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Integrating Communities at the New Dorm

Guest Column Luis A. Ortiz

Recently there has been discussion among students, faculty members, and administrators concerning the new dormitory to be constructed at the far end of Vassar Street, adjacent to the Westgate married student housing and historic Washington Park. I have been amused to find that the words most often used in conjunction with the proposed location are "despite," "notwithstanding," "while I am aware of," and "although." Allow me to provide a couple of examples, in my own voice:

"Notwithstanding plans to refurbish Vassar Street, the facility may be too far away to expect non-resident faculty or students from visiting it."

"While I am aware of the plans to build eventually new faculty housing in Cambridgeport, I remain unconvinced that faculty living there would have enough opportunity to interact informally with the residents of the new dorm."

"Despite assurances that innovative programs can bring faculty and students together whatever the physical layout of the campus or its facilities, in the past such programs have been transitory while the divisions inherent in the design of campus have been long-lasting."

Although the Presidential Task Force on Student Life and Learning placed itself firmly in favor of making decisions about campus design and development based on the educational goals of the Institute, the supposedly overwhelming constraints surrounding this new facility seem to be pushing us in the opposite direction.

I am writing this column to urge members of the community to consider whether this new facility, designed in this way, can accomplish the educational goals we all feel should be paramount. In particular, I would like to advocate that this facility be more than a more distant clone of our existing west campus dorms. Specifically, I urge the Institute to consider the recommendations of the Student Advisory Committee to the task force that new residential spaces be integrated.

Like "notwithstanding," the word "integrated" is bandied about a great deal these days. It showed up almost two dozen times in the task force report. I use the word to mean that new campus housing should bring faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates closer together to foster informal interactions across those three now largely separate groups. I believe these interactions are best fostered by having a significant number of each group living in the new dormitory.

This last point about fostering interactions is one of several points around which a consensus seems to be forming. The points on which I have heard agreement from a number of different groups are that:

The new dormitory needs to generate more informal interaction between graduate students, faculty, and undergraduates.

MIT will find it difficult to do so with formal programs.

The new dormitory needs a critical mass of each of the three groups in residence to attract others from those groups to the site, significantly more than just graduate resident tutors and housemasters. All three groups need affordable, attractive and livable housing. Each group has their own perspectives on positive attributes of housing, but they could be accommodated in the same domicile.

It will be difficult to generate informal interactions, given time constraints, if living spaces are far apart.

Selection of the site is an important factor in determining whether the residence will become the locus of such informal interaction across groups.

The new dormitory should be a model for future additional construction.

The question is, what balance shall we strike between providing attractive, private spaces for individuals and encouraging meaningful interactions among disparate groups? Today the system involves no such balance: graduate, undergraduate, and faculty residential spaces are functionally separate, and there is little interaction between them. MIT should be worried that it may be headed in the direction of deepening the divisions among faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates.

Informal interaction among exceptional students and faculty distinguishes an MIT education and makes it worthwhile. If we concentrate on short-term dilemmas and trade-offs we risk short-changing ourselves in the long run, when the need for more regular informal interaction will become an even greater hallmark of higher education than it is today.

Luis A. Ortiz G is a member of the Chancellor's Strategic Advisory Committee.