Opinion guest column

What makes MIT unique?

The DSL seems more concerned with transforming MIT into our peer institutions than listening to students’ concerns

My response in the textbox at the end of the Enrolled Student Survey:

I love MIT and the general philosophy that MIT should be a safe space to try and fail. Most of my dissatisfaction with MIT stems from feeling like the administration, specifically the Division of Student Life (DSL), is out to eliminate everything that makes MIT special. This includes tight-knit living communities that span years for those of us that don't want to join FSILGs, student group autonomy, hacking, and kitchens in dorms.

In general, I'm disappointed that MIT has a trend of imitating what other schools do and what visiting committees recommend without considering what makes MIT special and how that requires MIT to make different decisions than what administrators call our “peer institutions.”

Strategy and system dynamics classes at Sloan teach that actions throughout an organization need to be consistent and reinforcing and that past decisions dictate future actions. This means that organizations cannot simply imitate their peers and expect success. If MIT’s housing system was a Sloan case study, systems analysts would be appalled.

For example, the majority of MIT undergrads live on campus for four years, whereas at most schools, the norm is for students to move off-campus after a year or two to an apartment with their own kitchen. That’s why it’s more important for MIT dorms to have kitchen access than for non-MIT dorms to have kitchens. A counter-argument from Dining is that other “elite institutions” expect students to live on campus for all four years and also require a meal plan, so MIT comparatively allows more choice. However, this disregards MIT’s current effort to remove that choice from future students by predominantly building dining dorms and removing cook-for-yourself dorms, as well as financial concerns faced by much of the student body.

Admissions is justifiably proud of the fact that MIT undergraduates come from less wealthy backgrounds than students at any of its peer institutions. For example, MIT comes 11th out of 12 Ivy-Plus schools for median parent income. Yet the DSL ignores the major impact that factors like the cost of the meal plan or Tier I housing have on student housing and dining choices.

Many students choose MIT specifically because it is different from our “peer institutions.” We have the general policy of letting students work with EHS to safely carry out potentially risky activities, like spinning fire or building things or making LN2 ice cream. We have departments that are open to exploring and institutional policies that encourage students to take classes outside of their official department. We have GRTs instead of RAs. We have UROPs and academic exploration. We have IAP and Mystery Hunt. We have student groups that don't need faculty sponsor approval for literally everything. We have a huge body of stories that show that the Institute has a sense of humor. We have living groups with diverse, supportive communities that encourage us to be friends with people outside our class years.

It just feels like there is a disconnect between administration’s push to produce academic and industrial leaders and housing’s race to make the MIT undergraduate experience as bland and boring as it is at other schools.

I'm concerned about the impact that this will have on future students because the communities I've been a part of, and especially the upperclassmen in those communities, were critical to helping me grow as a person by exposing me to diverse viewpoints, to protecting my physical and mental health by ensuring I eat and sleep, and to reassuring me that things get better. The support network that communities provide is essential for surviving this pressure cooker.

MIT undergrads are a self-selected group of high-achievers put in a high-pressure environment that encourages leadership, and they need space to grow up independently and learn who they are with support from their peers who are undergoing or have undergone the same experience. Most of us are used to being special, and it can be hard to have to completely redefine ourselves and our self-worth now that we’re no longer top of our class. That’s why it’s so important to have a peer community for support.

Housing should encourage these communities, not limit them. Housing should be supporting broader Institute goals — to have students who accomplish amazing things — by making sure students have support networks to come home to as well as enabling student groups to pull off amazing things. That's something that MIT used to do extremely well and something many of us are worried about losing with the changes. And it's extremely frustrating that Housing pretends to value student input and then discards it without ever telling us why.

Housing should bring itself back into alignment with the rest of MIT and help carry out MIT’s mission of creating leaders. Administrators brought into Housing and DSL from other schools should understand MIT’s culture and priorities rather than blindly attempting to apply Ivy League policies here. Those policies may have their place, but policies must be customized to their organizations, especially when the organization is as unique as MIT.

Marianne Olsen is a member of the MIT Class of 2019 majoring in Mechanical Engineering and minoring in Management.