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Allan K. '17

Jul 17, 2017

data justice for senior house

Posted in: Miscellaneous, Life & Culture

sabrina, joon, and abby posted recently about the circumstances surrounding the conversion of senior house to graduate housing. joon included full transcripts of emails sent from the chancellor's office to undergraduates, announcing and explaining those decisions. i won't bother resummarizing those. i encourage you to read their posts if you haven't already, because their stories are deeply, heartwrenchingly important. i'm proud that the admissions blogs have always been a platform for students to speak honestly about their experiences with MIT. these stories reflect the blogs at their best.

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a year ago, the chancellor's office released graduation data showing that students who lived at senior house during their first semester at MIT had the lowest graduation rate out of all the other dorms. this data was used to justify two decisions: first, to prohibit new freshmen from living in senior house; and second, to institute a "turnaround team" dedicated to helping senior house "become a healthier community." the original press release is here. it says:

“We see a vital need to act based on these data alone,” the senior officers added in their letter. “However, the seriousness of the situation is further underscored by our significant concerns about issues of illegal drug use in Senior House.”

the chancellor's website states that "Everything we do at MIT is informed by data." i found it unsettling that graduation data was immediately linked to "concerns about illegal drug use." i also found it unsettling that a low four-year-graduation rate was seen as a serious problem. i had always believed that MIT was a place that fostered unconventional paths through life. MIT gave me the opportunity to take a semester off, like many others before me, and yes, that means that i'm graduating late. i saw MIT as a place that didn't define success by so simple a metric as whether or not you graduated in four years. i still want to see MIT this way.

i was also struck by this statement, from the former head of senior house, professor henry jenkins (source):

Jenkins says that for years MIT administrators told him it was a problem that Senior House sent more students to the MIT Medical Center than other dorms. He thought it was a sign students were making sure they got help if there were problems. “We never lost a student in the dorm,” Jenkins says, proudly. One died of a motorcycle accident off-campus. (In 2015, The Boston Globe reported that MIT’s 10-year suicide rate was 10.2 per 100,000 students, 40% above the average for college students.)

For his entire tenure, Jenkins says, he dealt with administrators who were “deeply blind to the contribution Senior House made to the MIT community.” They insisted there was a drug problem, while he was fairly certain it was a matter of image, that drug use was a problem across campus.

“It seems to pass from one administrator to the next. It seems oblivious to proof or logic,” Jenkins says. “It’s the established wisdom of the top levels of MIT without being grounded in very much in particular. It always struck me that if you look at the groups that live in the dorm, they are groups to which the stigma of drug use is attached.” By 2009, he couldn’t take it anymore, and he left for the University of Southern California. “I just got worn down fighting that battle,” he says.

on the MITadmissions blogs, we try to hold each other to a high standard of self-awareness and factual accuracy. it's how we have the freedom to write honestly about what it's like to be an MIT student, whether it's amazing or whether it breaks you a little. it's not our job to sell you a polished picture of why MIT is paradise, because a lot of the time it's not. 

so here's what i know. i know senior house has the second highest percentage of underrepresented minorities out of all the dorms at MIT. i know 40% of senior house residents identify as not heterosexual (source). i know senior house was a home for many students who didn't feel like they really belonged anywhere else. i know that my senior house friends are some of the most dedicated and caring people i know; that they have used up weeks in the service of their classmates; that they have agonized over how best to shape senior house into the best possible version of itself. i watched my classmates lose sleep, preparing for meetings and writing proposals, somehow carving time away from a full load of MIT coursework. even after the semester ended, i watched my friends wake up early and stay up late so they could have hard conversations with administrators, calling in from three time zones away, scheduling meetings around nine-to-five internships. they worked to lower the barrier to help-seeking by instituting in-house mental health counseling and student support services. they created and encouraged opportunities for students to seek support from counselors about drug and alcohol usage. they did this because they had a positive vision for what senior house was and what it could become. it surprises me to read in the chancellor's email that "residents did not share our commitment to such commonsense limits [around what's safe and what's legal]" when i know what these same residents have accomplished.

i don't believe any community at mit is perfect. i think, under close scrutiny, you can find students in any community engaging in unhealthy or illicit activities. i don't think that's necessarily okay; i just think it's a fact of college life. nor do i dispute the fact that administrators found credible proof of prohibited activities taking place in senior house, and that they had a responsibility to respond to that evidence. at the same time, it's important to acknowledge that senior house residents were, and remain, cognizant of the flaws in their own community, and that they were devoted to finding solutions.

i'm not a senior house resident; i don't know the details. but it's difficult for me to understand how the illicit actions of a few negated all of the positive work that students did and justified the eradication of an entire community, a community based fundamentally on principles of care and radical inclusivity.

chancellor barnhart has brought about an unprecedented level of student inclusion in major decisions at MIT. students see and applaud this. her dedication to student wellness is broadly recognized and her leadership of the MindHandHeart initiative is a model for student empowerment. she understands that hers is a position of service; service to MIT, but above all, service to the students who make MIT the oddball, passionate, unabashedly nerdy, socially conscious, and more than occasionally disobedient place that it is.

so i wish administrators would, in the service of their students, hold themselves more accountable to their students. that accountability begins with transparency about how decisions are reached and what information is used to justify them. administrators have an obligation to question whether their decisions are truly founded in data, and what assumptions they have made in its interpretation. data is not self-explanatorybig data needs thick data.

nobody believes that students should be able to do whatever they want, free from legal and academic repurcussions. but students must have the right to know what data is collected about them, how it is analyzed, and what conclusions are drawn from it. students must have the right to interrogate those analyses. if administrators see themselves as data-driven, then let them be data-driven, and let their decisions be subject to the same standards of reporting and rigor applied everywhere else in the technical and social sciences.

moreover, accountability does not end with transparencyhsin-yu tsai, writing about the termination of graduate women's dorm green hall in 2008, said this:

Our graduate student community is being destroyed ... this decision making pattern with no student input and last minute notice continues repeating itself. We sincerely hope that the administrative authorities can seriously address this reoccurring pattern and work with [students] to effectively ensure student input in future decision processes.

in the true spirit of representative government, ensuring student input means creating processes which give students authority to propose, shape, and even veto the major decisions affecting their communities. students must be empowered to care for their own communities, knowing that the process of care is slow, knowing that there can be setbacks.

until that happens, i mourn senior house -- what it represented for misfits and weirdos and everyone else who didn't exactly belong. these places are rare in the world. we're worse off without them.

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