Last Tuesday, I wrote to the housemasters with the announcement that I had decided that the role of the Residential Life Associate in the residence halls should be enhanced, so that the residential system could better support undergraduates living on campus. The plan I announced would increase the number of RLAs, so that one could be assigned to almost every dormitory, and would increase the required education and experience, so that students, housemasters, and GRTs would have access to a higher level of expertise.
This proposal emerged over the past year, as I met many times with individual students, with groups of students, with student support staff, with faculty, with alumni, and with parents. These meetings occurred within the context of what we all know was a very difficult year for our community. The death of a single student hits all of us hard; three deaths are almost impossible to comprehend. As the person who reaches out to the families after each tragedy, I know in a very deep way how agonizing and difficult these events are — and I share the widespread sense that we need to respond not only with compassion but with constructive change.
To help me understand the range of issues pertaining to student support on campus, I created a working group drawn from support staff, faculty, GRT/graduate students, undergraduate students, and housemasters, who spent the past seven months examining every aspect of our student support system, and identifying opportunities for improvement.
Out of these interactions a clear theme has emerged: we must take action to strengthen the student support systems within our living groups. While we have many great elements in place — housemasters, RLAs, GRTs, Deans-on-Call, S^3, Mental Health, and others — there are still opportunities to enhance our students’ well-being and sense of belonging.
It has become clear from the full range of our discussions that one of the most compelling of those opportunities is to enhance the Residential Life Associate positions. RLAs are full-time staff members who work closely with housemasters and other staff within the residence halls to assist in the critically important roles of advising, counseling and educating our students. In addition, they provide counsel and support to House Teams and other staff. We currently have five such positions serving the undergraduate dormitories. Expansion and enhancement of the RLA positions could:
Give housemasters more time to help students deal with personal issues by freeing them up from some operational tasks.
Assist GRTs in learning how to help students who need advice dealing with personal issues: roommate conflicts, relationship challenges, pressure, stress and depression, personal safety.
Provide additional Deans-on-Call.
Provide additional student support personnel within our student living groups.
In concert with other student-support staff, provide suggestions and guidance to students on leadership development: how to run a meeting, coordinate an activity, mediate a disagreement, communicate to diverse groups.
Assist housemasters and Residential Life staff with the recruitment, selection and training of GRTs.
What also came through clearly in our discussions about student support and house governance are several important principles:
Housemasters remain the head of the team — responsible for building community, encouraging personal growth, and setting the academic tone of the dormitory.
The working relationship between GRTs and housemasters and between GRTs and students should remain the same: GRTs would still work directly with housemasters and students, while also coordinating with the RLAs on administrative details and operational issues.
Academic advising remains the domain of faculty.
Input on hiring of RLAs should involve housemasters, GRTs and students.
Recently, I sent a letter to housemasters that described some of these improvements. I probably came across as overly final in my thinking. Removed from the context of an ongoing group discussion (the letter got posted publicly online), my letter left some with the impression that I am finished seeking input on the RLA changes that I am recommending. In fact, I am actively soliciting feedback from the relevant parties and am using it to refine our idea.
While some undergraduate dormitories are ready and eager to move forward with these enhancements, others need more time to digest, discuss and debate these changes. I do not think we should slow down those houses that are ready, so I plan to enable them to implement changes to the RLA system. But I also think we need to allow other dormitories time to engage in the discussion, so I have asked the UA and DormCon to work with the student leadership of those dormitories to foster a dialogue within each of those houses — students, GRTs, housemasters — during the first few months of the fall term. I will ask that these house leadership teams then share with DSL staff their perspectives on the proposed improvements to the support systems.
You know that I take very seriously the value of student perspectives; the independent thinking of our students is what makes MIT MIT, and I have a great patience for different points of view. But in this moment of urgency, I don’t have patience for lost time or lost opportunities for progress. We must find ways to improve the support for our student body, and we must find ways to strengthen the community within. Together, we can make a good system of student support even better.
Eric Grimson PhD ’80 is the Chancellor of MIT.