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Experiments In Residence

Matthew L. McGann

The most interesting word in the design of MIT’s new residence system isn’t “rush,” “squatting” or “lottery.” It’s “experiment.”

How much of an experiment remains to be seen. What happens if, come October 2002, FSILG rush goes very poorly? What if freshman preselection of residences dramatically changes our culture? It is unclear who evaluates questions like these, and where the power lies to further experiment, if these can even be called experiments at all.

At least one program is being looked at through an experimental eye, with the leadership, as is often the case, coming from students. This summer, freshmen were asked to preferentially rank their temporary residence hall assignments. This is the first step towards 2002, when freshmen will still pick temporary dorm rooms, but will have the option of squatting that room, not having to move later in Orientation.

The crucial piece of this, though, is that the data will actually be used to look for trends, and thereby influence future policy. The summer ranking of freshmen and their temporary assignments will be compared to their ultimate living groups, and, if applicable, their dorm lottery rank orderings. In addition to this raw data, freshmen were also given a handful of survey questions to answer pertaining to residence selection. These answers, and the answers to a corresponding post-survey, will also be compiled into an aggregate.

In this way, the students who compose the ad hoc Student Residence Implementation Team hope to produce hard facts rather than just opinions on this one aspect of the new residence system design. From these hard facts in this trial run, decisions can be made as to how best implement this program when it comes time for the new system in two years. Having numbers will be crucial to overall success in the new residence system.

Today, students across campus are beginning to move into their new living groups on both sides of the river -- except for five or six dozen freshmen in McCormick, who’ve known for weeks where their permanent rooms would be. These first-year students are taking part in what is being called a “pilot program” for residence-based advising, an old idea (ca. 1980s) being tried again.

It is not yet certain whether applying that interesting label of “experiment” to this program would be accurate. “Pilot programs” have a funny way of being made permanent without much of an announcement.

This program, as with many programs that concern residence selection, is fairly controversial. Some powerful and popular faculty and administrators support it and believe that this could be the cure to an advising system that is widely seen as suboptimal, as well as bridging the gap between academics and community. On the other side, there are some student leaders who fear that this may begin to infringe on overall choice and self-governance. Both sides make good points.

Who’s right? Will it work? No one knows. I encourage a survey to be done, as soon as possible, of the students in the McCormick program. What do they expect to get out of it? Do they wish they could have gone through residence selection? How did they enjoy Orientation, without the added stress/options of rush? Did the program influence their decision whether or not to join a sorority?

The question that I’m most curious to hear the answer to is, why did they decide to participate in the Pilot Program? The answers will likely range widely. Students may have chosen to participate because they saw McCormick during Pre-frosh Weekend and decided they wanted to live there. Or maybe they wanted single-sex living, and saw this as their only sure bet. Possibly their parents pressured them into the program. Or perhaps they just wanted to have a permanent room when they arrived on campus. Or, just maybe, they really wanted to be part of the residential advising program.

No matter what the reasons, knowing their motivations will tell us all a great deal about what kinds of experiments to attempt for the future, and how we can improve McCormick’s or any similar programs. Combined with the freshmen’s first year grades, an effective post survey, and some qualitative data as well, we can really evaluate this experiment.

At the end of the year, faculty, administrators, and students should sit down with the numbers, their experiences, and the overall frameworks and values for the residence system and determine how best to proceed for the future. Then, we can truly say we’re trying to design the best residence system possible for MIT.