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Incoming Dean Discusses Housing, Mental Health

By Mike Hall and Laura McGrath Moulton

Larry G. Benedict will begin serving as MIT’s Dean for Student Life on August 21. Currently the Dean for Student Affairs at Johns Hopkins University, the Worcester native has worked in the field of student affairs since receiving his Ed. D. in 1973 from the University of Massachusetts.

After attaining the position of Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs at UMass, Benedict left in 1988 to become the Vice President for Student Affairs at the University of Southern Maine. While at USM, he developed a student life program to involve students in the decision-making process.

In 1992, he joined Johns Hopkins University, where his duties included housing, dining, and Greek life among many other responsiblities.

At MIT, Benedict will work with new Dean of Undergraduate Education Robert P. Redwine and will report to Chancellor Lawrence S. Bacow ’72. The two new deans will head up a reorganized office and will take over the responsibilities formerly handled by Metcalfe Professor of Writing Rosalind H. Williams and Margaret R. Bates.

FSILG strategic group planned

As DSL, Benedict will oversee MIT’s disparate fraternities, sororities, and independent living groups. Benedict has experience dealing with a large fraternity culture at Johns Hopkins, where one-third of males and one-fifth of females are Greeks.

Benedict said that the greatest challenge is getting FSILGs members involved in the decision-making process.

“I think that FSILGs often feel that they are ... second-class citizens,” Benedict said, “and that they only hear from us when they’re in trouble.”

“They are part of the system. We need to work together to make sure that this is successful.”

Benedict plans to bring together a strategic planning group incorporating views from the Interfraternity Council, MIT administrators, and representatives from Boston and Cambridge. He will encourage increased alumni involvement in house life, duplicating previous efforts at Johns Hopkins and USM.

Broad counseling for stress

Stress and mental health issues, longtime concerns of MIT students and parents, also will require Benedict’s immediate attention. During the last year, three MIT students have committed suicide, including one suicide victim whose instablilty was widely recognized by her dormmates but not adequately addressed. Local and national media have questioned the necessity of the stress level at MIT and peer institutions.

As supervisor of Hopkins’s notoriously cutthroat premeds, Benedict has worked to improve identification and handling of mental health issues.

“Counseling is a very broad concern. You need to have a number of different entry systems,” Benedict said.

To identify stressed students, Hopkins has implemented a network of undergraduate residential assistants trained in handling crises. Faculty at Hopkins work with counselors to identify problems and help students in need. Johns Hopkins boasts a group of peer counselors with a hotline similar to MIT’s Nightline service.

Grad housing a priority

Benedict also faces pressure from graduate students to alleviate the housing crunch in Cambridge and Boston.

“Graduate housing is at the top of the agenda,” Benedict said. At Johns Hopkins and USM, Benedict oversaw the purchase of buildings near campus and their subsequent conversion into affordable graduate housing, but added that a similar solution may be infeasible in Cambridge’s pricier housing market.

Benedict also must work to improve relations with Cambridge residents and government officials. A tight, increasingly expensive housing market in Cambridge combined with a growing number of graduate students looking for housing near MIT has increased friction with Cambridge residents. Cambridge government has clamored for MIT to increase its payment in lieu of taxes, which totaled over $6 million in 1999.

“Every university has town-gown issues,” Benedict said. “Every university also has the issue of the town feeling that it needs more reimbursement.”

To improve relations, Benedict suggests increased community outreach by MIT students, a suggestion proffered by Mayor Anthony D. Galluccio in an interview with The Tech last term. Over one-third of Johns Hopkins students participate in community service, from tutoring in math and science to running youth sports leagues. To reach those numbers at MIT, Benedict suggests cultivating relations with specific schools in Cambridge’s public school district.