Opinion letter to the editor

Dean of Student Life responds to columns on student housing

This is a response to an article published Feb. 28, “A history of broken promises in the New Vassar dorm design,” as well as another article published Mar. 14, “Data, inclusion, and the DSL.”

To the Editors,

Two recent student-authored columns in The Tech prompted questions about how the Division of Student Life (DSL) partners with MIT students. I’ve reached out to the authors so we can talk about their concerns, and so they know I care about the issues they raised. Below, I respond to a few of their key points: the DSL’s (and my) aim is to build positive relationships with students, to strengthen shared governance and communication, and to make data-driven decisions.

We agree that the foundation for good relations is hearing each other out, understanding others’ perspectives, and trusting that we all want what is best for our community. We know that reaching consensus isn’t easy, and that top-down, one-size-fits-all solutions don’t work well. The DSL keeps these realities in mind when we work with students on projects like designing the New Vassar Street residence hall or improving the room-assignment and move-in processes. Every project is different, but our approach is to listen to students’ ideas and concerns, and we ask that they listen to ours.

New Vassar — a focus of the recent columns — is a good example of our collaboration. Because we believe that engaging students results in better outcomes, we spent many hours discussing the design elements that mattered to them. In addition to students’ perspectives, planners had to balance the views of other MIT stakeholders and to consider schedule, budget, and sustainability goals. Understandably, that necessitated compromise. But, in the end, student input shaped almost every element of the dorm’s interior design:

As with any major project, we had to acknowledge broader constraints and realities. New Vassar will be a dining facility because almost 70% of incoming first-years indicate that they prefer to live in a dining dorm. Moreover, having full kitchens on every residential floor would have compromised MIT’s ability to meet the project’s budget and sustainability goals.

Burton Conner (BC) — another focus of the recent columns — is a second major project with competing needs, and where compromise is necessary. I understand questions about why, now that BC is scheduled to close for renewal in June 2020, New Vassar can’t be a “swing dorm.” MIT will be renovating dorms for years to come, and New Vassar will have its own founders group that will help to shape that community’s identity and traditions. So designating New Vassar as a transitory hall won’t allow that community to establish roots and would be very disruptive to students living there. We explain more about our rationale and our plans to support and sustain Burton Conner’s community during renewal in a recent DSL News interview that I encourage you to read.

We are also partnering with students on improving the room-assignment and move-in processes. We believe that we need to help the students who experience rejection and undue stress when they first arrive at MIT. While a minority of our students are hurt by mutual selection and more report undue stress due to forced moves, students and the DSL have a responsibility to respond. What’s become very clear to us through conversations with students, though, is that this harm is unintentional, and it can be addressed through the many good ideas students have come up with. I appreciate how hard students are working and how deeply they care about making sure new students feel welcomed and supported.

Finally, in the spirit of making data-driven decisions and sharing data with students, the DSL has created a webpage where we will post student life-related data. While not the only consideration, data help us identify and respond to students’ needs. It’s why in recent years we’ve prioritized increased support services such as the CARE Team and violence prevention education and support, as well as offering other services such as an at-cost grocery store, enhanced shuttle services, urgent financial grants for students in need, and renovated student spaces.

I want all students to know that being here for you is what matters most to me. The DSL’s door is always open, so please reach out. If it is convenient, we also host office hours every Friday from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. in 4-110. We want to listen to and learn from you, and we want to work together to make a better MIT. I hope you will stop by.


Suzy M. Nelson

Vice President and Dean for Student Life