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Lost Trust and a Missed Opportunity

Sanith Wijesinghe

On April 6, 2005, at 5.30 p.m., I took a seat in 6-120 to participate in the closing round of debates for the 2005-2006 Graduate Student Council elections. I had only one question for the presidential candidates: “If the administration announces Ashdown House will be converted to undergraduate housing what would be your response?” To be honest, I never really received a convincing reply. From then I knew the coming year would be a challenging one for the GSC — our leadership and our resolve to represent a diverse constituency would be tested to its limits.

Even though I had struggled a year ago to contemplate the implications of such a decision, it was still with great dismay and sadness that I read news of the administration’s ultimatum that Ashdown will transition to an undergraduate dormitory in 2008 following the building of a new dorm for graduate students. The diffusion of the graduate community to the north-west quadrant began with the opening of the Warehouse graduate dorm in the fall of 2001, followed by the Sidney-Pacific graduate dorm in the fall of 2002. The writing on the wall with regards to Ashdown’s fate appeared much before this however. Graduate students going back many generations all have stories of how the administration tried to convert Ashdown House to undergraduate housing. It seems 2008 will finally be the year to say goodbye.

I intended for my question to bring to bear on the GSC the importance of building close ties with administrators during the decision-making process surrounding this transition. In addition, during discussions I had with Dean of Graduate Students Isaac M. Colbert on this topic, I stressed how the unique graduate student community at Ashdown would be at significant risk if the design of an alternative did not very closely incorporate the input of the current students. Speaking to my colleagues at MIT, it seems that both students and the administration have failed to join together in discussions as required. This is yet another lost opportunity to build trust and closer working relationships and marks the repetition of another cycle of crying foul — the likes of which we should have been able to avoid from lessons learned in the past.

However difficult it might seem at the onset to open debate on a controversial topic, it is the ultimate sign of strong leadership to engage and bring to bare different points of view. By keeping plans of the new dormitory under wraps so to speak until it is almost, if not completely too late to effect the design of room layouts, common spaces, and rents, the administration has made the bold statement that it knows what graduate students want and has made the best possible decision given the economic reality and investment climate. But how can one truly boast about enhancing graduate student community by engaging in a practice that diverges from that ideal? Let me spell out this practice so there is no ambiguity: administrators have consciously kept the community in the dark by making decisions behind closed doors.

MIT’s Student Life Programs as a whole prides itself in providing students a unique educational experience, one that helps them build skills not provided in a traditional classroom setting. The message we send our students with the practice identified above is that when faced with difficult situations, resort to deception to minimize damage. In a game theory perspective this is a local strategy that does indeed work in the short term — the important stakeholders, the students, turnover at such a high rate that while their outcry will be intense, it will be over soon. In the long-term however this approach causes more damage than its worth. Remember, these students will be your Alumni.

Speaking of which, I recently received an invitation to the Graduate Alumni Convocation on April 21–22 for the purpose of “reminiscing, sharing, learning and community updates.” My fellow alumni and I will most certainly be interested in learning about the new dorm and how the administration has worked to incorporate input from the current students.

Sanith Wijesinghe PhD ’03 is a former Ashdown resident, and was GSC president 2002–2003.