Opinion guest column

From mutual selection to mutual exclusion

The redesign of living community room assignment procedures will isolate incoming classes from older students and diminish floor culture

Each August, a buzzing on campus betrays the presence of two optimization problems. One is the emergence of cicada nymphs, some species of which mature in cycles of coprime years to avoid a dearth of resources. The other also involves a progression to a new stage in life — the arrival and subsequent housing assignment of first years. Shortly after stepping foot on campus, new students must move into temporary rooms, determine the residential communities of which they'd like to be a part, and move yet again once final assignments are made. This sequence is accomplished with the assistance of an older population: upper-level students do their part to represent their living groups and, eventually, assign the actual rooms.

Cicadas might have arrived at a solution to their problem through natural selection, but the problem of placing the incoming class is often solved using mutual selection: a collection of dorm-distinct processes that are used to match new residents with intra-dorm communities using the preferences of both. However, this long-standing practice is in peril. Seeking to prevent forced moves and minimize feelings of rejection among first years, Chancellor Barnhart and Dean Nelson of the DSL have charged student leaders of campus dorms to redesign the room assignment procedures for their respective communities. New designs must conform to two criteria: upper-level students must not preference or select new members of their living groups (therefore precluding mutual selection), and first years must have the option to remain in, or “squat,” their initial rooming assignments.

Although both requirements seem reasonable prima facie, they threaten to diminish community cohesion in dorms with floor cultures and convolute an already complicated housing process. Indeed, first years that “squat” will have avoided the hassle of moving twice — but it will likely come at the cost of long-term wellbeing. Since the majority of first years arrive on campus before the official move-in date (and before most upper-level students are back for the fall), the only information that is immediately present is that of situational convenience. What is not present is information about the essence of a community: the personalities of its individuals. New residents that decide to “squat” based on first impressions of proximity and cosmetics — who attempt to play it safe in the face of uncertainty about the second, final assignment — will have done so without the benefit of knowing who they would like to live with. Complacent with their initial assignment, they will also have no further incentive to take part in exploratory events that showcase cultures and foster friendships across a dorm as a whole.

Furthermore, it is naive to expect that unobvious but nonetheless vital insights could be effectively communicated to new residents through summer materials. Some insights concern details of a granularity that translates poorly to summaries (e.g., which rooms are close to noise or have neighbors who enjoy burning pungent incense); others, if broadly advertised, could jeopardize the safety of current and prospective residents (e.g., which living groups have a large LGBTQ+ representation). Thus, “squatting” leads to situations that are ripe for regret and later complicates logistics regarding requests for housing transfers. In dorms where the majority of rooms house multiple residents, it instantly amounts to additional restrictions that over-burdened assignment committees must then scramble to satisfy.

Disallowing mutual selection will result in short and long-term repercussions, too. Beyond the questionable efficacy of a policy meant to eliminate feelings of rejection among first years, (which rests on a double standard, since FSILGs will continue to offer bids), this new policy is questionably effective in other regards. Solely taking into account the preferences of new residents during housing assignments will serve to change only the nature, not number, of anecdotal complaints and to diminish upper-level student engagement. With mutual selection, upper-level students in living groups are able to determine and indicate desired outcomes for their communities, using honest interactions with prospective members as bases. Ignore what those desires are, however, and upper-level students will be forced to try to realize them through other means. Prominent living groups — often those with distinctive cultures that pique the interests of many new residents — will likely resort to actively dissuading many first years from ranking them highly. The type of candid, positive interactions that currently abound in intra-dorm exploratory events will then be supplanted by the direct confrontations that define an “anti-rush,” where current residents may be deliberately abrasive or hurtful to those that might not thrive on their floors. Other communities can expect reduced buy-in from upper-level students, who will be pushed towards apathy by the erasure of their agency. The results of the 2017 Dorm Life Survey indicate that for undergraduates, their peers are often the go-tos for advice on a wide range of topics; given that upper-level students often perform the function of experienced, informal mentors, weakened ties between them and first years will have grave consequences.

Blindly applying the criteria that Chancellor Barnhart and Dean Nelson have provided can only isolate incoming classes from the earned wisdom of older students when it is much needed — both during the first weeks of each fall and in the many that follow. Luckily, the motivations behind the re-evaluation of how first years move-in and are assigned can be met without such heavy-handed mandates. For instance, randomness can be introduced into algorithms used for mutual selection to reduce feelings of rejection, and the details of the move-in and room assignment process can be better advertised so that new residents do not unpack unnecessarily before their second move. Regardless of what changes dorms make to their policies, they must be accompanied by strong assurances that administrators will do their part by guaranteeing that the materials and knowledge for a less frustrating move-in will be properly disseminated. To expect otherwise — that these two requirements would generalize well across a campus as diverse as ours — is to hope that they won't lead to a system where students, like cicadas, self-segregate in years: where, in the place of mutual selection, we are left with mutual exclusion.

Hairuo Guo is a master's degree candidate at MIT and a former resident of East Campus.