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If We Built It

Guest Column
Jeffrey C. Roberts

Poor communication. In my time here, this has been the cause of countless controversies and sometimes bitter conflict between MIT’s administration and its students. Every time such a conflict arises, students point out that it could have been avoided if they were involved in the decisions being made, and administrators vow to do a better job in the future. I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding that needs to be overcome before serious progress can be made, a misunderstanding that I will briefly try to explain.

Historically, MIT has been noncommittal in its support of student life. This trend goes back to the very foundation of the Institute. Originally, few resources went towards student life because academics at the time didn’t think this was part of the school’s role. Housing wasn’t even provided to students at first, but as MIT’s prestige increased and students started coming from outside the immediate region, they needed places to live. When the “New Technology” was founded in 1916, MIT began to develop Institute housing, a little bit at a time. But it wasn’t until after World War II when MIT expanded across Mass. Ave. to establish a student-oriented west campus, that the idea of “residential life” came into being. Housemasters were then brought into dorms, and more housing was developed for undergraduates, grad students, and, for the first time, women. Still, the investment wasn’t extraordinary, and languished over time, as housing stock in need of renovation deteriorated and the dining system continued to decline. Staff support only materialized little-by-little, as did funding for extracurricular activities.

The other side of this story is that while the Institute has neglected student life, students have taken responsibility for it themselves. While MIT was not offering housing to its students, fraternities formed to fill that role. While MIT was not providing staff support for residential life, students created sophisticated systems of self-governance. While MIT was not offering a quality dining program, students began to cook for themselves and to take advantage of other opportunities offered by the city. MIT still depends greatly on its students in managing housing assignments, parts of the athletics system, the student activities system, event planning, etc. The report of the Task Force on Student Life and Learning, and countless faculty committee reports preceding it, recognizes this student investment as a strength of the MIT community. Self-governance in particular has always been seen as having educational value. So it may be true to say that MIT has invested little in student life, but to say there’s been no investment at all undermines the vast amount of work done by students.

MIT, since the Task Force report, feels like it should make investments in the community. This is fine in principle. However, MIT must recognize that students have led the community thus far and will not be easily moved out of that leadership position. Administrators may have good intentions, but when they think they’re sending the message, “We feel like we’ve been neglecting students’ needs and now we want to make things better,” often what students hear is, “We understand you’ve put a lot of work into the community thus far, so thanks, but we’ll be taking things over from here.”

Over the past few years of working in residential life, I’ve noticed that a popular theory among administrators is that students are resistant to any kind of change. This, I think, is not true and can easily be challenged by having students list the things they would like to see changed at MIT. The theory I would counter-propose is that students feel a sense of ownership about the community we’ve built up to this point, and we feel that we deserve to be the ones directing change in the future. In city planning, one thing I find is that people care more about things they’ve had a part in building. Often developments and programs are unsuccessful because people feel they had no part in creating them and thus feel no responsibility for maintaining them. The fact that students “own” life at MIT is a valuable and often unrecognized asset to the community.

Hopefully these thoughts will help administrators understand what students mean when they say, “We want to build community, but we don’t want your community.” It is time for more interaction across the campus and among students, faculty, staff, and alumni, but it will only be successful if students decide to invest in it themselves. At this point, I think the administration has faced a few screw-ups and is now thinking hard about how to work with students as colleagues and recognize them as leaders of the community. Of course, this responsibility can’t just be handed to students -- students need to take it. I know that after what has happened in the last few years, many students have given up on this type of responsibility out of apathy or frustration. But many have not, and more students come every year, so perhaps, somehow, they might start investing once again. Here’s to the future.

Jeffrey C. Roberts is a former president of the Dormitory Council.