The Room Where It Happens by Sabrina M. '21
my two year tale of student governance, up until the bitter end
For those of you who don’t keep up with the blogs, I’m Sabrina M. ‘19, and I just finished my second year at MIT. Until recently, I was the Senior Haus co-president, until suddenly, there was no Senior House anymore.
You might notice, as you read this, that I switch between House and Haus a lot. For the sake of clarity: Senior House is a building. It is located at 70 Amherst St (formerly 4 Ames St), right across the street from the Media Lab. Up until recently, it was MIT’s oldest undergraduate dormitory; we celebrated 100 years of being open just last October.
Senior Haus is my home. It is the late nights and early mornings spent painting my room, the smell of rush burgers and cigarettes that I never smoked, the sound of loud music reverberating through the halls, and the soft breeze felt as the tire swing flew past me. It’s the friend that comforted me as I cried on and on about failing my first class, the desk workers who let me miss shifts when the world felt like it was coming down on my shoulders, the alumni who praised me for everything I had done even though I never felt like I was doing enough. It’s eating vegan lasagna and huge cuts of steer, just like the ones I helped make for last year’s Steer Roast, somewhere down in Somerville, because even when it’s not in our stone clad courtyard it still feels like home. And it will always be my home, whether it lives on one day in sub-communities in other dorms, or large houses full of displaced friends, or in the hearts of everyone who remembers it.
Whenever I think of my experiences with student government at MIT, I always think back to one song. There are a lot of songs in Hamilton that I can break down and relate to my life, but this one strikes me as the most relevant to how I’m feeling.
MIT is so special because of its student governance and autonomy. At what other institution do students have so much power? In their dorms, in their campus life? Dorm presidents aren’t just figureheads given arbitrary choices by administrators to give them a glimpse of governance, but agents of real change. REX is entirely student run. Steer Roast, Senior Haus’ annual weekend-long party, and other large events signature to MIT (Piano Drop and Dance Til You Drop come to mind) are student run.
Student government has been a huge part of my MIT career, and has shaped my entire experience here. Most of my friends are involved in it, whether through their fraternities or sororities or dorms. It makes coming to MIT feel so worth it, even when I felt beaten down by the stress of it all. And, there are some cool perks. How many people can say they’re on a first name basis with some of MIT’s most powerful administrators?
I like to credit my soft introduction to student government at MIT to a panel during CPW, right before the onset of my college career. Now, I call this a soft introduction because it’s not quite one, but rather, one event that led to a choice that led to a friendship that led to that very introduction. But, I’ll touch on that in a bit.
I was never big into student government in high school; aside from one school council I was a part of that involved free food and skipping class. My high school didn’t have class presidents or councils, and students didn’t really have any say in how things were run. I didn’t have big plans to do student government at MIT, so I did mostly fun things during my CPW, like eating liquid nitrogen ice cream at Next House or trying to do slam poetry at New House. I went to a panel about housing at MIT because my parents wanted me to, and I had to play nice because I’d been effectively ignoring them all weekend in favor of rush burgers.
I sat next to my parents on the far side of 10-250 while a panel at the front talked about dorm life, FPOPs, and other things. One girl on the panel, Adrianna R. ‘16, or Adri for short, had short hair dyed a bright purple that had caught my eye. She had talked about going kayaking and having a cat and being Senior Haus president and I took in every second of it without paying much attention to the rest of the panel. Fast forward a bit, that panel influenced my housing choices for the lottery. I was placed in Senior House, which I had ranked first, because I remembered how cool I thought that girl was, and how else could I be cool except by living where the cool people were? I even ended up living in her suite for REX week (affectionately known as Senior Haus’ Presidential Suite), and we became fast friends.
“Do you want to run for DormCon secretary?” Adri had asked me once while we were hanging out. DormCon, short for the Dormitory Council, was the governing body for 10 out of 11 MIT Dorms (Maseeh was missing, but later rejoined in the Spring of 2016).
“Not at all,” I remember laughing and replying something along those lines. She kept bringing it up on the days leading up to the DormCon meeting, and I kept on with the same response. But, I told her I would tag along anyway.
I remember that first DormCon meeting, back in September of my freshman year. I hadn’t even had my first midterm at MIT yet. It was in the Talbot lounge in East Campus, and the first time I had been back in that room since CPW. Adri and I sat on two foldable chairs next to each other, arranged in a circle. I didn’t understand most of the discussion, given that I had only been in an MIT dorm for about three weeks. When the time had come for secretary elections, Adri nominated me despite all of my objections, and I took on the position because no one else had ran against me.
I grew to love DormCon. As secretary, I went to general body meetings and exec ones. I was the only freshman for that entire year on exec, and I never really acquired the skill of typing and talking at the same time, so I didn’t speak out much during meetings, but I sure did listen. I became so eager to listen to all of the problems that were facing Dorm Life, and what different dorm presidents were passionate about. Even with all the club mailing lists I had put myself on during the Activities Midway, this was the only one I was really excited about. Meetings were weekly, 7:30pm on Thursday nights, and I conveniently always had 18.0x PSETs due on Friday mornings. Luckily for me, it was PNR, so punting them didn’t feel so bad. I started talking excitedly to my friends about DormCon, and tried to sway them into coming with the promises of free food (it never worked).
I got my first taste of the real power students at MIT had when the MetX happened. For those of you who are unaware, the MetX is what DormCon had used to refer to the Metropolitan Warehouse building, which MIT had planned to turn into a new dormitory. Starting from October 2015, the Student Housing Advisory Committee, or SHAC, and DormCon had closed door discussions about the logistics of it all: how could students live in a virtually windowless building whose facades couldn’t be touched because it was historical, expanding the residential advising structure, and the most controversial, the possibility of it being freshmen-only housing. Because of how MIT’s residential system works, that last one became an even larger conversation that frustrated all of us. We struggled with the trust and confidentiality we thought we had to uphold, the balance being advisors and being activists: being inside or outside the room where it happened, and were constantly afraid we would lose our bargaining power if word got out.
Inch by inch, we negotiated the terms of the MetX closer to a point that we could both agree on. The conversation began to shift. What if, instead of being freshmen-only, we had freshmen clusters on halls? Or avoid all that and improve residential advising? Inches were all we ever got. We had focus groups in all the dorms, musing over windows and light channels and eating pizza, collecting feedback from students on floorplans that would be brought back to the Chancellor. The process was controversial, and eventually, the project was cancelled because it was going to be too expensive to renovate anyway. And despite all the backlash we got for wrongfully believing that we had to keep this a secret, the frustrating conversations that didn’t seem to go anywhere, and the fact that the only thing that could stop a dorm most students didn’t want was money, I didn’t lose hope in the power of student governance. I savored those inches as a freshman, eager for the next conversation that could yield a foot, yards, miles.
“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… 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.”
That summer, the Chancellor announced the Senior House Turnaround, citing low graduation rates among other things as a cause for concern that had to be addressed. The original plan included the ban on freshmen, and the removal of two of our GRTs to make way for additional live in staff. This was a work in progress we could get through together.
No freshmen? Our GRTs being fired? An alarming amount of administrators living with students in a half-empty undergraduate dorm? I stood in the sidelines as our president at the time, Sarah M. ‘18 (now UA president!) and other student leaders met tirelessly with administrators to make this plan more palatable to the residents. By the end of it all, Sarah didn’t just get inches, but full-blown feet into a positive direction. Sure, we didn’t get freshmen, but we got our GRTs back, and there was student involvement at every step moving forward with the Turnaround. Residents had decided to stay, and there was a feeling of camaraderie, a sense that we could do this, if only with the support of each other. I was amazed.
Yet even so, I felt powerless in a way I hadn’t before. I was in New York for the summer, and so completely shocked by the initial news that I couldn’t even fathom how I’d be any help. Meetings carried on without me and committees formed, and all I could do was Skype in or peruse my emails for an occasional update. I felt pathetic and hopeless. The feeling of being outside of that room haunted me constantly.
At the end of the fall semester of 2016, I ran for Senior Haus president with my friend, J. M. ‘19. Sure, it was an uncontested election, but when we were actually elected, I was so ecstatic. I’ve always been surrounded by generations of presidents (one of the beauties of living in a multi-year dorm with a long history): a long line of former officials that I see, still living, breathing, and caring so much at Roast every year. There was a new feeling of power in me, coupled with optimism and idealism for what could come next. I wanted to complete the Turnaround, I wanted to get freshmen back in Senior Haus, and, selfishly, I wanted people to look up to me like I had looked up to Adri, to Sarah, to everyone else who had paved that path there.
On April 20th, the news finally broke. Sarah, J. and I were pulled into a meeting that afternoon, and I was hopeful. Could this be the meeting? The one where we’d be drafting press releases together about all our progress and how Senior Haus would be getting freshmen again?
“…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.”
When we actually got into that room, and were told about the dangerous behavior that had been discovered, I was at a loss for words. Just a few days prior, we had been discussing joint public statements about how well the Turnaround was going. J. and I had finally gotten our foot in the door. And then, once again, I could feel it closing in on us. Everything we had planned had been thrown out of the metaphorical window. Now, all we had were vague statements from administrators and a spoken promise to keep things confidential. This wasn’t misused survey data or assumptions, anymore.
Everyone in Senior Haus had feared that depopulation was on the table. We were all afraid that this time, our home was really going to be taken away from us. I’d also had the same fears I had back when the MetX was happening. That one slip of info could strip us away of all our bargaining power. I urged people to respect confidentiality because I was afraid, and I truly wanted to believe that by working together with administration, we could fix this. I had seen it before, first the inches in the MetX, then the feet in the Turnaround. All it took was some conversations in the room where it happens.
The weeks following that initial news of dangerous behavior, up until now, were some of the worst, most stressful weeks of my life. When I wasn’t in class or doing work, I was at meetings with the Chancellor, or writing emails to schedule meetings with the Chancellor. My co-president and I spent late nights drafting documents to present at these meetings, losing sleep only to have to wake up that next morning for even more 8am meetings. I missed classes and mandatory recitations to come to them, because it was either skip, or wait for their availability next week. We started having nightly meetings in the Haus, to update residents and brainstorm proposals together. And despite the ever-approaching final projects and exams, people showed up. Couple these with the looming dread that hung over our heads, expecting some drastic decision to be made at any moment, and you have a recipe for some miserable MIT students.
I thought these meetings were the way to come to a conclusion everyone could be happy with. I tried seeing the situation in their eyes; I didn’t want to see problems in my community persist, either. Operating with no knowledge of what had prompted this investigation, my co-president and I presented plans, outlines, anything that could convince administration that we could work through this together, and that we didn’t have to take the nuclear option. That through collaboration, we could work towards fixing the real problems presented, instead of just doing one thing to appease the other.
We were even lucky enough to get a meeting with the upper level administrators: the Chancellor, Provost, Vice President for Research, and President Reif himself. Picture that, two college sophomores in a room with four of the most powerful people at MIT. I was, understandably, very nervous the entire meeting. My voice shook as I read off the most notable bits of the document we were presenting, begging for them to see another way out of this. That Senior Haus was worth their time, and that the turnaround hadn’t failed, it just wasn’t over. And yet, when the decision to evict all residents and introduce Pilot2021 was made, it seems that none of that mattered. The miles we got went backwards.
“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.”
When the decision had finally been made public, I had already checked out. The claustrophobia from being trapped in that stuffy room where no one could actually hear what I was trying to say had gotten to me. I was exhausted, overcome with guilt, and felt powerless. Hours and hours of meetings, writing, and planning for nothing. For the same result that would have happened without it. The protests happened around me and I hid in the radio silence. “Last President of Senior House” doesn’t have a good ring to it. It makes me sick to my stomach. It reminds me of the countless mistakes I made to get here. I felt like an Icarus who had flown too close to the sun, not realizing until my wax wings were gone, along with the place I called home.
Even so, student leadership around me persisted. My co-president, DormCon, and the UA tirelessly met with the Chancellor and other administrators to ensure a fair process for students who were being kicked out. And for a while, it seemed like we were getting somewhere. Collaboration was possible.
“Unfortunately, to our great regret, [Pilot2021] was also met with intensive efforts to perpetuate and reimpose Senior House, thus undermining any chance for a new community to succeed.”
Yet, once again, with no discussion, the nuclear option was taken and Senior House was no longer going to house undergraduates at all. It had seemed that once and for all, the door was locked. There was no getting in anymore.
“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.”
I have mourned Senior Haus more times than I can count. Now, I mourn for student governance at MIT. I once marveled at the power of student leaders to enact change. It inspired me to pursue my own path in student government. It could just be the general uncertainty of my future, but I am feeling a multitude of things. I’m disappointed for letting myself believe that being listened to was the same thing as being heard. I’m upset that the administration felt that this was the only feasible option. I’m frustrated that I convinced my residents that playing this game, this game of meetings and cooperation, less aggressively could yield us better results. I’m angry for letting myself believe that MIT could be any different. But lastly, I feel a sliver of hope. I feel hope that it doesn’t have to be this way, and this could be a mistake in communication and collaboration that won’t be repeated in the future.
I’ve learned more lessons through student government than I have in any of my classes at MIT. Finding common ground is much easier when you don’t view each other as adversaries. Don’t post things or send emails that you don’t want to show up in school newspapers. Collaboration is impossible without trust on both sides. It’s hard to come up with valid talking points when you’re too busy thinking about how not to cry at that meeting. It’s okay to cry at meetings sometimes.
I used to love MIT with all my heart. This was my dream school. I still love the people I’ve met, and the experiences I’ve had, but I wish I could still feel the same way about this place. I don’t have a home here anymore. Feeling powerless and beaten down has colored my perception of a school I used to revel in.
“…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.”
I hope so, too.