Housing Discussion Overshadows Other SuggestionsBy Susan Buchman
Associate news editor
The section of the task force report which addressees the MIT community and its weaknesses has been overshadowed by its recommendation that all freshmen be housed on campus.
However, despite the strong reaction to the recommendation regarding freshmen, the recommendation which will potentially affect the greatest number of members of the MIT community is the suggestion to significantly increase interaction between undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty. The report proposes changes which would affect all MIT students starting from the day they arrive at the Institute.
Report reaction surprises group
The polarization over just one issue has obscured the many other suggestions for building community and surprised many involved with the task force.
"We weren't even thinking that freshmen being on campus was the fundamental issue" of the report, said task force member Luis A. Ortiz G.
At an Interfraternity Council meeting, Professor of Astronautics and Astronautics R. John Hansman Jr. PhD '82, co-chair of the committee, said, "Is where someone lives the first semester philosophically importantŠ or is it bonding with a community?" The report attempts to outline all the ways in which MIT can become a community that is more accessible - where a freshmen lives is only one aspect of her community.
Need for cohesiveness stressed
Lack of a community is logically caused by a lack of interaction. However, the report stresses that lack of interaction at MITis not just a result of overcrowded schedules and disinterest, but also of a lack of spaces in which undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty can assemble.
The report highlights the need for the Institute do a better job of formally recognizing faculty and students that work to improve the community, yet it asserts that the problem is much deeper and is often due to physical constraints.
The report recommends that administrators "make the residence system an integral part of MIT's education, and approach the issues of housing, dining, the first-year program, and orientation as part of a single educational program. If they are approached separately, MITwill ultimately fail to bring about a coherent integration of community with research and academics."
The task force builds upon this general recommendation by suggesting a need for a system in which all freshmen live on campus, a dining and housing system which better encourages faculty-student interaction, and "more attractive and convenient spaces for community interaction."
Furthermore, the report calls for making orientation continue throughout the first year and "providing funding for activities that encourage community interaction."
Housing an important element
The new undergraduate dormitory is being hailed as the model for fostering interaction on campus. "We want to build a residence that is supportive of our students and encourages community," said Chancellor Lawrence S. Bacow '72. He also suggested that recent alumni would be welcome to participate in the design process.
"Starting with a clean slate, we can create an ideal template that is appropriate for the MIT family," said O. Robert SimhaMCP'57, director of planning. "A new multi-generational residence built around a common social, intellectual and cultural goal could be very exciting."
However, a residence that houses a cross section of the entire community is dependent upon willing participants.
"Graduate students have spoken on the question of mixed residence and they very clearly said no," said Dean of Graduate Education Isaac Colbert. "There are concerns about noise and parties that they thought would be quite incompatible" with graduate student life. "It did not make sense socially or academically."
According to Brian Schneider G, president of the Graduate Student Council, if a dorm allotted room for 300 undergraduates and 100 graduate students and faculty, "I'm sure that you could find graduate students that would be interested." However, Schneider said that the residence must include certain amenities such as kitchens and non-communal bathrooms.
Even if the new dorm could somehow succeed at integrating members from all levels of the community, it would only affect its approximately 350 residents. To affect the entire segment of the student body which resides on campus, changes would have to made to the existing dormitory system.
"For [increased interaction] to happen in the older residences it will require that students be willing to make a trade off and commit themselves to a multigenerational community in which they give up some of the power they now exercise and recognize that a more inclusive community means shared authority and responsibility - not an easy thing to change but worth it if you believe that it can make the MIT experience a richer and kinder thing," Simha said.
However, just as graduate students aren't enthused about living with undergraduates, faculty would have to be convinced to move from their private homes into dormitories.
"If existing residences wanted more faculty presence they would have to do a good job of selling [the residence]. They would have to figure out how to make up the beds lost and they would have to seriously consider what it takes to make someone want to share in their community," said Simha.
It seems as if the solution for fostering community might lie in the middle ground between making undergraduate dormitories somewhere others fear to tread and insisting that co-habitation is necessary to create community. The recommendation that MIT "create space for informal faculty-student interaction in the residences" balances the two extremes.
This could solve concerns about space for interaction. "[Graduate students] have a desire to socialize with undergrads - you see that in structured activities like GRTs, clubs, and sports activities," said Colbert. However, "we don't have a physical infrastructure orŠ programming in place to facilitate socialization" between undergrads and grads.
Colbert suggested that graduate students would be happy to see meeting space allotted in the new graduate dorm that would be available to all members of the community, not just the residents.
Space a factor in interaction
Turning residences into gathering places follows the more general recommendation by the task force that MIT "provide more attractive and convenient spaces for community interaction."
According to Simha, "We have developed proposals for both spaces along the Infinite Corridor and outside our buildings. Several of these have been implemented over the years but more needs to be done. We need more of these spaces where people can get off the fast lane to talk or just enjoy the day. We are proposing more of these inside the Institute buildings as renovations continue. The landscape master plan has set out as one of our major goals the expansion of attractive spaces that will provide some contrast in our busy lives."
Orientation should be unified
"The central purpose of orientation should be to create the feeling of joining a single, campus-wide communityŠ There should be more activities that involves faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates in shared experiences," said the task force report.
Matt McGann'99, logistics coordinator for this year's Orientation, believes that the suggestion has merit.
"The commonality [among all students] is that there's a certain MITculture and all groups need to get oriented to the community," McGann said.
The report also addresses concerns that current orientation activities are unsuitable for MIT students.
The report reads: "Orientation events must be more than pro forma exercises to be endured. If each orientation experience has a constructive purpose, students could be expected to take them seriously."
Only dorm has been implemented
As of yet, the only recommendation to publicly be acted upon is the suggestion that all freshmen be housed on campus. On Aug. 25, President Vest announced that starting in the fall of 2001 all freshmen would be required to live on campus. The construction of a new undergraduate dorm is slated to begin in July.
This decision met with strong disagreement by many who feel that freshmen housing choice is one of the best aspects of the MITexperience because it provides such a strong affiliation for its participants. However, members of the task force have indicated that it was that exact argument that lead them to make the recommendation.
"We have a relatively weak campus-wide communityŠ and the strength [of the fraternity, sorority and independent living groupsystem] dilutes the campus-wide community," said Jeremy D. Sher '99, a member of the task force.
Hansman said that "finding your life support in your living group" adversely affects the MIT community as a whole.