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Graduate Housing Is Not Institute Inventory

Guest Column
Nelson C. Lau & Richard Rikoski

Recent events have placed on-campus graduate housing in a peril that only threatens to increase over the next several years. In its efforts to house all freshmen on campus and alleviate crowding in undergraduate dorms, the MIT administration has proposed that the only “feasible” solution is to use graduate beds as a buffer to cover inefficiencies in the current undergraduate housing system.

Several weeks ago, administration cited potential delays in completing Simmons Hall to justify allocating on-campus graduate beds for freshmen for one year. When Simmons was confirmed for completion before next fall, the administration withdrew its request.

But now the administration proposes that an “opportunity” can be claimed by converting 140 graduate beds into undergraduate beds for several years to alleviate crowding in undergraduate dorms.

Unfortunately, most graduate students see only a problem in the place of this opportunity. While the proposal does not seem unreasonable at first, it foreshadows troubling reductions in the availability of affordable on-campus housing for graduate students.

To see how, we need to look at the significant dilemma that the MIT administration is trying to “solve.” MIT has to house all incoming freshmen on-campus while allowing all undergraduates the option of staying in their current dorm (including freshmen), and at the same time it must remedy the problem of 140 students living in overcrowded rooms.

This problem is especially tricky because:

1) Most undergraduates choose to live in the same dorm throughout their entire undergraduate career.

2) FSILGs have faced lower and lower occupancies each year, especially with the “forced” decline of Rush.

3) No freshmen will be allowed to move into off-campus houses beginning Fall 2002.

4) MIT cannot promise capping the enrollment of undergraduates, while departments continue to request admitting more and more graduate students.

As a solution, Chancellor Clay has seen it fit to request spots from the graduate housing “inventory.” This fall, when there should be adequate housing on campus for freshmen (assuming that Simmons Hall is completed on time), 140 beds from the graduate community are still being “requested” for up to five years (the maximum length of time an undergraduate could stay in the residence) to alleviate the overcrowding problem currently faced by undergraduates. While we, as graduate students, are sympathetic to the administration’s plight, this warning of things to come in 2003 present in the Chancellor’s request has given us reason for alarm:

“If we stem the decline in the occupancy of the FSILGs and contain the enrollment of transfer students, we will be able to contain the risks for future demands on the graduate inventory.”

Our concern becomes apparent with the words “contain the risks for future demands on the graduate inventory,” which clearly indicate MIT’s intent to take more beds each year from graduate students if the undergraduates are not provided for. But nothing short of building more undergraduate dorms on campus for the students drawn away from the FSILGs will remedy the ailing undergraduate housing system. This means that the administration will inevitably seek to convert more graduate beds into spaces for undergraduates in the future.

To make matters worse, the administration’s first attempts to seize graduate beds for undergraduates have been from the two most affordable housing options available to graduate students at MIT -- Ashdown House and Tang Hall. These buildings have the lowest rents for on-campus graduate housing because the buildings’ loans have already been paid off. So not only would the administration’s “solution” offer graduate students fewer beds than promised, it would also expect graduate students to pay more for them (the newest graduate dorm, the Warehouse, has rents of approximately eight hundred dollars -- almost twice the average rents in Ashdown or Tang).

Chancellor Clay rationalizes his proposal by asking graduate students to view the reduction of beds as a diminution of “an increasing response to graduate student needs.” This statement fails to acknowledge that every bed currently in place is the result of over 30 years of persistent lobbying for affordable housing by graduate students. This demand has only intensified in recent years due to the skyrocketing rents in the areas surrounding MIT, which on average represent about two thirds of an engineering research assistantship after taxes. The chancellor’s request treats graduate beds as a buffer for the inefficiencies of the undergraduate housing system, and not the sorely needed housing option essential to graduate students to be able to afford to live anywhere near MIT on a standard RA. To graduate students these beds are far more than housing “inventory.”

Graduate dorms on-campus are vital to combating isolation, and tend to be the first communities to which foreign students have access. Our experience in Tang has taught us that gaining a sense of community is something greatly desired by incoming students. The first-year graduate students will be the worst hit by the changes that Chancellor Clay proposes. Just like undergraduates, we as graduate students wish to preserve the communities built by our graduate residences, one of the few supports graduate students have against the stresses of MIT.

The effect of the chancellor’s proposal on MIT’s ability to attract the best graduate students is unclear. But top candidates will be given reason for pause when comparing MIT’s outlook on graduate housing with its peer institutions like Stanford, where ample affordable housing or housing subsidies are made available to students.

For now, the administration has assured us that Tang Hall is safe. Although last week’s Tech editorial [“An Imperfect Solution to Crowding”] made it clear that our house is coveted, we have confidence in the administration’s word. But regardless of whether or not Tang Hall is threatened, any threat to graduate student housing is a threat to our residents. Where will our residents go after their first year? Into a rapidly shrinking supply of graduate beds? Or a fierce housing market off-campus? Any reduction in graduate beds will affect our outgoing residents disproportionately.

No graduate space should be surrendered under such pretenses, nor should precedents be set for using graduate beds as a buffer for the undergraduate system. Not in Tang, not in Ashdown, not in Green, not in Sydney and Pacific, not in Edgerton, not in the Warehouse, and not in the married-with-children-but-barely-surviving-on-a-graduate-stipend dorms (Eastgate & Westgate); not anywhere, not now, not ever.

Nelson C. Lau is a graduate student in the Department of Biology and president of the Tang Hall Resident Association (THRA). Richard Rikoski is a graduate student in the Department of Ocean Engineering and common rooms officer of the THRA.