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Housing Recommendations Hurt Ashdown Community

Guest Column by Thomas H. Burbine

Overwhelmingly Ashdown House's graduate residents feel that if the proposals of the Strategic Housing Planning Committee's report are carried out, Ashdown's friendly and active community will be destroyed by forcibly uprooting its residents and locating them in a desolate area of Cambridge.

Ashdown's residents feel that they are being sacrificed for the sake of the undergraduates. By being moved so far off-campus, many Ashdown residents feel that their research and academic work will suffer since they will be unavailable to travel to their lab or office late at night since it will be a dangerous walk toward campus. Ashdown residents feel that they are being deported off-campus so MIT can stake a claim to a piece of property that MIT would lose if a residence was not constructed on this particular site at Sidney and Pacific.

Ashdown residents feel that the proposal was based almost solely on financial reasons with no real consideration on academics or the quality of life of graduate students.

Ashdown House is the oldest graduate dorm on campus since its dedication in 1938. Ashdown contains approximately 400 graduate students with approximately 40 percent of these students being international and representing over 30 different countries. Ashdown houses approximately 30 percent of the graduate students who live on campus.

Ashdown has a much more student community that the other graduate dormitories, including a weekly coffee hour, monthly house dinners, weekly movie nights and trips to museums and performing arts events. Ashdown has an active house government with many residents being house officers, who plan social events and maintain specific rooms in the house (e.g., aquarium, the kitchens, music room).

Ashdown is also very conveniently located near the center of campus. First year students are required to have roommates, however allocation of singles is done on the basis of terms living in Ashdown and participation in house activities so almost all second year students are able to get singles if they want them. The average stay in Ashdown by residents is approximately 2.3 years due to the large number of masters students.

In the SHPC's scenario, Ashdown would hold up to 50 percent undergraduates if renovations to Senior House are not completed by the end of the summer of 1995. According to Senior Associate Dean Robert M. Randolph, in "the following year [fall of 1996], the full 420 spaces in Ashdown would house undergraduates." However, the SHPC report states that "graduates would remain in Ashdown until the new graduate housing is available."

A new graduate dorm would not be completed until the fall of 1997 at the earliest. There is no mention of how many residents this new graduate dorm will hold. Also in the fall of 1995, approximately 25 apartments in Westgate would be converted to doubles to house single graduate students.

The main concerns of Ashdown residents about any movement of graduate students out of Ashdown and into the new graduate dorm at Sidney and Pacific is the possible loss of community, the locating of residents into an area that is far from campus and nowhere as safe as the current location on Memorial Drive, and the possibility of moving out Ashdown residents (including a large number of tenured residents) in 1996 even though the new graduate dorm would not be completed (at the earliest) until the fall of 1997.

I have heard many residents say that living in Ashdown "has enhanced their time at MIT" and "has made their living at MIT enjoyable." Ashdown House is the only MIT graduate dorm that has a strong sense of community that rivals the undergraduate dorms. The reasons for this togetherness are due to many different factors. The central entrance gives residents a place to meet and socialize while entering and leaving the building.

Ashdown residents have very little faith that MIT will duplicate the Ashdown environment in the new graduate dorm. Both Tang and Edgerton were built after Ashdown and these dorms have communities that are nowhere near as active as Ashdown's.

Ashdown residents also have very little faith they will have much say in how the new dorm will be constructed since the proposal to move residents out of Ashdown and into the proposed new dorm was done with very little student input. All contact with the members of the Strategic House Planning Committee was initiated by Ashdown residents and not by any members of the committee.

Many residents live in Ashdown because it is located near the center of campus allowing for a relatively safe and short commute to lab or class for most residents. A graduate dormitory located at the corner of Sidney and Pacific will place Ashdown residents in an environment that is not as safe as the one that they are currently living in. It will be at least a half-mile walk for most residents of this new dorm to MIT. The security problems of living closer to Central Square have been recognized by MIT previously as shown by the very high security in Edgerton and the refusal to allow Safe Walk to escort some students to residences near Central Square. No security issues are discussed in the proposal.

MIT administrators have told us that they believe that the areas between Central Square and MIT (such as the University Park area) will become less dangerous in the next few years. However, we are under the impression that MIT has no evidence or research to support this conclusion. It is also very possible that the area could become more dangerous in the next few years as more buildings are built in that area and as the economy changes.

Ashdown residents do not understand why there is any discussion of moving graduate residents out of Ashdown by 1996 when the new graduate dorm would not be completed (at the earliest) by the fall of 1997. Doing this would mean that hundreds of graduate students who previously had graduate housing would be denied housing for at least one year.

We believe that it will be very difficult to complete the new graduate dorm by the fall of 1997. Since approximately 30 percent of all graduate students who live on-campus live in Ashdown, the loss of approximately four hundred beds would leave large numbers of graduate students without a place to live on campus for at least a year. Many students may choose not to attend MIT because they will not be guaranteed housing and instead will go to schools that have housing available.

Residents do not understand why no other construction sites for the new dorm were discussed in the report. Sites do exist that would be better locations for a new graduate dorm that would allow residents to walk to and from their dorm safely, and we believe that other sites should be looked at and discussed with the MIT community.

This proposal will have negative effects on the research, the teaching and the academics of students at MIT. By having to live so far off-campus in an area that is not a safe commute at night, many graduate students will be severely restricted in the times that they will be able to go to and from their labs and offices.

Also severely affected will be the many international students who are living in Ashdown. The social atmosphere of Ashdown allows many of them to practice and improve their English by interactions with other residents. Better English skills improves the quality of the research, the teaching and the academics of many of these students.

Ashdown residents agree that overcrowding is a problem for the undergraduates and has been worsening over time. However, Ashdown residents are under the impression that overcrowding has been a problem for years even as MIT has built new undergraduate dorms because MIT continually admits more undergraduates than it can conveniently house. Ashdown residents feel that our community is being sacrificed due to housing mistakes MIT has made in the past.

Moving Ashdown residents out of the dorm in 1996 with no suitable site to locate them would be the work of an Institute that cares nothing about its students. We hope that the MIT administration will sit down with us to come up with a solution that is beneficial to both the undergraduates and graduates and not just impose its views on us. The proposal as it now stands may do irreparable harm to the graduate student population of MIT for many years to come.

To alleviate our concerns, we propose that (1) Ashdown residents be allowed to meet with President Charles M. Vest, Provost Mark S. Wrighton, and Senior Vice President William R. Dickson '56 to express our concerns on the proposal, (2) No Ashdown residents be forcibly removed from Ashdown, (3) only minimal reductions in the number of spaces for graduate students in MIT housing occur during any moving process, and (4) Ashdown residents be allowed to take part in the decision-making process concerning the fate of Ashdown and the construction of a new graduate dorm or dorms.

Thomas H. Burbine G is the Chair of the Ashdown House Executive Committee.