Editors note: The following letter was addressed to Chancellor Eric Grimson PhD ’80 and the Division of Student Life. It was signed by over 40 GRTs (see sidebar).
We, the undersigned Graduate Resident Tutors (GRTs), would like to express our concerns regarding recently proposed changes to the undergraduate residential life system. The introduction of a new position, the Residential Life Area Director (RLAD), announced to housemasters just after students left campus, is a major change to the current system. The nine new RLADs would live alongside students in residence halls and have “broad oversight of the day-to-day management of house operations,” including student government, student conduct, and a “supervisory role for the GRTs.” We would like to address both the process through which the RLAD position was conceived and the substance of the RLAD proposal. As GRTs who have deep familiarity with both living and learning in the residence halls, we offer insights and suggestions below on how to improve residential life, and we hope that this letter is the start of a positive dialogue on how to best support students at MIT.
The decision to introduce RLADs was made without consulting or informing the housemaster body, GRTs, students, or the Committee on Student Life, the faculty committee specifically charged with reviewing changes to policies that affect student life. As recently as 2009, a high-level Institute committee with student, faculty, and Division of Student Life (DSL) representation considered changes to the residential life system of this nature and rejected a move toward an RLAD-based system (Institute-wide Planning Task Force, Student Life Working Group Final Report, December 16, 2009: http://tech.mit.edu/V129/N60/taskforce/8-Student-Life.pdf). Additionally, the proposed selection of RLADs and their placement in residence halls would occur while many students are away for the summer (and while most students are displaced from their residential communities), effectively precluding comprehensive student input.
Given the recent call by MIT Corporation member Barun Singh ’06 for improved decision making and governance, especially in the area of student life and student support (http://tech.mit.edu/V132/N22/singh.html), this situation presents an opportunity to work together to improve our student support system. As GRTs, we hope DSL will take the opportunity to leverage our deep experience in working alongside students, and take into consideration our concerns and the suggestions we have to offer. We welcome the Chancellor to open a dialogue with students and house teams by sharing the data and reports which prompted the RLAD decision.
Aside from concerns with how the new plan was formulated, we have a number of specific concerns about the plan itself. The most important asset of GRTs and housemasters is the currency of trust which we develop with our students. Support cannot be forced onto students; they must be willing to come forward and engage the house team with their problems and concerns. This is not possible without a strong foundation of mutual respect and trust. The RLAD position as currently described provides supervision, not support, oversight, not advice. The insertion of administrative authority figures into residence halls — to whom GRTs must report — will create distrust between our students and us. Because GRTs currently report directly to housemasters, the RLAD position will create conflicting chains of command that will compromise our ability to handle sensitive student issues. Even if the RLAD role is amended, some students will still view their presence as a threat to the privacy and discretion that they have come to expect and rely on.
MIT has a long tradition of fostering broad-based and inclusive student participation in the GRT and housemaster selection process, because we become part of students’ homes. The top-down nature of the RLAD position, in conception and selection, threatens to disrupt the role of residence halls as sanctuaries from the pressures of MIT. Rather than creating an atmosphere in which the students feel that they are under constant observation in their own homes, we need to foster strong communities whose members trust one another, and feel free to relax, be themselves, and enjoy MIT’s unique student life.
It is important to note that we do see potential for positive changes and additions to student and residential life. We hope that DSL will look to us as a resource in formulating plans, as was the case in the recent productive discussions about residence hall security. The following are some of our ideas for how to better allocate the additional ~$400K/year for RLAD salaries and ~$2M for construction of RLAD apartments (Institute-wide Planning Task Force, Student Life Working Group Final Report, December 16, 2009: http://tech.mit.edu/V129/N60/taskforce/8-Student-Life.pdf):
We propose that student support and mental health services, which have faced budget and staffing cuts in recent years, be re-funded and expanded.
To make professional counselling more accessible to students, we propose weekly, informal after-hours visits from mental health professionals to each of the residence halls.
To fortify MIT’s unique focus on faculty involvement in residential life, we propose offering associate housemasters to any of the eight houses that currently lack them.
We propose that a student-led task force be created to give feedback on existing student support structures, and gather and develop ideas for additional services that would fill the gaps in the current support structure.
To foster stronger residential communities, we propose providing better administrative support for residential activities and events. Additional, non-resident support staff would be an ideal, cost-effective way to expand the administrative support that the RLAs currently provide.
As GRTs, our highest priority is the welfare of our students, and we are confident that Chancellor Grimson and DSL share this goal. GRTs can offer valuable insight into life in the residence halls, and suggestions for improvements. We ask to be included — along with a broader group of students and faculty — in the process of defining new positions, hiring, and integrating these changes into the residential life experience. The process should be transparent and open to input from the entire MIT community. We hope to partner with you to promote positive change.
Chris Follett and
Kyle Gilpin and
Nadya Peek and
Ken and Jaime
and Emily Fay
Jay Silver and