Opinion guest column

A history of broken promises in the New Vassar dorm design

Months of student-administration collaboration discarded without proper explanation

On Feb. 13, the Division of Student Life announced that Burton Conner would close for renovations. I was unsurprised to see BC finally get its deferred maintenance, but the real kicker came from the FAQ.

New Vassar “will not serve as a ‘swing’ dorm in the short or long term,” the FAQ stated. “New Vassar is a dining dorm, and residents will be required to purchase a meal plan.”

These banal statements are actually a fiery rejection of student input into New Vassar’s design. Throughout the design process, students have tried to make New Vassar an accommodating temporary home for cook-for-yourself communities. However, this FAQ shows that work has been destroyed by top-down administrative backtracking.

This is an especially bitter pill for me, since I was an active part of these conversations. In Fall 2016, I served on the Architectural Principles Committee, a DSL-organized committee to write what was nominally a set of guiding principles for future dorms.

The mailing list dorm-of-the-future@mit.edu served as the main student record of both this committee and the New Residences Working Group, a committee charged with determining New Vassar’s architectural specifics. I have uploaded all emails sent to this list to https://tinyurl.com/DotF-archive to cite them by date throughout this piece.

As MIT’s Capital Projects page reports, New Vassar was intended to provide MIT with “flexibility and capacity as it continues with its comprehensive renewal of campus housing.” Indeed, both students and administrators initially envisioned New Vassar as a swing space suitable for all MIT living groups, even potentially accommodating FSILGs in a controversial “Greek Village” style (Sept. 30, 2016). As late as October 2017, the then-president of DormCon wrote that New Vassar “will be a swing dorm for at least three cook-for-yourself dorms.”

With many of MIT’s dormitories overdue for renovation, a new dorm would need to be capable of hosting diverse dorm cultures — whether it be dining vs. cook-for-yourself or suites vs. wing organization. Students were eager to work with administrators to create a dorm that would support all of these communities.

However, it soon became clear that student well-being directly conflicted with actual administrative intent. The DSL backpedaled furiously on mutually agreed upon principles jointly laid out in committee and unilaterally made decisions without student consent.

Originally, both students and administrators agreed that the dorm should have between 35 and 50 percent singles — a compromise balancing student preferences for singles while maximizing the number of beds (Sept. 30, 2016). However, after committee meetings had stopped, the final Architectural Principles document claimed that 30 to 40 percent singles was the optimal ratio (Oct. 18, 2016). In the final design, only 25 percent of the rooms in New Vassar are singles (Oct. 17, 2017).

This pales in comparison to the war of attrition on dining. From the beginning, student leaders fought hard for sufficient culinary support in the Architectural Principles document. Despite initial administrative assumptions that all new dorms would be dining dorms, students pushed back to ensure that non-dining options would still be considered and that dining dorms would still provide a full kitchen for every 50 residents (Sept. 30, 2016).

Despite the fight to have dining be a point of mutual discussion, the DSL unilaterally declared New Vassar would be a dining dorm. It is unclear how the DSL came to this decision, other than an appeal to “the data” (March 20, 2017).

Although they were disappointed that the DSL reneged on the Architectural Principles, students tried to make the best of the situation. Over the summer of 2017, the New Residences Working Group held intensive design discussions on how New Vassar could be a comfortable place for non-dining students to live, despite the presence of a dining hall.

Through the dorm-of-the-future mailing list, over 250 students were surveyed and gave constructive ideas on how to support cook-for-yourself communities. Current kitchen layouts were compared, with BC residents emphasizing the importance of suite-style kitchens (March 29, 2017). Students also proposed innovative solutions, like having centralized cooking pods rather than a single centralized dining hall (April 12, 2017).

All of this cross-campus student effort was ultimately ignored. The final New Vassar design has microwave-only kitchenettes and a centralized kitchen that is smaller than other dorms’ country kitchens, a significant reduction from the DSL’s purported architectural principles (Oct. 13, 2017).

These kitchen concessions, albeit limited in scope, offered some hope that non-dining communities would be able to survive in New Vassar. However, the DSL’s terse refusal to let BC swing into New Vassar has dashed those hopes. The fact that administrators have discarded a year’s worth of collaboration casts considerable doubt on other “innovation” efforts such as the upcoming mutual selection workshop. Why should students expend their labor during a busy school year when it will be ignored a few months later?

New Vassar tells a sad tale of how the DSL has repeatedly violated their own stated principles without working with students to find an acceptable compromise. By making New Vassar a dining dorm and emphatically not a swing space, MIT has ignored the voices and intentions of multiple generations of student leadership. It is furthermore inexcusable that they use this decision as justification for breaking up BC, as if their hands were tied. The administration tied their own hands, over students’ repeated and loud objections.

Lilly Chin is a PhD student in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and a member of the undergraduate Class of 2017. She served as the UA Committee Chair on Student-Administration Collaboration from 2015–2017.