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Students, Admins Squabble Over Raft

By Keith J. Winstein


The MIT Police and the Department of Facilities on Saturday confiscated two student-built rafts that were used July 4 by East Campus residents to sail in the Charles River, following a protracted and acrimonious debate about the safety of a previous version of one of the rafts, students and administrators say.

At least two students may face disciplinary action for running away with parts of a raft on July 3 during a previous attempt at confiscation by the facilities department. The episode has left hard feelings among students, who complain of an overcautious Safety Office and a broken promise to return confiscated student property, and among administrators, who describe the students as reckless and lacking respect for MIT’s processes to ensure safety.

One of the confiscated rafts, “Couchamaran,” was built in Boston by a group led by Scott Johnston ’02, a former student and East Campus resident. The other, known as “Caddyzoo,” was first built last week outside East Campus by several students including the dormitory president, Matt K. Malinowski ’04, and was modified and rebuilt at Johnston’s home in Boston on July 3 and 4. Both hold about four passengers, are powered by paddles, and were used along with several other student-built rafts to view the fireworks on July 4.

Outside project attracts scrutiny

Construction of the “Caddyzoo” raft attracted the scrutiny of the Housing Office on July 1. Ayida Mthembu, an East Campus associate housemaster, approached students and said that “because it was allowed to be built under the House Manager’s watch, then if anything happened, the House Manager might be liable,” said Ankur M. Mehta ’04. “She gave us a day to either remove the raft or get it approved by the Safety Office,” he said.

On July 2, David M. Barber of the Safety Office spoke with Malinowski and inspected the raft in progress. Barber’s initial judgment, Malinowski said, was that “as long as the boat was legal” and students complied with safety regulations of the Massachusetts Marine Patrol, there would be no problem with constructing it outside East Campus and sailing it July 4.

But Barber’s final judgment, expressed in an e-mail Thursday, was that the venture was too risky. “The amount of variables on the Charles on the Fourth of July to ensure your safety is staggering,” Barber wrote, according to a copy of the letter provided by Malinowski. “These variables make it difficult to adequately assess the risk of this proposed activity. Based on the above reasons, MIT cannot in good conscience approve your use of this craft. The craft should be disassembled as soon as possible.”

As a result of that determination, “Housing contracted with the Department of Facilities grounds department to disassemble the raft and store it,” said Karen A. Nilsson, the director of housing. What followed was an acrimonious discussion outside East Campus among Malinowski, Nilsson, and Robert M. Randolph, the senior associate dean for students, as well as several other MIT staff members. Eventually, Randolph and Nilsson left, and campus police stood guard by the raft while facilities begun to disassemble it.

“The original agreement on Thursday was that the boat was being confiscated and would be returned to them on Monday,” said Anthony E. Gray PhD ’01 of the Housing Office. Nilsson disputed Gray’s account, saying no promise was made to return the materials. “The promise was that if they wanted further conversations, they could have them on Monday,” she said.

Nilsson described the matter as clear-cut. “As officers of the Institute, when we run across something that appears to be dangerous and unsafe, our practice is always to come to the MIT Safety Office,” Nilsson said. “The determination was that it was unseaworthy,” she said, and the Housing Office and facilities department were obeying the Safety Office’s decision that “for life-safety reasons the raft should not be launched, and the determination was made to have the raft disassembled.”

Students say they see the matter as equally clear-cut: Mthembu had given them the option of removing the raft themselves, they say, and after hearing that the Safety Office could not approve their sailing the raft, if the concern is MIT’s liability, they should have been allowed to remove their property from outside the dormitory and sail it on July 4.

Student crowd storms facilities

In any event, what happened next is undisputed: at about 5 p.m., after members of the facilities department had disassembled the “Caddyzoo” raft but before they had loaded the materials into a truck, twenty to thirty students “rushed the workers and took all the parts and ran into the Kendall Square area, after being asked not to do that,” Nilsson said.

Two members of the crowd, Marina L. Orton ’03 and Katherine E. Dalis ’05, were caught by MIT Police carrying one of the large air-filled drums used as pontoons and may face disciplinary action, several students said. “It’s under investigation right now,” said Randolph, who declined to comment further. Orton and Dalis could not be reached for comment.

The rest of the crowd, who escaped with most of the parts of the raft, made their way to Johnston’s home in Boston and reassembled a modified version of the raft with three instead of four pontoons, Johnston said.

Rafts sailed, then confiscated

“Caddyzoo,” along with Johnston’s own “Couchamaran,” were sailed by three or four students each on July 4, along with three other student-built rafts, Johnston said. “The boats went out, completely sanctioned by state police, who inspected them and noted that people had flashlights and personal floatation devices,” Malinowski said.

On July 5, Malinowski and others left “Caddyzoo” and “Couchamaran” to dry off outside of East Campus for an hour. Unbeknownst to them, “all weekend long, [MIT Police and dormitory security guards] were to be watching for the return of the missing parts,” Gray said.

“When they returned on Saturday, Campus Police called me and the Campus Police went to East Campus, and people from the Housing Office went to East Campus to finish doing the job that they’d been asked to do on Thursday by the Safety Office, which was to remove the parts of the boat,” Gray said.

The facilities department removed both the “Caddyzoo” raft that had been the subject of controversy and the Safety Office determination, as well as the “Couchamaran” raft built by Johnston and other students in Boston.

“On Saturday, the CP [police officer] told me it would be returned on Monday [July 7], and it sounded genuine,” said Quinn Mahoney ’05. Gray, who was also present, said he expressed a more nuanced view. “I said ‘Hey, the deal was the parts were going to be returned on Monday. I don’t know if any of the events of Thursday evening would have changed that,’” he said.

Neither raft was returned on Monday or on Tuesday, and administrators say they may not return them ever. “We right now have a rather serious situation,” Nilsson said, referencing the students who ran away with parts of their raft on Thursday rather than let facilities confiscate them then. “So in terms of what will happen next, I don’t know in terms of this point.”

Institute funds used, Nilsson says

Some traditional questions about access to student property are moot, she said, because the materials were purchased with Institute funding. “There was no discussion on compensation nor would there be,” she said, because the materials were bought with house funds, “which comes through house tax,” which is levied against student bursar’s bills and is considered MIT funds, she said.

That accounting is disputed. “We did not use any East Campus funds for any of these projects,” said Emily E. Cofer ’05, the dormitory council president.

Mehta said the price of “Caddyzoo” was “probably between $50 and $100 dollars.”

Complaints fly on disrespect

Students and administrators accuse each other of disrespect of fair processes over the matter.

“One of the things the students did is they were extremely abusive to the people who were around on Thursday,” by rushing in to grab the parts before facilities officers could remove them, Gray said.

“The first concern is the health and welfare of students,” Nilsson said. “Whether you’re building a boat, or an art project, ... before you start putting your time and energy into building something and finding out it doesn’t meet building code standards or life safety issues, ... pre-planning is really the best step.”

But, having been surprised by the raft and having received the Safety Office’s decision that it be disassembled, the Housing Office had essentially no choice but to disassemble and impound the raft, she said. “The determination was that it was unseaworthy.”

Students, on the other hand, take issue with what they describe as a moving target of announced MIT decisions, from being able to remove their own raft in the event of an adverse decision from the Safety Office, to having it impounded with the promise that it be returned on July 7, to having it and “Couchamaran,” which they say was unrelated to any previous Housing or Safety Office determination, impounded indefinitely.

Students also take issue with Barber of the Safety Office, saying he seemed to change his mind from July 2 to July 3 and that his July 3 e-mail was inaccurate and assumed the worst instead of asking questions.

“My impression of the [July 2] meeting was Dave Barber said as long as the boat is legal, then I don’t see a problem with it,” Malinowski said. “I have great respect for David Barber’s professionalism, and I trust him to do a fair assessment of the safety of any project or enterprise, but I was under the impression that the raft was safe on Wednesday, and on Thursday, his e-mail counteracted that,” Malinowski said.

Barber did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Barber’s July 3 decision concluded that operation of the raft would not be illegal, but listed three reasons for disapproving its use. Each of these was, according to Malinowski, based on incorrect information of unclear origin.

“The size of the craft indicates that the capacity of the raft will be more than 3 or 4 as stated yesterday,” Barber wrote. “Overloading even the most seaworthy watercraft can render them unsafe.” Malinowski said only three students eventually sailed out on the raft on July 4, in line with what he and Barber had discussed.

“There has been no disclosure about how you maneuver the craft,” Barber wrote. “If any size motor were utilized, then the craft would need to be registered.” Malinowski said he agreed that a motored boat would need to be registered, but that he had no plans to attach a motor and that he made clear to Barber that the raft was only a rowboat.

“Our information about last year’s craft indicates that the load on the raft was between 12 and 15 [people], without PFD [life jackets],” Barber wrote. “I’m not sure who the source of this information is,” Malinowski said. A raft used last year by East Campus residents only ever held five people, he said, and “everyone was wearing personal floatation devices this year and last year.”

Hard feelings on both sides

“It’s just a raft,” Mahoney said, “but because of this, we really feel that we’ve been harassed here at East Campus, if our property can be confiscated at any time at the whim of an administrator.”

Nilsson principally took issue with the degree of surprise foisted on administrators and expressed disappointment at students’ lack of deference to Barber’s e-mail that the raft “should be disassembled as soon as possible.” When students let the Housing and Safety Offices help them plan in advance, she said, happier collaborations have resulted. She cited the annual Senior House Steer Roast party as an example of fruitful collaboration on safety issues that did not catch administrators by surprise.

Malinowski stressed that as East Campus president he has been working on improving communication between students and administrators. “This is to me just another example of this communication degenerating into basically almost warfare,” he said. “I’d like to make sure these things don’t happen in the future, which would mean better communication with students, better efforts to help students.”

If this kind of Safety Office scrutiny becomes the norm for student projects at MIT, “what I think will happen is it’ll stifle a lot of innovation,” he said. “Imagine what would happen if you work in an electronics lab and each one of your circuit diagrams had to be approved by the Safety Office.”

Nilsson expressed a desire to make peace and help students receive approval for their projects while staying safe, provided they ask far enough in advance. “I certainly don’t want to see anyone get hurt,” Nilsson said. “On a life-safety issue, it would be helpful for students to get advice so they aren’t hurt. That’s my major concern.”