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Big Housing Plans Deserve Scrutiny

A pivotal moment in student life at MIT is upon us.

Last year, the Division of Student Life laid out three possible plans for revolutionary changes in both graduate and undergraduate housing. At the time, the proposed strategies were largely dependent on whether administrators chose to build a new graduate or undergraduate dormitory. Now that they have decided to close Ashdown and build a new home for 400-500 graduate students, it is time for key administrators to put their long-term plans on the table and open the floor to discussion.

The mandate for change is clear. Every year, the need to renovate the East Campus and Burton-Conner dormitories grows more dire. The tremendous growth in the graduate student population over the past twenty years has caused the demand for housing in Cambridge to skyrocket, yet supply has not grown to match. Random Hall, despite its longevity, is not a physical building MIT expects to keep for the next 50 years. Solving these problems requires major construction that will displace students from up to five dormitories over ten years.

However, drastic changes in housing are dangerous in that they threaten to disrupt the cultures of dormitories, which contribute much of the vibrancy of student life. These communities have evolved over decades through the efforts of many students. If administrators seize control of this process, they threaten to destroy the very system they wish to improve. Therefore, the only way this redesign of student housing can succeed is if it is driven primarily by the energy and passion of students. When the first major housing decision since freshmen living on campus endangers a community 68 years old, we are right to voice concern that we are starting a race with a lame horse, destined to limp along with only administrators driving it.

Students can successfully contribute to and lead the coming changes, if they are kept well-informed and if administrators consider their views before decisions are made. Understandably, many administrators prefer to keep their plans quiet until they have mapped out their preferred route. When questions arise regarding evaluation of complex financial and logistical problems, it makes sense not to broadcast the details to all students. However, when the question is about a general policy that affects all students and depends on them for its success, a closed-mouth approach will alienate those it should engage. Chancellor Phillip L. Clay PhD ’75, Dean for Student Life Larry G. Benedict, and Dean for Graduate Students Isaac M. Colbert should now actively explain to all students the constraints and options for housing being considered for the next ten years.

We must, of course, meet them halfway. The Dormitory Council needs to step up and take a visible role in understanding and voicing student concerns. Ashdown residents have already started to give input about their new dormitory to administrators, despite having been excluded as a group from deciding whether to move at all. It is unclear if the Undergraduate Association and Graduate Student Council are up to the challenge of making a serious contribution. Together, students and administrators can address some of the long-standing problems of campus life.

The right first step is creating a transparent public discussion.