Dorm presidents respond to room assignment design exercise

“A lot of the decision-making feels hurried, kind of spontaneous,” incoming MacGregor president says

As the process of reassessing dorms’ room assignment and move-in procedures continues, The Tech reached out to presidents and other leaders in each of MIT’s ten dorms to ask about their current procedures and how potential changes would affect their communities.

An email to student leaders from Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart PhD ’88 and Vice President and Dean for Student Life Suzy Nelson sent Jan. 12 detailed, among other next steps, a “design exercise” to solicit ideas for policies that would remove elements of rejection and reduce sources of undue stress for new students.

The design exercise imposes 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”).

[More information on the design exercise can be found here.]

Baker House

After the conclusion of the First Year Residence Exchange, first years in Baker fill out room preference sheets, which allow them to indicate their preferences in categories such as floor, wing, neighbors, room type or size, and roommates, according to the policies written on its website. The Rooming Assignment Committee then “evaluates each application holistically” to make the final placements.

Baker’s external president did not respond to The Tech’s requests for comment.

Burton Conner

First years are initially assigned temporary rooms. Floor Exploration (FLEX) then occurs on the evening FYRE results are released. During FLEX, first years have two hours to visit each of the nine floors and meet upper-level residents.

Afterwards, the first years rank the floors. Each floor also submits a list of students that they think would be a good fit (thus, Burton Conner practices mutual selection). The rooming chairs use a matching algorithm to “ideally have first years get within their top three or four choices,” outgoing BC President Katie Fisher ’19 said in a phone interview with The Tech.

“The current room assignment process puts a lot of value on the community of each floor,” Fisher said. “There’s a lot of value in mutual selection because upperclassmen are engaged and feel part of their floor communities.”

However, Fisher said that mutual selection “is not absolutely necessary” if a new method enables floors to maintain their communities.

According to Fisher, some BC residents are concerned about how a potential new policy will affect the positive experiences that they’ve had in the dorm. “They’re worried that the new policy will make positive experiences impossible for future first-years,” Fisher said.

In an email from Fisher to all BC residents, Fisher wrote, “I have been told that if we truly try to create a new process and compare it to our old process, if it’s clear that the old one is better, we may not [need to] make changes.”

BC Exec is still in the process of understanding and balancing what the administration and different floors want, Fisher said.

East Campus

East Campus holds its hall rush the day FYRE results are released. For five hours, first years visit all 10 halls, with each hall hosting its own events. At the end of the evening, first years rank their hall preferences.

One representative from each hall gathers with the EC president and vice president to place first years into halls according to a mutual selection process aided by an algorithm that optimizes first-year preferences.

No hall can select a first year that ranked it ninth or tenth, and no hall can refuse to take a particular first-year except in extreme circumstances and with approval from the Head of House, according to a document outlining EC’s rooming procedure. “In practice, the vast majority of freshmen are placed in one of their top 4 halls,” the procedure detailed.

In an interview with The Tech, EC President Tesla Wells ’20 likened the room assignment process to a Pareto Curve, where the y-axis is “communal or net happiness at the expense of a few people having bad experiences,” and the x-axis is a “standardized experience where net happiness is not optimized.”

“The friction between the administration and students is [about] needing to come somewhere in the middle of the curve,” Wells said, “There are a few people who are really, really hurting here, and the administration is trying to advocate for them. Meanwhile, most students are trying to advocate for their overall happy experiences. These two are not mutually exclusive.”

“Just because the administration gave these constraints [for the design exercise] does not necessarily mean they are going to follow through on implementing them campus-wide,” Wells said. “One of the motivations behind providing these requirements was to give an incentive for student leaders to think outside their comfort zone.”

In an email to The Tech, Wells wrote that “the solutions that come out of [the design exercise] are going to either be their own best advocates or detractors.”

According to Wells, EC residents would like more reasoning behind the design exercise. “It’s really difficult to convey administration motivation and intent when you’re requiring people to take action, and they are trying to back-extrapolate,” Wells said.

Wells believes that the administration is actively listening to what students have to say. “My ideal situation is that students are given at least an equal voice as the administration in the final rooming process, not just that students were consulted.”

MacGregor House

First years in MacGregor House are assigned rooms using an algorithm that maximizes happiness and uses mutual selection, though first years’ preferences are weighted much more heavily than upper-level students’ ratings.

In the evening after FYRE results are released, first years visit each entry for 12 minutes, with a total of about 90 additional minutes to explore their preferred entries out of all nine. They then rank all of the entries. Upper-level students rate on a scale from zero to six how much each first-year student is a fit with their entry in the three minutes of travel time between visits.

Anthony Cheng ’20, incoming president of MacGregor, said that he thought some of first years’ stress about choosing their entry rankings and being placed in a room in an entry was due to the short amount of time they had to become familiar with all the entries, as well as the fact that many upper-level students had not yet returned to the dorm.

“Through mutual selection, we can almost guarantee that all residents will feel comfortable where they live,” Eleanor Wintersteen ’19, outgoing president of MacGregor, wrote in an email to The Tech.

“I think it is possible to have a successful housing process without mutual selection, but I think moving away from mutual selection may result in issues with upperclass student engagement and buy-in,” Wintersteen continued.

“I understand a lot of where the administration is coming from, and most of the motives make sense to me,” Cheng said. “The problem is, a lot of the decision-making feels hurried, kind of spontaneous, and there’s a tendency to flip-flop or invite the opportunity for discussion and then completely ignore that discussion, or at least appear to ignore that discussion.”

Cheng said he thought that in October and November, the administration focused on “we reject rejection”; in December, they changed to focus on increasing diversity; and about two weeks ago, they returned to focus on “we reject rejection.” They were concerned that in mutual selection processes, upper-level students would select first years similar to themselves and decrease diversity in living groups, he said.

Maseeh Hall

First years in Maseeh can squat their rooms, and Maseeh does not use mutual selection, so the requirements will not require a new design from Maseeh. The majority of first years squat.

Darius Bopp ’20, outgoing president of Maseeh, told The Tech in an interview that mutual selection would not be consistent with Maseeh’s “be you with us” ideology in which any person should feel welcome on any floor.

Bopp said Sunday that he had emailed the information about the workshops and email addresses for feedback to Maseeh residents last Thursday, and has gotten zero responses.

“I think things are moving, and it’s like a strobe light: we see where it’s at when the light is on and we don’t get to see the moving parts,” Bopp said. “We’re getting information as it’s changing but we’re not seeing the full progression.”

McCormick Hall

First-year students in McCormick can enter the post-FYRE lottery as “prospective squatters,” meaning they can choose to remain in their current room or move to a different room, or as “movers,” meaning they forfeit rights to remain in their current room, according to McCormick’s 2017 Code of Rules.

The lottery process, which is based on randomized rankings, already fulfills both requirements of the design exercise.

McCormick’s president did not respond to The Tech’s requests for comment.

Next House

First years in Next House visit every wing in one to two hours before the randomized lottery. Each wing also hosts an event the day before the lottery, and first years receive booklets with information about the wings.  

Next would only implement first-year squatting if it were something residents wanted, Jessica Tang ’20, incoming president of Next House, told The Tech in an interview.

So far, the residents who have given Next Exec feedback have been mostly opposed to letting first years squat, Justina Yang ’19, outgoing president of Next, told The Tech in an interview Monday. Yang said that in her opinion, in the long term, letting first years squat might cause Next residents to form communities around going somewhere to spend time with others, rather than around living in the same part of the dorm.

“The uniqueness of every dorm’s system is very good,” Yang said. “I don’t think that many of [the other dorms’ systems] would fit into Next very well.”

“Next has a dorm-wide culture as well as individual wing cultures,” Tang said. “[Next has] some people who care less about which wing they specifically are in, but are involved with the rest of the house, and because of things like that, mutual selection, which focuses a lot on halls or wings would not work for us very well.”

New House

New House uses mutual selection. In the numbered houses, first years visit all four houses and fill out a form with their preferences. A house-wide housing chair and housing chairs of each of the numbered houses meet in person to assign first years to rooms. Cultural houses interview incoming first years who rank them in their top five dorms over the summer.

President of New House Emily Tang ’19 declined to answer The Tech’s questions about her opinions on mutual selection, the potential changes to room assignment processes, and how New House would be affected if the requirements were put in place. Tang wrote that she thought answering the questions “could jeopardise [her] ability to represent New House in the upcoming discussions.”

Random Hall

Random first places first years in temporary rooms. On the day FYRE results are released, they are taken on a tour of the dorm while the floors showcase what makes them unique. First years then have about two hours to visit the floors to learn more.

Meanwhile, a random list of first years is generated, which determines in what order the first years choose their floor. Mutual selection is not used.

Squatting is currently prohibited. “We have very few open rooms per floor (often only one or two), so one person choosing to stay in a room for the wrong reasons (doesn’t want to move stuff) could really hurt another first-year who wants to live on that floor because they really enjoy the culture or the people there,” incoming Random President Amanda Putnam ’20 wrote in an email to The Tech.

Putnam wrote that she believed a new room assignment system that complies with the two design exercise requirements is possible, but “there would definitely be a cost.”

“We would encourage first years to really choose a place that is best for them, even if it requires moving, and perhaps set up a system of upperclassmen who sign up to help move boxes and things,” Putnam continued. “But there would still likely be students who squat in their rooms for bad reasons and as a result hurt their fellow first years who genuinely want to live on a floor because they love it.”

Simmons Hall

First years in Simmons fill out preference sheets after visiting the various groups within Simmons, according to an online description of their housing policy.

“Using the mindset that the collective happiness of the overall class is much more important than that of any individual freshman, final assignments are left to the discretion of the RACs and the results of the preference sheets,” the description said.

Simmons’s president and exec members did not respond to The Tech’s requests for comment.

Editor’s note: Jessica Tang, incoming Next House president, is an arts writer for The Tech.

Update 1/24/19: The article was updated to include the full name and title of Anthony Cheng, which had been omitted due to an editing error. The description of MacGregor's process was also clarified to specify that first-year students rank the entries after visiting them.