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Non-Random Communities: The Strongest Communities Arise from Housing Choice

Douglas E. Heimburger

Almost two weeks ago, several members of the faculty introduced a proposal to house all freshmen on campus next fall. This proposal could mean the end to some very good independent living groups. Yet it could increase student involvement in the MIT community.

There's one proposal that is linked to this one, though, that is so negative that it outweighs any potential positive effects of the movement on campus: the thought of randomizing the housing of freshmen within the dormitory system.

If freshmen housing is randomized, let alone housing for upperclassmen, the characters of the 10 Institute-run living groups will be greatly harmed. The deep sense of community that most residents have for their dormitory will also be lessened significantly, as residents will no longer feel that they made a choice to live there.

Just over a year ago, I chose to rank Random Hall first on my list of the dormitories in the lottery. Iwas excited to receive Random, and I moved into the dorm. Iwas able to pick from within the floors of Random and even pick my roommate.

Such freedoms are not found at other universities. My friends at Harvard received their roommates' names before arriving on campus, and were able to give out their phone number and address to their friends before leaving. Those details ease the transition to college life, but the advantages of community far outweigh the drawbacks of not having a phone number or address before arriving at MIT.

Each dormitory here has its own distinct culture apart from the Institute as a whole. At Random, for example, most residents cook in our kitchens and eat in Central Square instead of oncampus. We aren't the quietest place on campus, either an open door is almost always an invitation to strike up a conversation and avoid working for another few minutes. I've had some of the best conversations in the common areas and in my room when I should have been studying.

The conversation isn't always designed to avoid doing work. People on my floor occasionally have "nerd wars" in our kitchen about obscure physics or math things. This doesn't disturb me. But I'm sure that discussions about the intricacies of Planck's Constant or interstellar space travel at three in the morning on a Tuesday night could be disturbing to others.

What would randomizing the housing system do to Random?It would limit our abilities to have a community. People who hate their housing assignment can make life horrible for the rest of the crowd, either by continually and annoyingly enforcing rules like quiet hours (which sometimes are a decent thing) or just by being complete jerks.

At the same time, many of the dormitories would lose the best thing they have going:the pride that their residents have in their living group. Ithink pride in part comes due to the lottery, and the fact that everyone chooses their housing assignment by ranking it high on their list. Not only does this increase pride in a dormitory, but it increases the spirit of cooperation within the members of the living group. Iknow that I've been a lot more willing to put up with some repair issues that have come up in the dorm simply because Iknow that Ichose the facility.

Indeed, if the Institute were to choose roommates, another area of working together by choice would vanish. No longer could students blame themselves for potentially bad roommate choices and deal with it; they could now blame a faceless administrator and enlist Institute help in solving even the pettiest arguments.

Some have said that randomizing the dormitory lottery will improve campus-wide spirit as students from the dormitories will group together to find others with similar interests. The problem is that the workload of classes already expand to cover almost all of a student's time especially when the student is also involved in any activity or athletic team.

Even on the weekend, it's nearly impossible to find the time to go out and socialize - especially when it involves going out of my dorm and not just going to the lounge and watching a movie or playing a game with a group of 15 or 20 people. The scarce attendance at the Undergraduate Association's "campus-wide" parties and events show that even many well-planned and advertised parties on a campus-wide level draw few people.

If housing was randomized, many people might choose to withdraw from socializing at all if they hate their dormitory and don't like the other social options available to them. More upperclassmen might decide to take their chances with a small group in the Cambridge housing market. Others may just withdraw completely to the sanctity of their single.

As a result, students would be even less social than they are today, which bodes poorly for the Institute and those hiring graduates of this place. In addition, the safety nets that attempt to prevent tragedies in the system would be destroyed if everyone was behind closed doors in a dormitory.

We live in a stressful campus environment. After classes, it's nice to be able to go home and socialize, and get away from MIT. Removing the community and the culture of the dormitory system in order to promote campus-wide spiritwould be a great mistake on the part of the administration. While the dorm system does have some problems, the selection system is not one of them.