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Students Question Lack of Input Into Design of Future Grad Dorm

By Rosa Cao
CONTRIBUTING EDITOR

Two weeks after MIT announced its plan to build a new graduate dormitory to replace Ashdown House, students and housemasters are expressing dismay at the lack of transparency during the administration’s decision-making process.

A main point of friction has been students’ apprehension that the relatively short timetable for finalizing floor plans for the new dormitory will not allow for adequate student input into room configurations and common space allocations.

At a town hall meeting held last Thursday evening at Ashdown, emotions were running high. “Everything has been going on with no one being told that this is going on,” said Ashdown Housemaster Terry P. Orlando. “Basically there has been no student input … We were all frozen out of this.”

It seems as if “the administration hasn’t looked for student input,” said Suddhasattwa Sinha G, Ashdown House Executive Committee president, at the meeting. “They think that graduate students want lots of amenities. They don’t understand that a lot of people can’t afford to live in the new places.”

But in an e-mail message, Dean for Student Life Larry G. Benedict expressed confidence that “there is plenty of time for quality student input into the size and scope of common space … given that everyone is familiar with the needs of the graduate community.”

Undergraduates and graduate students joined in expressing the importance of student input into decisions affecting student life in a UA/GSC resolution (page 11). The Undergraduate Association unanimously passed the resolution last night, and the GSC will vote on it Wednesday evening.

Students have found troubling the administration’s failure to solicit input since a 2004 housing feasibility study, even from those who would be most affected by the decisions. Orlando, who was included in the 2004 study committee, called its discussions “very general,” with nothing “about common space or types of rooms, only a footprint.” With respect to Ashdown, “When I asked at the time, explicitly, I was told no decision had been made about Ashdown at that time.”

Former Ashdown resident and former GSC President Barun Singh said at the town hall meeting that administrators “just don’t want the same things we want.”

In a later interview, Singh, who had been asked by AHEC to participate in the process, added, “We have every reason to believe that we were purposely misled … Anytime between ’04 and now they could have involved people in the process. Some things do have to be kept secret, but there are tons of things in that process that could have had student input; they were constantly being offered student input.”

GSC President Sylvain Bruni commented, “There are great examples of collaboration between grad students and the administration, and there are bad examples. We are ready to work with them, understand their constraints, to negotiate and compromise. It’s about time they included students.”

Preliminary architectural plans were originally shown at an informal meeting on Friday Feb. 17 to a group of stakeholders, including the housemasters of Ashdown, Sidney Pacific graduate residence and NW30 (the Warehouse). The plans fueled anger during the town hall meeting the following Thursday, when AHEC members revealed that they were dated July 2005, indicating they had been created long before graduate students and the Orlandos were directly consulted.

But Director of Housing Karen A. Nilsson said in an interview that making preliminary drawings was a necessary first step for MIT towards gaining approval from the City of Cambridge to build the dormitory.

For the project to remain on schedule, those involved will have until only March 31 to decide on final floor plans specifying room configurations and allocation of common space, Orlando said. That group will reconvene tomorrow.

Bruni said “When they started to have a good idea of what the dorm would look like, that’s when our input was most valuable, not 30 days before the deadline.”

Former GSC president Emilie F. Slaby said in an e-mail that the Council was surprised they were not asked for input sooner given the compressed timetable.

The Committee on Student Life, made up of faculty, undergraduates, and graduate students has said that “they supported student involvement in the design of the building, and hoped that the March 31 deadline would be extended,” Orlando said.

But Benedict emphasized that March 31 will not mark the end of discussions. “We have two years of work to do on other aspects of the planning process which will also require and allow for quality student input,” Benedict wrote in an e-mail.

A key concern about the new building is its apparent lack of common space. “The architecture of every building if it’s thought through carefully can encourage community — or not,” Orlando said. “One doesn’t want to be constrained to this small amount of space to build a community.”

In an interview, Nilsson said that the proposed layout for the new building would include two-bedroom apartments and efficiencies. One source of input into the room configurations was “statistically, where are students living? We have the longest waiting lists for” Sidney Pacific, excluding shared bedroom quads, she said. On the other hand, she added, allocations for common space are not yet written in stone. “We don’t just build buildings, if that doesn’t work for students,” she said.

According to data compiled by members of AHEC based on information from the Ashdown house manager and the preliminary plans, the new building, even including all of its as yet flexible space, will only have about half the common space currently available to Ashdown residents, but with 140 percent as many residents.

This is not the first time graduate students have leveled charges against administrators, calling them reluctant to seek student input. A GSC proposal dated September 2000 regarding the early stages of designs for Sidney-Pacific outlines an almost identical situation and student response.

“Since the proposed building is already very advanced in the design stages, we only discuss issues that can still be amended,” that proposal states. “It should be noted that many of us would have proposed a different design of the building, if we were involved from the early planning stages.”

The proposal goes on to note that “the resident units seem too large, and that there is not enough common space,” and provides suggestions to address those concerns that represented “minimum requirements for this dormitory to be consistent with Institute positions on residential life.”

AHEC has created a Web site to serve as a “discussion mechanism.” Students can provide input to the process by blogging their experiences, and leave comments about their opinions and concerns about Ashdown and the design of the new graduate dormitory at http://www.Ashdownhouse.org.