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MIT Wrong on Housing Randomization

Guest Column
Keith H. Lichten

MIT has it wrong on housing randomization. In seeking to fully expose students to the diversity of the student body, the administration will instead weaken the existing communities on campus and make MIT a more unfriendly and lonely place to be.

The administration is confusing the result of randomization, statistical diversity, with what they actually want, which is students from a variety of backgrounds in collegial interaction with one another during their time at MIT. Of course, the unspoken subtext is that randomization might also reduce some of the abuse of alcohol and drugs that occurs in the dorms and FSILGs. There might be some reduction -- though, more likely, the framework in which abuse occurs would simply change -- but that possible reduction is not worth the certain cost to community and quality of student life. Further, there is ample opportunity for that interaction to take place elsewhere in the undergraduate experience without the loss of the strong and supportive communities that are present in many of the dorms and FSILGs.

One can look to Harvard to see the changes that randomization would create. Full-strength randomization was implemented there in the early 1990s after a period of dilute randomization, when students were allowed to express limited choice within a lottery. The basic result of total randomization was that house identities -- long-fading under partial randomization -- were finally killed off, with a concomitant reduction in house community.

Harvard’s system is particularly applicable to the MIT administration’s proposal, since essentially all first-year students are placed by Harvard into the freshmen dorms prior to arrival, and live there before moving into the houses (or off-campus) their sophomore year. Students at Harvard develop some sense of community in the first year only to have that broken up when they move into new houses, which themselves have limited community, the following year.

One of the primary effects of randomization is the removal of a physical location for different communities of different types to form. These communities could be people of color, gays and lesbians, theater majors, foreign language speakers, Republicans, or quiet, introspective students. To a certain extent, these physical locations can be replaced by university handouts of space, but the sense of a group that exists solely at the sufferance of the university is much different -- and much more dependent -- than that of a group that has formed organically, as the result of individual choice and everyday interaction.

Like prison, randomization throws together a mix of students who, as students, all have something in common, but who may or may not do well as a group. Harvard’s results show an increase in the malaise that seems to affect a surprising number of students there -- students who drift through their time at Harvard with little personal growth, community, or sense of belonging. Other students must now find their community -- their niche within the university -- outside the houses. While many do, randomization has reduced the opportunities to do so, since the springboard into the larger Harvard community pool that was once provided by house community has been removed. Intrinsic to randomization is not an increase in community, as the MIT administration believes, but a decrease in overall community and collegial interaction. It is not unlikely that with this loss in community and support, randomization will exacerbate some of the problems the administration is hoping it will solve.

The Harvard administration seems to believe its experiment with randomization is successful. From their perspective, it is, since it creates a deceptive statistical diversity that looks good in public relations materials. Unfortunately, the student experience of it does not play out nearly as well.

Randomization removes the individual student’s ability -- and responsibility -- to make an informed decision about a crucially important element of his undergraduate education and learn from that choice. Instead, it gives that responsibility to the university. This works against the goal of educating informed, independent adults who are confident in their own judgment, and instead furthers the problems that are at the base of the abuse that occurs in the present system.

I grew up in Chicago, in an old suburb more diverse (both statistically and effectively) than either MIT or Harvard has ever been. It’s clear to me that type of experience is valuable, and MIT’s efforts to improve it should be applauded. Unfortunately, the administration does not seem to know how well it has done in crafting the present system or understand the great value of the strong communities already in existence.

Randomization and the loss of freshman housing choice will sweep away the existing communities that are the foundation of many undergraduates’ successful experiences at the Institute. Instead, MIT should build on the success of the present structure, making full use of the tools it provides, rather than tearing it down to replace it with a structurally unsound system that will be little more than an attractive facade.

Keith H. Lichten ’95 spent his freshman year at Harvard prior to transferring to MIT.