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Grad Students Can’t Live in Broken Promises

Hector Hernandez

Graduate students at MIT are intimately involved in the discovery, promotion, and implementation of new disciplines, concepts, and trends in engineering and science. The development of practical, sensible, engineering and the discovery of new crucial concepts with which to understand the physical world around us makes working in any laboratory at MIT an exciting and vital experience for graduate students. One often missed point is that the idea of interdisciplinary cooperation is the other crucial key to the experience that is MIT. This, more than any other idea, is what makes MIT such a unique and exciting place. The coffee shops, pubs, and benches on campus that embrace graduate students from diverse disciplines are the melting pot of ideas and future collaborations.

If the graduate student community at MIT is to continue to thrive and develop, MIT needs to review and define its commitment to the development and fostering of a diverse graduate student community. This topic has been addressed in one form or another by the administration and graduate students at MIT over the last half century. There have been reports to the president and the faculty that reiterate the importance of graduate students to MIT. The Lewis Committee Report, presented to the faculty of MIT in 1949, was the first comprehensive report that tried to unify MIT by proposing the development of a long-term plan that took into consideration the development and sustainability of both academic and residential communities. This report iterates the need to develop a graduate community inclusive of not just graduate students, but also of faculty, administrators, and staff. The proposals presented in the Lewis Committee Report have guided Institute planning and development since.

MIT has implemented the academic portion of this report well. We have risen to be one of the leading research and development institutions not only in America, but also in the world. This is clear when we look at the composition of the graduate community. MIT boasts that 36 percent of its graduates are international students. This is essential to the cross-pollination and dissemination of scientific and cultural ideas. MIT has also begun to make strides in the fostering of groups that are underrepresented in science. One can only speculate on the benefit MIT has reaped from the purposeful systematic implementation of programs to foster the academic community.

Yet the idea of residential community, presented as so critical to the development of the graduate student, has been all but ignored. If the academic community is our Yin, the residential community is our Yang. One cannot exist without the other. MIT has long pledged to build accommodations to house 50 percent of its graduate community on campus — this figure has been presented to the MIT and Cambridge communities. To date, there are only accommodations for 37 percent of the total graduate population. With a population of around 6,200 students, MIT still needs around 800 beds to reach the magic number. The graduate student community has been growing at a steady rate of about two percent over the last decade. Doing the math, the longer MIT waits to address the issue, the worse the problem will get. Even more troubling are the rumors that now put the number of graduate students MIT wants to house down around 40 percent.

At this point, we can stop and ask why MIT, which acknowledges the importance of both academic and residential communities, has not done all it can to implement the residential community part of the report. The most common answer is that MIT does not have the financial resources to undertake such a project. The development of the academic and research campus has taken precedence over other projects. The mismanagement of building project budgets in the last couple of years has further exacerbated the situation.

Now, we are being told that the undergraduate dorms need to be refurbished, and that graduate students are going to lose Ashdown temporarily, if not permanently. They are promising a bright shiny new dorm, but I think that the graduate community needs to seriously think about what they would lose in Ashdown. It is not just about beds. The replacement of Ashdown by a new dorm would barely equal the current number of beds available on campus for graduate students. The bigger loss would be the social and community structure that is Ashdown. Since 1939, Ashdown has provided space on campus for graduate students. Ask any current or past residents of Ashdown, and you will quickly become aware of the precious memories they have of their time there.

If MIT is going to ameliorate the situation, we need to change how we look at the problem of housing for graduate students. Some of you have heard me say, “the definition of insanity is to keep on doing the same thing and expect a different result.” MIT has a unique opportunity to use its vital resources, such as the School of Architecture in combination with the School of Engineering, to design a vibrant, environmental friendly, and socially active physical space for the residential community of MIT. The Lewis Committee Report understood that innovation and idea development does not always happen in the laboratory or classroom. It is in the personal moments of carefree non-directed discussion between individuals that breakthroughs in innovation and research occur. It is MIT’s cross-disciplinary approach that allows the Institute to develop and spearhead a project such as the Energy Research Council. These working relationships can only happen at a place where the members of the community have the opportunity to engage with each other in an academic and a social setting.

Hector H. Hernandez is a former Graduate Student Council vice president and a graduate student representative to the Faculty Policy Committee.