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Student Activism Contributes to Residence Report

By Naveen Sunkavally

A year and four months after President Charles M. Vest announced his decision to house all freshmen on campus starting in the year 2001, the debate on how to best redesign MIT’s residence system has drawn to a close: Chancellor Lawrence S. Bacow ’72 released his final report on the “Design of the Residence System” yesterday.

An examination of the events leading up from Vest’s decision to Bacow’s announcement gives an interesting look into the nature of student activism and administrative reaction during that period of time.

Student protest as activism

Vest’s announcement initially brought students together to protest in order try to reverse his decision. Threatened with extinction of their living environments, students living primarily in fraternities, sororities, and independent living groups staged protests to try to reverse Vest’s decision. In addition, students were dissatisfied that Vest had made his decision under media pressure, without student input, and at the most inopportune time possible: August 25, the first day of Orientation.

At a student protest on the Lobby 7 steps in September, Jeremy D. Sher ’99 blasted the Task Force Report on Student Life on Learning, a report which recommended the housing of all freshmen on campus that was released a week after Vest’s decision. In his announcement Vest had cited to the Task Force report as justification for his decision.

Sher, a member of the Task Force, said that in mid-July Sher was approached by one of the co-chairs of the task force who told Sher that the decision to house freshmen on campus was “inevitable.” Sher said, “When you read [the Task Force report], you see that freshmen-on-campus was just tacked onto it at the end.”

On Sept 23, the Interfraternity Council announced its opposition to house all freshman on campus at a president’s council meeting. In response to threats by fraternity alumni to stop donations, Vest said, “You can’t let yourself be bullied around.”

The results of an Undergraduate Association poll held in late October confirmed the feelings of most students towards Vest’s decision. Of the 1,148 undergraduates who voted, 1,004 said that they felt it was not beneficial to house all freshmen on campus.

Students continued to protest through demonstrations into spring this year and fall as well. On April 8, approximately 75 students staged a “Tool-in” to express dissatisfaction with the administration. In the fall of this year, a group called MIT Choice formed, and the group also staged a tool-in this November attended by about 150 students.

Groups make proposals

While some students chose to engage in protest, other students and administrators chose to work together to make proposals for redefining MIT’s future residence system within the constraints of Vest’s decision.

At a faculty meeting on Oct. 21, Bacow announced an IAP design contest on MIT’s residence design system. Bacow also described a Residence System Steering Committee, made up of students and administrators, to judge the contest.

Two teams, The Beaver Dream Team and the Dorm-Design Team, both closely affiliated with the administration, won the contest. Their winning ideas focused on the creation of a strong freshman advisory system and the idea of converting living groups to theme houses voluntarily.

In late April, the RSSC released its own preliminary proposal for MIT’s residence system. The proposal furthered the debate among students: it proposed to move graduate students from Ashdown to MacGregor and undergraduates from MacGregor to Ashdown; it also proposed a “sophomore shuffle” whereby sophomores living in dormitories could stay in their dorms only at the cost of losing their sophomore status in their dorm.

At several forums held after the release of the preliminary RSSC report, students, especially from Ashdown and MacGregor, voiced strong opposition to the plan.

Efforts in the fall

After gathering community input, the RSSC released a final report on how to redesign the residence system in September. The second RSSC report did away with the MacGregor-Ashdown switch, replaced the “sophomore shuffle” with a lottery, and suggested a rush beginning at Nov. 1 and continuing into the spring.

The report also recommended that freshmen entering MIT choose their residences over the summer, and use Orientation to enter a lottery to change their housing preferences if necessary. However, it introduced the controversial notion that MIT undergraduates might no longer be guaranteed four years of dormitory housing. The RSSC submitted this report to Bacow as a recommendation for his final decision.

In addition to the RSSC proposal, body of student leaders called the Strategic Advisory Committee to the Chancellor also submitted a report to Bacow. The SAC report, called the Unified Proposal, contained a similar recommendation that freshmen choose their houses over summer. The Unified Proposal recommended that the Institute affirm its commitment to guaranteeing undergraduates four terms of on-campus housing, and it also made recommendations for capital expenditures and subsidizing FSILGS.

Bacow’s final design, formulated over the last two months, and returned yesterday, represents the synthesis of these two reports.

Changes mirror previous work

The changes proposed in Bacow’s current work are mirrored by a 1989 report issued by Professor Mary C. Potter, as chair of the Freshman Housing Committee. Although the report’s recommendations were not implemented it called for the pre-assignment of freshmen to dormitories during the summer and a requirement that freshmen live on campus for at least one year.

Former President Paul E. Gray ’54, who called the current report represents the first time someone “has thought hard about what a residence could be,” said, “If the Potter report had been written halfway through my term I think I would have acted on it and made the same decision at the time.”

Zareena Hussain contributed to the reporting of this article