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Residents fight proposed plan to switch dormitories



By Daniel C. Stevenson

Alarmed Senior House, East Campus, and Ashdown House residents found themselves fighting for the preservation of their dormitory communities last fall as an administration committee considered the largest housing restructuring in decades.

The work of the Strategic Housing Planning Committee first came to light in a Nov. 1 Tech article which reported that the committee was considering plans to move undergraduates out of the east campus dormitories and possibly into Ashdown.

Dean for Undergraduate Education and Student Affairs Arthur C. Smith said that he directed the committee in September to "look very seriously at the idea of having all undergraduates live on west campus."

However, the final report of the committee, released at the beginning of this year, recommended that Senior House and East Campus remain undergraduate dormitories and that Ashdown, which houses over 400 graduate students, become undergraduate housing in the next few years.

The committee also recommended immediate construction of a new graduate dormitory at the corner of Sidney and Pacific streets in Cambridge.

Smith said that the administration had decided on a moderate course of action, calling for renovations of Senior House over the next two summers. "While plans for renovation should allow for flexibility in long-term use or alternative summer use, the basic assumption is that Senior House will house undergraduates," Smith said.

Smith also said that only about 50 spaces in Ashdown would be used for undergraduates to "relieve the potential overcrowding in undergraduate housing." The changes can be made "without harmful effect on the graduate student community and can produce a good undergraduate experience for those who would live there," he said.

Graduate dorm plans on hold

Smith put on hold any plans for construction of a new graduate dormitory until the summer or fall, after an open meeting "to exchange information and to develop an agenda," he said.

The housing committee is chaired by Senior Associate Dean Robert M. Randolph, who works under Smith. The committee was originally concerned with general housing issues but suspended its work to address overcrowding and Senior House renovations, Randolph said.

Since the release of the report, the committee has returned to its original work and plans to issue a broader report on housing by March, he said.

During the course of its consideration of housing plans, the committee was criticized for largely ignoring student input and operating in perceived secrecy.

"It seems that people were kept in the dark about this," said Undergraduate Association President Vijay P. Sankaran '95, in late October.

The early planning stages were not publicized because "whenever you're doing that kind of strategic planning, you really don't want to publish those kinds of scenarios," Smith said.

"I don't want to keep anything secret, but I believe that a lot of campus discussion about changes would not be useful unless we could reasonably identify potential means to finance them," said President Charles M. Vest last November, when students began lobbying for greater input.

Student committee formed

Concerned residents of Senior House and East Campus formed a committee to present residents' concerns to the administration. It was created to explore independent options, allay student concerns, and ensure that students were included in planning and decision making.

The UA Committee on Student Life and the Graduate Student Council also stepped up the pressure on the administration. The GSC Housing and Community Affairs Committee released two housing surveys, and UA and GSC representatives met extensively with administrators.

Residents stressed to the administration the value of their unique dormitory communities. The idea of moving all undergraduates to west campus "is completely ridiculous," said East Campus resident Leah C. Schechter '96, who feared the move would destroy east campus culture.

"If you try to shove everybody into housing in west campus, and you take away this tradition, you will not only be making a lot of people who live here very unhappy, but also will be hurting the grand tradition that has been carried on for years," Schechter said.

Senior House "is one place where you can go where they leave you alone," said Brian C. Rider '95, a Senior House resident. "To some people, that is very important."

"Everyone has a strong sense of attachment to the dorm," said Jacob M. Harris '97, Senior House secretary.

Grad students like Ashdown

Undergraduates were not the only ones to prize their dormitory communities. Ashdown "has a social environment that is different than the other buildings," said Joseph J. Bambenek G, chair of the GSC Housing and Community Affairs committee.

"Living in a dormitory like Ashdown with common areas, especially a kitchen, is much more conducive to social activity" than apartment-style dormitories, Bambenek said.

Smith said the administration had "received many thoughtful communications from students, alumni, faculty, and staff regarding the renovation of Senior House, overcrowding of undergraduate housing, and the future form and location of graduate housing."

Smith also said the administration had read and considered the reports and survey results from the action committee, the GSC, and the UA.

The threat of renovating east campus dormitories for graduate student use is not a new one. In March 1980, the administration announced a plan to switch Senior House and East Campus residents with Ashdown residents.

The administration aired the proposal to the MIT community before making any decisions. The Corporation was to have the final say because of substantial costs of the renovation.

However, the UA president at the time complained that he and the Dormitory Council president had not been consulted before the announcement of the proposal. Then, as now, residents of Senior House and East Campus strongly opposed the idea.

On May 15, 1980, the administration withdrew the proposal, calling it a "pre-proposal." The administration cited the desire to preserve house identities and lifestyles and the need to further study alternatives to the housing problem.

The administration also said that it needed to dispel the considerable animosity and mistrust between the administration and students that the proposal raised.