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The Latest Attack on Ashdown

Guest Column
Barun Singh & Jenny Farver

As stated in a recent Tech article and editorial, the MIT administration is seriously considering housing undergraduates in graduate dorms. One of the options favored most by the administration is to house freshmen in Ashdown House (yes, not just undergraduates, but freshmen specifically). Put simply, this is not a good idea.

First let us briefly go over the logistics of the proposal. The current idea is to put a wall up in the middle of the dormitory and separate it into two buildings; one for freshmen and another for grad students. This idea shows what little thought went into the proposals. Anyone familiar with Ashdown House knows that on each floor, one side of the building has study lounges while the other side has kitchens. In the basement, one side of the building has the gym/laundry facilities, the other does not. It is unreasonable to expect that either side of the building could function independently of the other. In addition, splitting the dorm into two would require renovations for a new housemasters’ suite, a new lobby, etc., which would cost millions and degrade the architecture of one of the oldest buildings on the MIT campus. Finally, many students have squatter’s rights to their rooms and would be forced to move out and give up these rights if the proposed plan were implemented (not to mention the strong possibility that some students would be evicted from the dorm entirely).

Logistical problems aside, such a proposal destroys the very communities the housing system should attempt to foster. Graduate dorms have their own unique communities and support structures. Ashdown has a well-developed house governance system that involves a significant fraction of its residents. On an average week in the dorm there may be as many as five or six house events (such as coffee hours, IM team games, and cultural events). Ashdown also plays an important role in the graduate community as a whole, hosting popular events open to all graduate students, and has been recognized as a paragon of a graduate community. For example, the 1998 Report of the Task Force on Student Life and Learning cites that “the thoughtful programs that exist at Ashdown House are an example of how to bring about a strong sense of community among graduate students. Such housing is closely aligned to MIT’s educational mission.”

The idea of housing undergraduate students at Ashdown is not new. In the spring of 1999, a similar proposal was put forward to turn Ashdown House into a freshman dorm (and MacGregor into a graduate dorm), but student and faculty pressure did not allow for this. The Unified Student Response to the Residence System Steering Committee cited Ashdown and MacGregor as “unique living options for their respective residents.” Ashdown House was also threatened in 1994, 1989, and at many times prior to that. All of the current arguments for keeping Ashdown as a graduate-only residence have been made before. It has always been concluded that the Ashdown community is more important than its living space.

The whole situation is beginning to pit one portion of the MIT community against another. There is no need for this. Chancellor Clay, in his recent letter, seems to indicate that housing undergraduates in graduate dorms is both a decision that has been thought out in full detail and the best of all options (of which there are only four). Neither of these statements is correct. There are options beyond those brought up in Clay’s letter, which are more beneficial to both the graduate and undergraduate community. Graduate student representatives, along with various housemasters and housing administration, are currently working on these ideas.

Of gravest concern is the manner in which the new decisions illustrated in the Chancellor’s letter have come about. No graduate student representatives, nor any housemasters, nor most of the housing administration were aware of any aspects of this proposal until the e-mail was sent out (conveniently, at a time when the Chancellor, President, and Provost were all out of the country and many students are out of town). Basically, many of those who would be affected the most by these decisions could not give any input. Furthermore, the wording of the Chancellor’s e-mail did not provide any specifics regarding the implementation of the plan to house undergraduates in graduate dorms. Housemasters and student leaders were left to glean the relevant information as best they could. Also, the MIT administration has known for four years that freshmen would not be able to rush in 2002, thus forcing an overcrowding situation. Adding insult to injury, this same administration is somehow only allowing one month for the grad students and housemasters to consider the proposal put forth.

Finally, before opinions are formed, it is important to put the overcrowding problem in the proper perspective. Yes, there are 140 extra students currently in the undergraduate housing system. However, an interesting fact is that the majority of these students, after living in one of these dorms for a short period of time, do not want to move out into an emptier space. However, while some dorms are overcrowded, some undergraduate dorms are also undercrowded, with a triple housing only one student. And while it is true, as Chancellor Clay stated, that many graduate dorms have been constructed in the past 20 years, this is due to the great demand for graduate dorms (the demands for undergraduate beds have not grown in the same manner over the past 20 years). In fact, in order to get any on-campus housing, graduate students have already been willing to crowd themselves in Sidney & Pacific by doubling otherwise single rooms.

Barun Singh is a graduate student in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and is a representative of Ashdown House. Jenny Farver is a graduate student in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and is the president of Ashdown House.