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Parity Error

Guest Column
Justin Werfel

So MIT has allowed itself to be pressured into providing on-campus housing for all first-year undergraduates, despite existing housing already being at a premium, and repeated undergraduate overenrollment exacerbating the problem; and with next fall’s rush projected to draw many fewer students than usual, the Institute finds itself needing to house a large number of undergrads in a hurry. And once again, the preferred solution is to make the grad students pay for it.

Pay for it quite literally: the shortage of on-campus housing forces grad students into an equally strained market, where they have to pay rents barely supportable with graduate stipends or put up with prolonged commutes. The problem is especially pressing for first-year students looking for continuing on-campus housing; they have to enter a lottery in which, this past year, nearly a thousand students competed for a few dozen spaces. MIT has finally begun taking steps to ease a problem which has been a premier grad issue for the last seventy-five years, while the graduate population has steadily increased; and just as it’s about to take the largest of those long-promised steps, it threatens to break faith with one student population for the convenience of another.

If 140 grad students are denied housing next year in favor of undergrads, that’s 140 more people forced into the already overstressed and far more expensive external housing market. Will the Institute accordingly expand its supply of subsidized off-campus housing? Will it provide to the top 140 grad students denied on-campus housing a special living stipend, to make the cost of renting off-campus comparable to that they should have been offered? Such an approach would go some way toward addressing the issue of expense, though not those of location, amenities, or community that are also among the benefits of on-campus housing. And why not offer those compromises directly to undergraduates, rather than forcing graduates out, to avoid disrupting the communities we too work hard to build? Even the existing supply of off-campus subsidized housing, ostensibly for grad students, already has a number of spaces occupied by undergrads.

MIT has resorted to major expenditures to resolve housing crises before. In 1998, MIT rented a dormitory from the Massachusetts College of Art in response to an undergraduate housing shortage. This past fall, a large number of grad students were housed in the University Park Hotel when Warehouse completion ran behind schedule. There are all sorts of approaches the administration can invest in that avoid or minimize further antagonizing half its student population. What message does it send to take rooms from graduate students while FSILGs shut down or have beds standing empty? Providing sufficient additional support to the FSILG system could encourage more undergraduates to live in rooms the university community already has available.

And what’s going to happen next year, when expected FSILG enrollment remains low? As things currently stand, the excess number of undergraduates wanting on-campus housing is predicted to double to three hundred by 2003, and most likely to continue to increase thereafter; and the administration has already expressed its expectation for “future demands on the graduate inventory.” The graduate housing system, still inadequate to meet our own demand, should not be treated as an “inventory” to be drawn on to patch up problems with the undergraduate system.

Nearly the same situation occurred a few years ago at Princeton, a university notorious for its lack of concern for grad students; and even there, the final decision was to let the grad students keep their homes rather than give them to undergraduates. A few years before that, in response to an unexpectedly large incoming class, Princeton housed dozens of undergraduate students on an athletic field in temporary trailers -- which turned out to be among the most popular rooms on campus that year. The point is that alternative solutions exist, and the better solutions are those that allow students to be treated equitably and with respect.

I, for one, chose to come to MIT in no small part because it really cared about its grad students -- or so it until recently appeared. These sorts of issues regarding our quality of life, and the administrative attitude they currently reflect, will certainly make MIT less attractive to the top tier of prospective graduate students, and make the existing ones feel increasingly frustrated and marginalized.

Justin Werfel is a graduate student in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and vice president of the Edgerton House Association.