Barnhart, Nelson announce ‘design exercise’ for room assignment and move-in processes

Exercise bans mutual selection, mandates first-year squatting rights

Administrators and student leaders are continuing to move forward with a process to reexamine and potentially alter the room assignment and move-in procedures of undergraduate dormitories, including through a recently announced “design exercise” with requirements that are significantly incompatible with the current systems many dorms have in place.

The details of the design exercise, initially sent to student leaders Jan. 12 by Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart PhD ’88 and Vice President and Dean for Student Life Suzy Nelson, were forwarded by several dorm presidents to their residents last week.

“When finding a place to live in our residence halls, at any point during a student’s time on campus, we do not want students to experience rejection because they were judged and ultimately not selected by other students,” the email from Barnhart and Nelson read.

“We also do not want students to experience the negative outcomes that can accompany forced moves, such as unnecessary stress, lack of agency, and not feeling welcomed in their summer-assigned community,” the email continued.

These principles serve as the basis for two requirements, which all submissions must satisfy: upper-level students cannot preference or select which new students live in their community (thus banning “mutual selection”); and new students cannot be forced to move out of the room assigned to them over the summer (thus allowing “squatting”).

Four of the undergraduate dorms currently use some variant of mutual selection: Burton Conner, East Campus, MacGregor House, and New House. The remaining six dorms implement either a randomized or preference-based lottery.

Only Maseeh Hall and McCormick Hall have guaranteed squatting for first-year students, which also makes them the only dorms to already fulfill both requirements.

[For perspectives from dorm presidents on their communities’ processes and how the requirements would affect them, see here.]

“This is truly a design exercise,” Nelson said in an interview with The Tech Tuesday.

“We’re not trying to impose a solution,” Barnhart said in the same interview. The purpose of specifying the requirements is to step back from current discussions and produce ideas that can be compared with the status quo.

“Having that contrast, perhaps we’ll see a pathway for improvement, [or] perhaps we’ll see, oh, that causes problems A, B, C, D,” Barnhart explained.

Barnhart and Nelson will hold a student workshop March 2 and conduct individual meetings with dorm leaders to discuss the benefits and costs of the proposed solutions.

“I believe that if students feel that the best they could do under these constraints is inferior to what they could do if they were to change their process in some other way, they will be extremely motivated to tell us about what they could do in that other way,” Barnhart said.

While Barnhart and Nelson could not specify the expected outcome of the discussions, Nelson explained that they hoped to reach “some kind of consensus” on what would work and continue under a “paced” rather than rushed timeline.

The design exercise is one piece of a much larger and longer discussion about room assignment and move-in practices.

“What’s motivating us is the knowledge that some of our students — a minority — have experiences during move-in and room assignment that are not positive,” Barnhart said.

“Individual students have come to us as well as to house student leaders to share their experiences with rejection, isolation, and stress; heads of house have told us that they have concerns about aspects of the room assignment and move-in process; and families have shared concerns about the added stress MIT’s rooming process presents their students,” Barnhart added in a follow-up email to The Tech.

Barnhart also cited a number of other factors in her email, including a 1999 report by former Chancellor Lawrence Bacow ’72 titled “The Design of the New Residence System,” reports from Division of Student Life visiting committees, and recent student survey results.

Twenty-five percent of undergraduate students described their dorm’s room assignment process as “stressful” on the 2017 Quality of Life survey, and more than 40 percent of students responding to an open-ended question on the 2018 Orientation survey “provided a negative comment on their experience when they arrived at their residence hall,” Barnhart wrote.

Barnhart and Nelson said at several points during the interview that the student leaders who have been working closely with them throughout the fall term understand the issues and thus “get it,” as Barnhart put it, whereas other residents are comparatively unaware of the scope and details of the discussions.

“Our challenge as always is to get out the word … on what our philosophy and strategy is,” Barnhart acknowledged. “Students worry about our intentions.”

Additional next steps outlined in Barnhart and Nelson’s email to dorm presidents included first-year student focus group sessions, where randomly selected students will be invited to discuss their experiences, and a faculty panel Feb. 7.

Currently confirmed panelists, according to Barnhart, are Susan Silbey, chair of the faculty; Ray Reagans, a behavioral and policy sciences professor; Parag Pathak, a market design and economics professor; and John Essigmann PhD ’76, Simmons’s Head of House and an environmental health sciences professor.