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GSC Passes Resolutions On New Residence

By Rosa Cao

As the March 31 deadline approaches for final decisions on the architectural layout of a new graduate dorm, hopes are fading for a compromise plan that will satisfy both student concerns and the constraints laid out by the MIT administration.

At an emergency General Council Meeting of the GSC on Wednesday, students passed a pair of strongly worded either/or resolutions (see box on pg. 12). The vote to terminate the new construction under the current design passed 22-3-1 (for-against-abstaining), while the vote to support the construction of a residence hall that did meet student needs as evaluated by the GSC passed unanimously.

Part of the impetus for the resolutions was the perception among student representatives that the administration was being less than straightforward in their communications, especially given the many changes in constraints presented over the past few weeks.

“These resolutions send a strong message,” said GSC president Sylvain Bruni G, noting that students have “left the door open to collaboration in case the administration wants to take a step back and try to hear us and work with us.”

Last week the deadline for the space planning subcommittee’s recommendation was advanced and then reinstated, partly due to revised estimates of how much time Facilities personnel would need to put together a proposal for the City of Cambridge.

While members of the planning committees are dedicated to remaining at the table until the deadline of March 31, students expressed pessimism that their concerns and recommendations would be given serious consideration.

To address concerns about affordability, administrators hope to set rents for the new building below those of Sidney-Pacific residence hall. Since rents are not expected to be able to cover costs for the new residence in at least the first few years, Dean for Student Life Larry G. Benedict and Dean for Graduate Students Isaac M. Colbert say they expect a temporary subsidy, although the amount, source, and duration of the subsidy is unknown. Greenblatt emphasized that it would not be Institute policy to subsidize graduate housing in the long term.

News Analysis: A divergence of visions

What is at issue is a fundamental difference between what administrators see as desirable for MIT’s future, and what student representatives believe their population requires. While everyone agrees that a strong community should be a key consideration in the design of any new dormitory, and that increase in on-campus capacity will benefit graduate students, tensions arose over different ideas about the realization of those goals, in particular, the student emphasis on affordability vs. the administration’s requirements for minimum amenities.

Over the past month, student members of the planning committees have been working to create a model that would address student concerns within budget and time constraints. But at the space subcommittee meeting last Friday, Vice President for Institute Affairs Kirk D. Kolenbrander said “It’s not about numbers, it’s about the quality of life.” “If there is a quantitative disagreement, then there is an answer” that reasonable people can find, he said in a later interview. “If it’s a difference in vision, then reasonable people can disagree.”

One issue of contention is whom the new residence will serve. With rents estimated to fall on the high end of what is currently available, student representatives worry that many Ashdown residents will not be able to make the transition, and instead will be forced to move off-campus. To build an expensive new apartment style residence hall while shutting down Ashdown, a lower priced option, amounts to “gentrification,” said AHEC president Suddhasattwa Sinha.

Greenblatt rejected that view, saying that rather, “It’s part of the normal evolution of standards,” and that while the new building may seem expensive now, “in time I believe the cost of living and the amount of money that graduate students are given will balance out.”

“I think students are overly pessimistic,” said Colbert, but acknowledged that “some people will always get left behind.” He added that “if it emerges that all those left behind are in a particular socio-economic class, then maybe we have something to look at … There are always unintended consequences. It’s too early to know what those consequences would be.”

“There are too many variables in play, I don’t think you can say that we’re moving towards a gentrified system,” said Kolenbrander.

If MIT were to “make provisions for the poorest students, it’s a policy issue, not an architectural issue,” Colbert said. He said that Ashdown as it now stands addresses issues of affordability and community admirably, but “not by design.”

Meanwhile, there is an inherent tension between two of the administration’s own goals: to build community by providing quality programming and common space for interaction, and to create apartments that will provide a high material standard of living with single bedrooms and a kitchen and living room for each apartment. While both increase the quality of life, the latter are needed to attract “the best and brightest,” said Colbert, and there is a trade-off between common space and private space given that the size of the building is limited.

“The value we add has to do with community development,” said Benedict, but “we’re worried about having something down the road to attract graduate students.”

GSC co-chair Eric G. Weese G pointed out at the GSC meeting that while universities like Princeton and Stanford may be building new facilities, they are not eliminating their low-cost options or displacing their less well-off students.

One source of uncertainty is that neither housing administrators nor student representatives can be sure of what different segments of the graduate student community want. “Students vote with their feet” has been a catchphrase for administrators, who analyze demand data from the housing lottery to determine what kinds of rooms are popular with students and which are likely to remain unfilled.

While the GSC has conducted housing surveys and its members represent a cross-section of on-campus and off-campus students from many departments and different dormitories, they have not had the opportunity to target a survey specific to the design of the new residence toward the graduate population at large.

There are a number of pressures on MIT to build this new graduate residence now and convert Ashdown to an undergraduate dormitory by 2008, including but not limited to: pressure from the faculty to increase undergraduate class size, which is currently limited by the number of beds on-campus, the need to be seen as competitive with peer institutions in terms of the quality of living facilities provided to students, a desire to end Senior Segue, and “building a stronger graduate student community on-campus,” said Colbert.

While administrators appear committed to moving forward, a consensus on what will be built is still important. “I’m afraid of a failure of vision,” Colbert said, referring to what he described as short-term goals emphasizing of quantity over quality. “We don’t want to build crackerbox es, warehousing people.”

If the new building is not built at this time, there are no guarantees about the fate of Ashdown, since the pressure to increase undergraduate beds will not go away, and filling Ashdown doubles remains difficult.

In the worst-case scenario, “they could not build the new dorm, and still kick graduate students out of Ashdown,” said Bruni. Either way, there would be no increase in the number of graduate beds on-campus in the immediate future.

While the new building is a big up-front investment, each potential additional undergraduate does bring revenue to the university through tuition, although that revenue is not directly part of the budget for MIT Housing.

The unevenness of the process may be a casualty of the transition in administration leadership; both the president and EVP are new, and inherited this project from their predecessors. “Am I an expert? No,” said Greenblatt. “But I see an opportunity here to provide more housing for graduate students and we should take advantage of that opportunity.”