Planning Requires Full Involvement
For the past two months the Planning Office has conducted a series of informal meetings between administrative officials on the topic of housing planning. According to participants, the topics discussed at the meetings have been general, and there is still no formal committee in place to make decisions or investigate the issue further. While these discussions may indeed be preliminary, it appears that this new process is unfolding in an exclusive and closed manner not unlike previous decision-making processes at MIT. We find this methodology unacceptable.
When administrators get together to "informally" discuss what processes will be used to seek student input, or what needs should be addressed by such processes, the planning process has already begun. When students are not invited to such meetings, it gives the strong impression that the process is proceeding apace, with students as the junior partners. Furthermore, if student involvement is restricted to the focus group or survey phases of the planning process, students have been excluded from the aspects of planning that concern them most.
MIT's housing system fulfills a unique educational mission: By exercising a full range of responsibilities over their immediate surroundings, students gain experience interacting with each other in a living, self-sustaining community. There is a reason MIT is a residential university. By letting students make the decisions that affect their lives, they gain the ability to express themselves as citizens in that community.
The planning process has yet to address the educational aspect of living in residence halls because it largely excludes undergraduates from the most important elements of the planning and decision-making process. We are often told that student input will be sought out in due time. When administrative offices request input, they often use focus groups or surveys. While these methods may be scientific and inclusive in a certain sense, they do not allow students to express more than simple preferences. This is not enough.
Student input should not be solely a give and take situation. The student body is not a collection of data points to be considered by Institute spindoctors, but rather a large and integral component of the community. Discussions at all levels that affect the community should involve the community.
While administrators may find the current discussions innocuous, students have ample justification for feeling nervous. Two years ago, MIT's Strategic Housing Planning Committee met in secret to discuss and make recommendations about Senior House and Ashdown House. Students were denied the chance to even sit in on the committee's meetings, and input was restricted to a short "month of discussion" in January. MIT must recognize that contained planning processes exemplified by the SHPC are fundamentally hostile to students and to the educational mission of the Institute itself.
The best way of proceeding from this point forward is to include student leaders in the discussions, starting now. When the next informal meeting takes place, leaders of the pertinent student organization should be present. The members of this informal team could then decide how to gather student input. More importantly, the students present could then decide how the actual the process should proceed and how the crucial decisions in the planning process should be made.