Opinion guest column

Data, inclusion, and the DSL

DSL’s appeals to data are a disservice to the diversity of our community

The Division of Student Life has a data problem. After several high-profile blunders in its handling of student input, the DSL continues to seek legitimacy in the form of student survey data. Most recently, this trend is evident in the planning of the New Vassar dormitory. On the same day an opinion piece in The Tech chronicled the DSL's failure to acknowledge student input in planning New Vassar, an email from Suzy Nelson solicited further student data in the form of the MIT Enrolled Student Survey. In addition to subjecting this survey to response bias, Nelson’s email suggests a lack of awareness of the responsibility that comes with access to student data.

When students provide the DSL with information, they do so out of a belief that their experiences will be taken into account and enable the DSL to enact solutions with people like them in mind. Behind this belief is an implied trust, a trust that student data will be treated with care and will not be used against them; that questions about race, sexual orientation, gender identity, and class identity, for instance, are asked from a place of understanding of the myriad and complex ways in which these axes of identity interact and affect the lives of those who exist within them.

Yet, it has become increasingly clear that, in the office of the DSL, data is not regarded as a means of holding the DSL accountable to students and their needs; instead, data acts to justify unpopular intervention to disgruntled students, as well as a means of outwardly verifying MIT’s status as a model university. Data is much better at finding problems than solutions; data offers a single path of making changes to measured variables in attempt to relocate data points to within the acceptable or normal range, as defined by DSL. Even if this approach results in improvements to the DSL’s target metrics, it is not worth treating students as data points. To do so is to adopt a painful strategy of normalization, a process that is not respectful of the diversity that benefits us all.

While the DSL has denied adopting a one-size-fits-all approach to the student experience, such normalization is evident in its planning for New Vassar. Its failure to take into account students’ thoughts on the presence of kitchens as opposed to dining halls is indicative of a lack of sensitivity to issues that affect low-income students. As Lilly Chin wrote in The Tech, the DSL offered no justification for this decision aside from a vague appeal to “the data.” Though it’s not clear what data the admin might be referring to, the rhetoric here is that creative alternatives and students’ hard work can be disregarded in light of data, which somehow suggests New Vassar should have a traditional dining hall. Data acts as a substitute for student invention and self-determination, imposing a standard dormitory where there is potential for a transformative community.

Further evidence for corrective normalization can be found in the administration’s response to the 2015 Healthy Minds Survey. In this survey, without their knowledge, students were given individualized links to the survey and their data was secretly linked to their dorm — an ethical shortcoming for which students never received an apology. Based on this data, which showed Senior House students were disproportionately affected by mental health problems and drug use, the administration chose to close the dorm and force Senior House students to find a new place to call home. In this decision, there is an implicit reasoning, resulting from the over-application of statistical reasoning, that Senior House was not like “normal” (in this case, other) dorms, and that its students would improve if relocated to a more normal environment. A solution that avoids treating students as data points would involve allowing them to take ownership over and solve their own problems. While this is a more difficult option, it is always better, especially in a world that increasingly seeks to understand humanity by the numbers.

These “data-driven” decisions are equally unaccountable to the facts in the effort to end mutual selection. While the DSL claims the data suggests the practice of mutual selection might cause certain students to feel rejected, to imply that the students of East Campus and other mutual selection dorms are lacking in understanding of inclusivity is misleading to say the least. As a resident of EC, I can speak to its radical inclusiveness: it opens up new spaces for all varieties of individuals and has little tolerance for those who express hateful beliefs. The average resident of EC has, in my estimation, a deeply nurtured sense of what inclusion or exclusion means, resulting in a community where those who might otherwise feel excluded can find a home. All of this is not to say it’s inconceivable that EC’s room assignment process could be improved; only that the dorm requires little oversight in its effort to make freshmen feel included.

Burton Conner, East Campus, New House, MacGregor, and what used to be Senior House — the dorms most recently affected by this data-driven approach — all, in their own way, provide spaces for LGBTQ+ individuals, students of color, or low-income students. Decisions that affect these dorms disproportionately affect these groups; changes that affect their support structures — which often do not exist elsewhere and have been built over decades — are a delicate matter. Yet, in the case of the Senior House and New Vassar decisions, residents’ unique demographics went unacknowledged, in spite of students’ repeated appeals.

Moving forward in the room assignment design exercise and the construction of New Vassar, it is imperative that the DSL’s decisions will not neglect the heterogeneity of the students they are meant to serve. The DSL must proceed with an awareness of the rift between supposed student survey data and actual student sentiment — an approach that requires nuance, flexibility and openness to the varieties of student experience. They must contend with the fact that our students’ unique experiences provide them with access to correspondingly unique solutions, and allow students, not their data, to determine what constitutes a solution. Merely shifting individuals towards the DSL’s definition of the norm is a disservice to the diversity of our community. It denies and cuts off at the root the innovative solutions students will adopt when permitted. Conversely, the creation of a highly intentional, adaptable space will drive the innovative spirit we seek to nourish.

Likewise, students have a choice to make: they can, in spite of the failed attempts that precede them, continue to act in good faith and cooperation with the DSL, or they can realize that merely sharing preferences with them will not make their experiences count. Data alone will never capture the diversity of student experience in its richness. To allow an illusion to the contrary to persist is to risk seeing that richness siphoned away.

Jessica Adams is a member of the Class of 2019 studying literature, a previous resident of Senior House, and a current resident of East Campus.