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Living and Learning with MIT Housing

Harvey Jones, John R. Velasco

Recently, administrators announced that the Institute would build a new graduate dormitory and that the Ashdown graduate residence would be remodeled to accommodate undergraduates.

Let us posit, hypothetically, that undergraduate housing would be randomized along with other changes to the housing system in 2008, as has been has been proposed at several junctions in our time at MIT. In this scenario, from 2008 forward, all frosh would be placed in the 12 undergraduate dorms at random, perhaps with a gender-based exception for McCormick — no lotteries, no i3, no REX. Why would this be a bad idea?

It is a bad idea because the foundation of the MIT housing system is choice, and housing is an integral part of undergraduate life and learning. Choice of where to live is the foundation for much of the undergraduate experience at MIT, and making that choice empowers students to take on their role as adults. It is one of the highlights of the first year experience, and not just about housing.

For example, in recent years the Admissions department has wisely realized that living groups are a vital and unique part of MIT, and have used student communities to recruit potential students. Before even arriving at the Institute, pre-frosh have the privilege of learning that MIT’s housing system is more than a collection of rooms — it’s a group of people that chose MIT and chose their living group and are fiercely proud of both choices. During Campus Preview Weekend and throughout the year, MIT’s dorms, fraternities, sororities, and independent living groups open their doors to welcome prospective students and encourage them to attend MIT.

Choosing where to live is a multi-faceted decision that students may be making for the first time, but certainly not the last. The housing decision requires freshmen to make decisions about food, atmosphere, neighbors, finances, and facilities that they will face numerous times throughout their lives. By giving students the ability to control where they live, MIT allows students to choose between Central and Kenmore, Burton Third and Third East, and between kosher dining, a fraternity chef, or dormitory kitchens. Students value the opportunity to make these decisions free from restrictions by MIT — we won’t discuss the requirement for freshmen to live on campus here.

Dorms at MIT are not equal in terms of the facilities that they offer, but the communities fostered by the residential system ensure that even the older dorms are among the most in demand. Students, faculty, and alumni often describe the residential communities developed in our living groups as one of the strongest assets of student life.

MIT is an open institution, and one that gives its students a large amount of personal responsibility. MIT rightly expects its students to use that responsibility wisely, and to a large extent, they do. By letting students define their own communities by self-selection, MIT fosters an atmosphere where students take the responsibility for their dorm and the people in it. This responsibility is reflected in the day to day operations of the dorm, as well as the strong role that residences play in organizing student leadership at MIT, from the Undergraduate Association Senate to the Dormitory Council, and the Interfraternity Council and Panhel for Greek living groups.

Historically, living groups have been recognized as a significant source of academic, social, and emotional support. It is part of what the Task Force on Student Life and Learning in a 1998 report called the “Educational Triad” and identified as the “heart of the MIT community.” The residential system remains today an essential cornerstone of the network of academic support that allows MIT to continue to produce the world’s best students.

Strong residential communities need upperclassmen to pass down traditions and knowledge, but they also need an influx of interested students every year. MIT’s system allows the frosh who are interested in intramural sports or electronics or music to cluster in the living group that will enable them to act on their talents on a much larger scale than in high school. Much of MIT’s culture is designed around its living groups. From traditions such as Orange Tours, Steer Roast, Next Act, Lip Sync, and Marathon Day, the housing system at MIT is distinct and unique — we would wager to say that without it, MIT would not be MIT.

For these reasons, it is important that future generations of MIT undergraduates are able to continue to choose their living group and become active and productive members of their communities in dorms, fraternities, sororities, and independent living groups. And for these reasons, it is important for undergraduate and graduate students to be actively involved in decisions on the highest level — decisions which have an impact far beyond just their lives at MIT, which fundamentally define our Institute.

Harvey Jones ’06 is President of Dormitory Council and John R. Velasco G is a former UA senator from fraternities.