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MIT Makes Little Progress In Solving Housing Problem

By James M. Wahl
Staff Reporter

Despite weeks of administrative examination and several student forums last spring, the administration has made little progress toward long-range plans for undergraduate and graduate housing.

Last week, Dean for Undergraduate Education Rosalind H. Williams -- who had said housing would be a major focus when she was appointed five months ago -- announced the formation of the Task Force on Student Life, which will, among other things, study housing issues.

The current problem is two-fold: reduce dormitory crowding and provide more housing for graduate students that is safe, affordable, and convenient.

This year, the undergraduate housing system is filled to about 150 people beyond capacity.

In addition, only 30 percent of graduate students can be accommodated on campus. The proposed graduate dormitory at the intersection of Sidney and Pacific Streets has been criticized as being inconvenient and in an unsafe area.

Housing studied before

Long-range housing plans became a major issue on campus a year ago when a committee of high-level administrators began studying the possibility of moving all undergraduate students to the west side of campus.

In January, the Strategic Housing and Planning Committee issued its findings. The committee recommended that Ashdown House be converted to an undergraduate dormitory, Senior House be renovated, and a new graduate dormitory be built at Sidney and Pacific.

While the committee had broad administrative representation, the apparent lack of student input triggered outcry from students.

Graduate students criticized the new dormitory location as inconvenient and crime-ridden. Ashdown residents didn't want to trade their dormitory-style housing for apartment-style housing.

Residents at Senior House and East Campus feared that renovations and the threat of relocation might change or destroy the culture of their dormitories.

In the following weeks, open forums were set up at the behest of former Dean for UESAArthur C. Smith as a way to generate more student input and appease criticisms.

Complex issues left undecided

According to Smith, the forums worked well on the issue of renovating Senior House, but no clear decision was reached regarding the more complex issues of crowding and future housing.

"Issues of zoning, taxes, and financing make planning for future housing one big horse trade," Smith said. "It is very difficult to sort out all the options in a small number of meetings."

Senior Associate Dean Robert M. Randolph, who chaired the SHPC, summed up the committee's bumpy history.

"It sounds grim," he said. "We took some chances and now we have a renovated dormitory, which is good. But, I really don't know if anything else will come out of it."

Communication lacking

Part of the problem in long-range planning is a lack of communication among the different administrative entities, Smith said.

The lack of communication "reflects the fact that management of housing has been divided between the Dean's Office and the housing office [Department of Housing and Food Services]," Smith said. "People in the Dean's Office are concerned about what kind of home the students have. There is a much more managerial attitude among other parts of the Institute."

Improving communication will be a central goal of the new task force, Williams said. "Clearly organization of the development of student housing has been spread."

"We need to get a structure in place to address these issues," Williams added. "I think that a combination of a task force and the re-engineering effort will get us moving forward."

Randolph isn't so sure, though. "There is still an attitude of `Things are fine, why change?'" he said. "We are a major university, and we are competing against other universities that are doing a better job with housing. We need to make changes."