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Housing Undergraduates at the Expense of Graduate Students

Guest Column
Nelson C. Lau

Every school in Boston has problems with housing a growing population of students on its campus, but MIT seems to lag in its attempts to address these problems. Every semester that I have been a graduate student at MIT, I have heard debate about whether or not MIT is adequately addressing graduate student concerns for affordable and safe housing amidst the overheated market in Cambridge. I was also aware of MIT’s pledge to house all incoming freshman by Fall 2002, an effort by MIT to respond to the death of Scott S. Krueger.

At one point, I believed MIT was moving in the right direction by constructing the graduate dorm at Sydney and Pacific and the undergraduate dorm, Simmons Hall. But despite signs of encouragement, my doubts in MIT’s capabilities to solve the housing crisis were raised when we were informed that it is unlikely Simmons Hall will be completed by the target date of August 15, 2002. The reasons for the delay are that the building is so complex, requiring technology that the crews still need to learn, that it’s logistically impossible to get the contractors to work more shifts and that contracts with city constructions (like water mains) are too costly to expedite.

MIT administration seems genuinely concerned about providing affordable, on-campus housing. However, the logic MIT employs is harder for me to reconcile with. Knowing a pledge was made to house freshmen by 2002, why couldn’t MIT have designed Simmons like Sydney and Pacific, which is on-time for completion in August 2002 and has a much simpler construction plan? Secondly, if MIT had foreseen the construction challenge that Simmons would impose, why was MIT too slow to look for external housing options like nearby hotels? I ask this because other schools have anticipated their housing crises and have already purchased all the affordable hotels in Boston (e.g. Boston University purchasing the Howard Johnson).

My hindsight questions aside, I was further troubled by a meeting held on November 14, 2001, in the Student Center Mezzanine Lounge, where MIT administration, the Residential Life and Student Life Programs (RLSLP) office, graduate students, and undergraduates debated on a contingency plan to house the 350 students initially slated to fill Simmons. The meeting was led by Dean for Student Life Larry Benedict, while Dean for Graduate Students Ike Colbert and Executive Vice President John Curry spoke extensively on plans that the administration was considering. One plan debated at length was to use Tang Hall to house undergraduates until IAP when those students would then move into the completed Simmons. Tang Hall is currently an apartment-style dorm that is required to primarily house first-year graduate students because benefactor P.Y. Tang stipulated Tang to be a graduate dorm.

Using Tang Hall as swing space for undergraduates should trouble all graduate students, whether they reside in other graduate dorms or off-campus. Tang Hall is a popular housing option for graduate students because it is affordable (under $550) and secure. More than 250 international students choose Tang, and since many of these students don’t have full funding, Tang is particularly attractive. The Tang Hall Resident Association (THRA) has devoted a lot of effort to building community and to helping acclimate incoming graduate students to this intense institution. If Tang is used to house undergraduates for Fall 2002, over 400 graduate student will be forced to look for much more expensive housing elsewhere. This places additional burdens on a graduate community by effectively lowering stipend levels and exacerbating the housing situation. Furthermore, disrupting the continuity of graduate residence in Tang will devastate the community structure laid down by the THRA. These arguments are completely applicable to the other established graduate dorms -- Ashdown, Edgerton and the Warehouse.

Graduate students are not responsible for the housing crunch, and our desire to live on-campus is not mutually exclusive of housing undergraduates who have an equal right to on-campus housing. In handling this crisis, however, the administration should take graduate students’ interests into highest consideration, as it is becoming apparent graduate students will be forced to sacrifice bed space to account for MIT’s lack of foresight. The other contingency plan discussed at the meeting was to convert a portion of the Sydney and Pacific complex into temporary housing for undergraduates. It seems feasible to apportion one 6-story section to house the undergraduates separately from the remaining rooms for graduate students, and there was hope this arrangement might even foster community among the sections. Because Sydney and Pacific doesn’t have any existing student housing governments, placing undergraduates there will only minimally affect community building for the graduate residents.

At the meeting, Dean Benedict declared the option of using Tang Hall would be “taken off the table,” and I was extremely gratified to hear that. I also felt optimistic to see that using Sydney and Pacific to temporarily house undergraduates seemed to be the favored option. However, I am still concerned no formal decision was determined, and one could speculate why MIT might still use Tang Hall. Constructing a brand new building like Sydney and Pacific is expensive, and this is reflected by the rent MIT may be charge (over $800 for single rooms or doubles, more expensive than Edgerton) to offset mortgage payments and other costs. If MIT places undergraduates in Sydney and Pacific, MIT will lose money from Sydney and Pacific rooms in the spring because students sign one-year leases; so, it would be hard to fill those rooms when the undergraduates move into Simmons. However, putting undergraduates in a graduate building like Tang or Ashdown, where the mortgage is already paid off, would solve a possible cash flow problem for MIT. Would MIT antagonize graduate student interests to satisfy a business agenda?

In a housing crisis like this, MIT’s first obligation is to the entire student body, undergraduates and graduate students alike. The meeting lead by Dean Benedict is an action I applaud because it was a forum for the administration to hear and adhere to the students concerns. But in these unsettling times, MIT needs to make a stronger commitment to students: namely, to provide available, affordable and safe housing. A decent housing environment is simply critical to the health and success of the students who help make MIT a world-class institution. It would be a shame for MIT to disenfranchise graduate students by disrupting their community and making us pay higher rent for the lack of foresight. We sincerely hope MIT manages this crisis morally and equitably, and reinstates our confidence in this institution’s ability to heed our concerns.

Nelson C. Lau is a graduate student in the Department of Biology, and the current president of the Tang Hall Resident Association.