Student Input Should Guide Merger
The latest draft document by the re-engineering assessment team contains a recommendation that Residence and Campus Activities and the Department of Housing and Food Services be merged. If this merger were to take place, it would represent the largest administrative change set in motion thus far by re-engineering. More importantly, it would have far-ranging concequences for students. For this reason, the students whose lives would be influenced by the change should be given preeminent responsibility for deciding whether and how such a merger would take place.
Current responsibility for the housing system is divided along fairly rational lines. HFS operates and maintains the dormitories, and handles their finances. RCA, a branch of the dean's office, deals with issues of residence life, tutoring, and housemasters. The historic independence of the two offices is often a benefit to students, especially insofar as it enables them to claim a policy turf of their own. The current division of responsibility works well with one caveat: sometimes the two offices communicate poorly with each other. Advocates of the merger have expressed the concern that housemasters, house managers, and tutors report to different people, and therefore may not communicate well with each other. The assessment team also believes that some responsibilities of the offices overlap, and that merging them might result in substantial administrative savings.
While we believe that there may be some points in favor of merging the two offices, no change should be made without extensive involvement by those most affected by the change. While it is too early to say what sort of student involvement was originally planned for the merger, it seems clear that the assessment team anticipated having a decision out by March, with changes taking place by September. Such a schedule would allow for little more involvement than the few cursory "focus groups" that have already been held. Because the changes are critical to issues of student life in general, and student government in particular, student leaders should expect to play a central role in any decision over the future of RCA and HFS.
MIT has long recognized the important educational role played by the housing system. While academics may be the focus of students' energies, housing arrangements still play a central role in their lives. Allowing students to manage and guide life in the housing system is at the core of MIT's educational mission. Closed decision-making processes that deny the role of student leadership are in conflict with that educational mission. MIT cannot afford to throw its goals overboard for the sake of administrative savings.
The idea of merging RCA with HFS raises a number of issues that merit discussion. Students and administrators need to work together over the next few months to explore how their goals of improving communication and increasing efficiency can be accomplished. If all sides believe that the best solution includes a merger, so be it. The important thing is to arrive at a consensus in a way that respects the value and educational merit of allowing students to decide their own destiny.