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An Open Letter on Housing

Guest Column
Ted Peck

To the Residence System Steering Committee and Chancellor Bacow:

MIT desires to cultivate in its students not only technical virtuosity but also leadership and social responsibility. Yet the Residence System Steering Committee, in refusing to scrutinize the terms of its assignment and to consider the social context of its decisions, has succumbed to the very vice which MIT exhorts its students to avoid. Although pursuing its work diligently and in earnest, the committee has failed the MIT community by devoting itself too narrowly to its task. While promising to “think outside the box”, the committee has failed to do exactly that.

Ostensibly the committee’s mandate was to pursue the best possible design for MIT’s residence system. In his introduction of January’s Residence System Design Contest, committee chairman William J. Hecht ’61 made high-sounding proclamations. In the mission to improve upon an already exemplary system, no option would be left unexamined. In particular, if system solutions in which freshmen could choose to live off campus turned out to be superior, the committee would pursue them.

Mr. Hecht’s committee has betrayed this promise. In each public meeting, beginning with the design contest presentations and through the spring’s series of public presentations, committee members have asserted that housing all freshmen in dorms was one of their design criteria. At last week’s debut of the Committee’s final report, no less an authority than committee member Paul E. Gray ’54 rose to condemn any thought that freshmen might yet retain the range of housing choices they currently enjoy.

It may be that the point is moot, that the committee’s final report proposal represents a clear improvement over MIT’s current system or any possible system in which freshmen can live off campus. For reasons I’ll give shortly, I don’t think so. In any case, the committee can’t make that case because they refused to even consider those regions of the design space.

One might respond that retaining the status quo would not constitute “thinking outside the box”, and that only through bold steps can MIT hope to reach new levels of excellence. However, when the signal element of the status quo is proscribed from on high, then it truly is “outside the box”. Furthermore, building from a system which engenders one of the highest levels of student satisfaction in the country is not a design option to be discarded lightly, no matter what the perceived benefits of keeping freshmen assembled under one thumb.

Based on the committee’s responses to the audience at its presentation, it’s clear that even the committee itself has trouble asserting the superiority of its proposal. Numerous times in response to questions from the floor, committee members ended up apologizing that this was the best they could do within their design constraint.

Here are five areas in which the committee’s plan has clear potential for disastrous consequences:

First, it further postpones the already urgent need of the graduate students for more on-campus housing. It will likely even require the eviction of some graduate students already living on campus. Given the spiraling rents in the Cambridge area, this makes it harder than ever for MIT to compete for top-flight graduate talent, which is its primary asset.

Second, it deprives dormitory residents of the residence selection process which currently fosters the rich diversity of community and culture within the dormitory system.

Third, it deprives the freshman class of choices which they obviously appreciate (as evidenced by the strength of this fall’s rush), and forces them into a system whose design is partly intended to deprive them of residential stability, so that as sophomores some of them will be motivated to move off campus.

Fourth, it denies upperclassmen the heretofore reliably delivered promise of dormitory housing if they want it. Instead, freshmen will be given the unsettling news that as sophomores they may have to find their own place to live.

Fifth, it weakens the currently robust and beloved system of independent living groups by depriving it of the things which enable it to stand above the residence systems at all other schools: the four-year duration of occupancy which facilitates continuity and self-management, the vibrant spirit of freshmen not yet subdued by MIT’s academic rigors, and the freedom from the need to recruit during the academic year.

Committee members, Chancellor Bacow, and President Vest himself have all asserted of late that they value MIT’s ILGs and wish to help them thrive. For the committee, this may well be the case, but they have tied their own hands by strictly following their orders. As for Vest and his administration, their actions speak louder than their words.

Finally, it is essential that this calamity not be seen as an unavoidable consequence of Scott S. Krueger ’01’s death as a freshman two years ago. While not condoning the events and culture that led to Krueger’s death, it should be clear that student deaths are not confined to fraternities nor to MIT. In an open email recently Vest himself reiterated that his edict regarding freshman housing was not issued because he thinks freshmen are at risk only in fraternity houses. The point is that sensible, effective measures can help safeguard students wherever they live. It is not necessary to overturn an excellent working residence system.

As an alumnus who has accepted your invitation and participated in your process, I urge you again to broaden you perspective. It remains clear that eliminating the current system of ILG and dorm rush before the start of classes is an ill-considered move that will have catastrophic consequences for MIT.

Ted Peck is a member of the Class of 1982.