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Joonho K. '20

Jul 11, 2017

senior house / pilot 2021 / senior house

Posted in: MIT Facts

I'm definitely not going to be the only person to talk about this on the blogs, but the situation with senior haus has been on my mind and many others for the past month.

I'm not going to, nor would I like to, give one-sided, pathos-inspired opinions or rants about what I think and how much I love/hate the current series of events, or praise/criticize anyone for what they've done. Instead, I'm going to give you the facts, as unbiased as possible, and then tell you about what happened to me earlier today.


Around June 12, Chancellor Barnhart sent out an email to members of the Senior House community:

Dear [insert name here],

I write on behalf of MIT's senior leadership to inform you of our decision and our plans to support you.

The turnaround we launched last June engaged you and a number of faculty, staff, and alumni in work to promote personal wellbeing and academic success in your community. As you know, we received credible and concerning information this past semester and launched a review. A few weeks ago, we informed you of our findings that serious and unsafe behaviors and activities occurred in the house during the turnaround. Unfortunately, these behaviors and activities have served to fundamentally undermine our shared goals for the safety, health, and academic success of all Senior House residents.

The senior officers and I have met with many of you to discuss this matter, and we have received and read many emails on this topic. Before making our decision, we carefully listened to and reflected on what we heard. I hope that, through this dialogue, you gained an appreciation for the position we are in given our responsibility to provide all students with safe and healthy residential communities.

Decision & Support

We believe that significant change is needed and have made our decision based on our concern and care for present and future residents of the house. The details of our decision are:

All residents who wish to live in Senior House during the 2017-18 academic year must complete an application [link] to be a member of the community. You will see that we are seeking individuals who are committed to contributing to a residential environment that supports residents' academic and personal development.

Because the process will be very selective, many of you will want or need to make alternative housing arrangements for next year. Please know that we are committed to identifying supportive and welcoming options for every member of your community who wishes to live on campus. You can learn more about the relocation process and indicate your housing preferences here [link]. (Also note that, even if you complete a Senior House application, you still need to fill out the housing preferences form so that you can secure a holding assignment while your application is reviewed).

We will work to find you room assignments in other residence halls as either individuals or as part of small groups of friends. Dean of Student Life Suzy Nelson has established a relocation team led by Dean David Randall and Associate Director Jen Hapgood-White to provide guidance and support for you throughout this process. If you have questions about another residential community, moving off-campus, dining, financial aid, work study or any other topic associated with moving, they can help starting today. To reach this team, please email [email].

Moving Forward

In addition to students whose applications are approved and the New House students already scheduled to move in while their building undergoes renovations, a cohort of first-year students will reside in the house next year. We are currently developing a program for first-years focused on the personal wellbeing and academic success principles and goals of the turnaround. The program will feature strong faculty and staff engagement as well as opportunities for peer mentorship.

While some of you will be disappointed with our decision, I hope you will understand it is firmly rooted in our care for you as students and our concerns about the health and wellness of your residential environment. The senior officers and I are obligated to protect our students' wellbeing and to require accountability when the facts of a serious situation warrant it.

We have also worked to respect your privacy and to keep this matter as confidential as we can. We appreciate that you have done the same, and that you have engaged with us throughout the entirety of this process. With a decision now made, we would like to continue to keep what prompted the review and the review's findings private.

Please remember that Dean Randall and Associate Director Hapgood-White are ready to help you right now and can be reached at [email]. Dean Nelson and I are also here for you if you want to talk about the future at any point over the summer.

Sincerely,

Cynthia Barnhart
Chancellor

Regardless of whether or not the requests for privacy were upheld, this email went around all the major mailing lists in the span of several hours. There was, as expected, a lot of discussion about this recent turn of events throughout the community. There were a lot of reactions: many were negative, some were positive, some were mixed, some didn't care.

That same day, the prefrosh received an email from Suzy Nelson:

Dear [prefrosh],

From rock climbing, to meditating, to rolling maki sushi or baking bread – you can do it all in this new residential program that is designed to support your inquisitiveness by offering you a spectrum of opportunities. It's called Pilot 2021. And I want to tell you a little bit about it.

Imagine a community of students and renowned faculty all sharing a passion for academics, personal development, and wellbeing: That's Pilot 2021 – a place that will help orient you to MIT across three dimensions:

Career Exploration: Are you ready to step into a world of extraordinary and varied learning opportunities? That exploration can lead you down unexpected paths where academic and career passions can be discovered. In Pilot 2021, you will interact with outstanding faculty from across MIT, helping you learn about options for your major and career.

Food & Cooking: In this cook-for-yourself community, you have a new option for helping you eat well: a fresh approach featuring food kits with recipes and ingredients for healthy meals. Additionally, you can use the plan's built-in dining dollars in the community pantry, or for late-night meals at a new café in Walker Memorial, opening this fall. Also, you can choose to opt into a convenient MIT Dining plan, or buy your own groceries.

Mind & Body Wellness: Whether you're into yoga or training for a Spartan race, activity is key to managing stress and staying healthy. Pilot 2021's wellness pass incorporates in-residence fitness sessions, discounts on group exercise and personal training, and a limited number of reserved spots for popular extreme physical education classes that grant points toward your physical education requirement. You can also travel with your community on skiing, camping, or hiking adventures.

Want to live here? You can, starting this fall! Simply click here to access your housing preference survey, and make Pilot 2021 one of your top choices. We've extended the housing lottery deadline to 5:00 pm (EDT) on Tuesday, June 20, to give you time to consider this new approach to living at MIT. Let us know you want to become part of Pilot 2021 today!

I look forward to seeing you soon,
Suzy Nelson
Dean for Student Life

Again, this made the rounds through the major mailing lists within several hours.

Over the course of the following weeks, there have been many significant responses to the decision. There have been discussions, sit-in protests, memorials, Lobby 7 column spaces, and many different articles written about Senior House, both praising and criticizing the decision. Many emails and calls were made to the administration, many pleading them to reverse or rethink their decision. A website was created, which generated mixed opinions, some praising its satirical nature, some criticizing it as immature.

Days passed, and the bite of the decision that was made weeks prior had been dulled for the majority of the community. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, an email from Chancellor Barnhart was sent to residents of Senior House on July 7th:

Dear [name],

I wrote last month that significant change is needed in Senior House.
President Reif, Provost Schmidt, Vice President Zuber, and I made that
decision together.

The reaction from the Senior House community has reinforced our decision.
The misinformation, denials, and responses – online, in emails, and in
person – violate MIT values. We no longer believe that first-year and
continuing students living in Senior House next year will be able to define
for themselves their own community values and living experience.

This has led us to conclude that our plan to re-set the undergraduate
experience in Senior House is unworkable. Senior House is now closed to
undergraduates, and it will reopen in the fall to graduate students. We
continue to stand by our responsibility for providing all MIT students with
safe residential environments, and we intend to fulfill that obligation.

You recently received your alternate fall housing assignment. If you have
any questions or concerns about dining, financial aid, work study or any
other topic associated with moving, please do not hesitate to contact David
Randall or Jennifer Hapgood-White at [email].

Sincerely,

Cynthia Barnhart
Chancellor

And just like that, the dull throb turned into a howl.


Those are the facts. There aren't that many of them, to be honest: there hasn't been a lot of public communication between the general student body and the administration, understandably due to their intentions on maintaining privacy with the Senior House community. The emails are, to many of us, all that there is to go on. Since there hasn't been a lot of public information on Senior House and Pilot 2021, it's been difficult to sift through what's factual and what's not.

This is the end of a sad saga that began before I or any of my classmates even got here. Senior House was closed to freshmen last year. Senior House residents were asked to leave and reapply this year. Senior House residents were asked to leave permanently. Senior House is now a graduate residence.

It's not even called Senior House anymore on the graduate residences website. Instead it's 70 Amherst Street. I don't know what to feel about that.

I said I'd tell you what happened to me today. Here's what happened: I was leading a tour this morning (yes, I'm a tour guide now: making a separate blog post on that later on). I got to McDermott Court, with the Dot and the Green Building in front of me and East Campus on my right. With a smile, I point to my right and say: "This building is East Campus, one of the undergraduate dorms. I lived here my freshman year. There's-" I stopped myself suddenly. Last week, I would've finished that sentence like: "There's another undergraduate dorm on this side of campus right next to East Campus, which is Senior House." Instead I said, "It's the only undergraduate dorm on the east side of campus."

Hearing those words some out of my mouth made my stomach drop. I didn't feel good. I didn't feel proud. I felt sick.

I led the rest of the tour without any problems - I really like being a tour guide - but I've been in a somber mood ever since.

I just felt like I needed to share that.

Anyway, that's what happened. 


Edit: Chancellor Barnhart sent out an email not too long ago, this time to the undergraduate community. It's an important piece that just fell into place in this puzzle we're all trying to solve together. Here it is:

To the members of the undergraduate student body,

As you probably know, MIT's other senior leaders and I recently decided that, starting this fall, Senior House will house graduate students only. For students outside the Senior House community, I expect this decision felt sudden. You may also find yourself with practical questions about how it might affect housing assignments for this year.

I'm writing now to explain how we arrived at this decision and what we're doing to help those students directly affected. Near the end of this letter, I also explain the steps we're taking to minimize the impact on the overall housing system, and where you can turn with questions about your own situation.

The Senior House turnaround process

Over the last year, I've spent a great deal of time working with residents of Senior House and thinking about how to address certain longstanding dynamics in the house that produced damaging outcomes.

In person and in print, I have received a wide range of feedback about the situation there. I have read every letter, including many heartfelt tributes to the Senior House community. I know that Senior House has played a wonderful role in the lives of many students and graduates, and I know how deeply many of you care about it.

The positive aspects of this community were clear to me even a year ago. That's why, despite our serious concerns, we took the step last summer of launching the turnaround; we hoped that by working with the residents of Senior House, we could together find a way to stop the troubling behaviors.

Unfortunately, as I recently explained in The Tech, despite significant effort and countless hours on the part of many students, faculty and staff, it became clear this spring that the turnaround had failed. We learned that dangerous behavior – behavior explicitly prohibited by MIT policy and completely counter to the spirit of the turnaround – was taking place in the house. And we learned that the community knew about the behavior, but was neither stopping that behavior on its own, nor turning to us for help in stopping it.

The problem we struggled with was this: A signature part of the MIT experience is that students have great freedom to shape their own communities. The outcome is usually excellent: students gain a sense of independence, they take responsibility for themselves and their friends, and they develop a deep sense of home at MIT. I know that, at its best, Senior House did this, too.

But freedom requires a baseline of trust, and commonsense limits around what's safe and what's legal.

The turnaround was an effort based on trust. Once that trust was broken, and once it became clear that residents did not share our commitment to such commonsense limits, it became impossible for us to continue on the turnaround path.

As we made clear to the residents at the time, a complete reset was necessary and a new community needed to form; Pilot 2021 was our first attempt. In the best MIT tradition of open debate and collaborative problem-solving, some students responded with peaceful protests and suggestions for improving the plan. Unfortunately, to our great regret, the plan was also met with intensive efforts to perpetuate and reimpose Senior House, thus undermining any chance for a new community to succeed.

We reluctantly came to the conclusion that the only path left to us was for the building to house graduate students. We would never have brought such distress to the residents of Senior House if we thought we had a realistic and workable choice. 

Helping those directly affected

This change requires some undergraduates to move at a crucial point in our housing assignment process. We also recognize that it eliminates a critical safe space for members of our LBGTQ+ community. We are responding to these legitimate concerns in several ways.

We are helping each undergraduate who needs to relocate find a welcoming living situation. In partnership with our heads of house and house teams, we are also making sure that our residential support staff have the right training to meet the needs of new members of their communities.

This fall, with student guidance and leadership, we will be taking steps to create a living-learning community that explores issues relating to gender, sexuality, diversity, equity and inclusion.

Housing options for juniors and seniors

The shift to housing graduate students would appear to create a shortage of undergraduate beds, which would naturally raise concerns about crowding. After consulting with undergraduate leaders, we are optimistic that we can avoid crowding by shifting a number of juniors and seniors into graduate residence halls. Rising juniors and seniors will soon receive a letter explaining their options and incentives. This may be a particularly good choice for students contemplating graduate school. Lotteries for students to pursue these options will open soon.

We are also working with heads of house, house governments and student leaders to make sure that students who choose to move will feel welcome and supported. If you have questions about your specific situation, please contact David Randall or Jennifer Hapgood-White at [email protected]

Going forward

Since I came to MIT as a graduate student, I have been struck, over and over, by the capacity of the MIT community to confront difficult facts and struggle together towards a solution.

In that work, we will not always agree with each other's judgments. But I hope we can take each other seriously as people of goodwill and members of the same community.

Respectfully,

Cynthia Barnhart 

I said I didn't feel proud, and I don't. This situation is far from perfect. And I seriously question this solution to dorm overcrowding. But I can resonate with the last sentence in that email. 

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