Minds" survey, which had been sorted by dormitory, even though the survey itself never asked for that information. Late in the process, Chancellor Barnhart informed the students that she had been given a list of names of residents who had ordered drugs and had them sent to the dormitory. Rather than punish those suspected, the information was used to fish for further infractions via a four-day process of individual interrogations. These were conducted under the threat that a lack of corroboration of the secret evidence would be used against them. Students were asked about their knowledge of drug use within the dormitory, under rules which differed from established Committee On Discipline (COD) procedures and of which the students were not permitted to retain copies. They were strongly encouraged to remain silent about what was occurring and not seek external advice or counsel. Such a process appears to be unprecedented in MIT's history.

The students were informed that the results of these interrogations showed that some students suspected others of purchasing and using cannabis, psychedelics, MDMA, and cocaine. The scale of this suspected usage was never disclosed, but a small set of individuals was identified. Punishment for violating MIT's policies is appropriate, and indeed 5 students suspected of participating in these activities have been processed through the COD and punished individually as of this writing. The Chancellor then dismissed the GRTs and announced there would be a readmission process for any students wishing to return to the dorm. A few weeks later, in the middle of negotiations over the process of readmission, the Chancellor announced that Senior House would no longer house undergraduates, stating that "our plan to re-set the undergraduate experience in Senior House is unworkable."

The punishment being implemented by the MIT Chancellor and President goes far beyond individual accountability, or the desire to eliminate drug use in the dorm. Allegations of widely tolerated drug use were made by the chancellor, but prior to the investigation, very few students were aware of the events that have now been punished by the COD. The entire Senior House community is being eliminated in order to end what the Chancellor views as a toxic culture. But, the culture in question is anything but toxic, as it represents a variety of homegrown, tightly integrated and critically needed support networks that the students find invaluable to their well-being at MIT. There is an enormous difference between being simply tolerated and being celebrated with a communal pride in the person one is. Discarding the multitude of positive aspects of Senior House in order to publicly denounce the unsafe and unacceptable behavior of a few in fact costs the majority of current and future Senior House students a great deal of safety to feel value in themselves and costs the campus as a whole an important example of diversity and the true MIT spirit of working on difficult problems together and coming up with clever solutions. Far more is lost than is gained, and a terrible example has been set.

If this sequence of events is allowed to conclude with such drastic action, MIT will have shown itself to be dismissive of its own professed values and quick to declare failure and abandon tough challenges, a situation that harms the reputation of the Institute and all who are associated with it.

To remedy this situation before any more harm occurs, we are requesting your assistance in advocating to the President and Chancellor of MIT for the following guarantees in order to assure the community that they are committed to a process of proportionate discipline rather than cultural eradication:

1. Senior House will remain an undergraduate dormitory and continue to be a safe haven for those who do not feel accepted elsewhere.

2. An independent faculty review board be commissioned to examine and prepare a report on this entire process so that transparency can be achieved and MIT can ensure that any mistakes made are not repeated. In particular, the use of the supposedly confidential campus-wide Healthy Minds survey data to extract living group information that was not present in the survey itself raises serious ethical cause for concern that affects MIT's human subject research reputation and is worthy of faculty investigation.

Thank you for your time and consideration, it is very much appreciated.

Editors note: This letter was signed by 28 of the approximately 90 former Senior House residents who lived there this past spring; 24 are current undergrads. The authors and signatories of this letter were granted anonymity due to discussion of topics that students were pressured to keep confidential by the administration, and because certain disciplinary processes and investigations relevant to information disclosed in the letter are, to our knowledge, still ongoing.

Update 07/28/17:

Update 07/28/17: This letter previously cited incorrect statistics concerning the demographics of Senior House from a 2016 IR survey. The percentage of Senior House residents that were underrepresented minorities was 37%, not 55%. The letter asserts that 31% of Senior House residents were from low-income families; the survey only indicates that 31% of Senior House residents were from families with incomes less than $80,000.