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The Next New Thing in Housing?

Jeffrey Roberts

Apparently, MIT has decided to act on its long-anticipated plan to expand and upgrade the housing system. Assuming that this plan moves forward, there are many important questions that will need to be answered — and it’s not too soon to start thinking about them. Having some experience with a prior expansion of MIT’s housing system, primarily as a member of the Founders Group for Simmons Hall, I’ll try to explain what I think are some of the key issues. I’ll focus on undergraduate housing, though I think the core ideas are applicable to graduate housing as well.

MIT will be fully renovating three dorms for undergraduate use, if we assume a refitted Ashdown building will be used to house students temporarily while East Campus, and later Burton-Conner, are renovated. As far as I know, the last time MIT tried such a plan was when Burton-Conner was renovated in the 1960s. In that case, the “temporary housing” used in the move became what we know as Random Hall today.

MIT has assembled a somewhat eclectic collection of undergraduate housing over the 90-year life of the campus. Every dorm is different, and most have added something new to the system, often as a reflection of the trends of the time. Baker House in the 1940s was the first dorm designed to include commons dining and social spaces, in some ways mimicking the “river houses” being developed at Harvard around the same time. MacGregor introduced the “entry/suite” system in the 1960s; renovations to East Campus and Burton-Conner followed variations on this model. New House in the 1970s reflected a trend towards “independent” housing.

Simmons Hall, the most recent example, was meant to embody the goals articulated by MIT’s Task Force on Student Life and Learning, which encouraged MIT to look at social interaction within the residences as an integral part of the educational experience. The Residential Scholar apartments are probably the most interesting innovation, but Simmons Hall also demonstrates a renewed interest in the “house” approach with its extensive commons area.

Some people might be interested to know that the original plan had Simmons Hall divided into ten entries of single rooms, with each pair sharing a bathroom. In some ways, this reflects a popular attitude that contemporary college students prefer greater privacy. We in the Founders Group feared that freshmen would choose the dorm just to be guaranteed a single, and felt that interaction on a dorm-wide level should take priority over the privacy that the modern student supposedly needs. The final product is a little mixed-up, partly as a result of these competing ideas, but also because MIT hired a designer who seemed more concerned about the artistic statement of the building than how people would interact within it.

So, what’ll it be this time? Private bathrooms? Suites? Entries? Commons dining? Residential Scholars? I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer, just different ideas and different trade-offs. When the Ashdown building becomes an undergraduate dorm, how will it set itself apart from other dorms, and what will it contribute to the system as a whole? What about East Campus and Burton-Conner? Keep in mind that the way they are now is not the way they were before their renovations in the 1960s.

Dorms aren’t just physical spaces, though; at MIT they are cultures in themselves. What got me involved with Simmons Hall design in 1998 was seeing the strong residential cultures that existed at MIT, and wondering how those cultures began.

With Simmons Hall, we were starting from scratch. Among other things, we had to answer the fundamental question of who should live there. We decided that a four-year community was essential to form the basis of a strong residential culture, meaning that we needed to recruit sophomores, juniors, and seniors to move into the building, or it would become a “freshmen dorm” by default.

Though this new plan might not involve “starting from scratch,” there are still such questions to consider. What will East Campus culture be like in Ashdown? Will the individual halls be preserved, or will they adapt? Will all East Campus residents want to move there? Will they all want to move back? Ditto for Burton-Conner. When all is said and done, what will the “New Riverbank” culture look like? Will it be all, or mostly, freshmen? Or will enough upperclassmen from East Campus and Burton Conner stick around to help “seed” the new community?

But the most critical question is: Who will answer these questions? Students might be surprised at how much influence they actually have. After all, MIT relies largely on its students to keep the housing system in working order. The fact that students take responsibility for the social, and in some ways operational, activities of a dorm is invaluable to MIT. Moreover, if students do not take this responsibility, a dorm community can become unhealthy or self-destructive, presenting a huge problem for the Institute.

The Founders Group was certainly not the only group of individuals with opinions about Simmons Hall. It could have very easily been a freshmen dorm; it could have been governed by a board of faculty “overseers” instead of by students; it could have been a testing ground for pet projects of the administration. Before the dorm was built, I heard mentioned a number of times the sentiment that since it had no existing culture, it would be easier to put new programs in place. But because there were students on the Founders Group who were committed to the project, and who had assumed the responsibility of representing the Simmons Hall community before it really existed, it was virtually impossible to implement programs without students buying in.

One of the things I’ve continually heard in the discussion on housing is that students want to “have a say” in the outcome. If the experience of being involved with MIT housing has taught me anything, it’s that no one “gives” you a say in anything. If you want to have a say, you need to speak up. You need to speak loudly, to the right audience. You need to be persistent, but willing to negotiate and compromise. You also need to have a vision for what you want — not just what you don’t want — and you need to take some responsibility for making it happen. If you pass up this responsibility, then the administration answers the important questions for you.

Jeffrey Roberts MCP ’03 is a former Dormitory Council president.