The installation of Residential Life Area Directors (RLADs) in most dormitories over the summer has been one of the strangest and most disturbing policy decisions in recent memory. Students should know two things: (1) virtually nothing about the formulation and implementation of this policy has been acceptable, and (2) the RLADs themselves did not make this policy. They deserve to be treated with compassion and respect, and should be welcomed to MIT warmly.
What makes the RLAD policy implementation so alarming? Here’s what we’ve noticed:
1. We don’t know exactly when the Division of Student Life (DSL) intended to announce the position publicly. Campus learned of it through an anonymously-leaked letter written by Chancellor Eric Grimson PhD ’80 to housemasters in early June. Even Graduate Resident Tutors (GRTs) were not informed about the impending residential life change prior to the leak. When The Tech asked about when the policy would have been announced had a leak not occurred, residential life dean Henry J. Humphreys and Grimson did not provide clear answers.
2. The policy was implemented very quickly. Campus first heard of it after the leak in early June, and candidates were interviewed for the position in mid-July over three days. RLADs were hired before August and they started work on August 6. That’s about 2 months from first notice to full implementation — a fraction of the time MIT has taken to make changes to dining and orientation. Grimson has said the internal process leading up to the RLAD decision began in the spring semester.
3. Student engagement on the issue has been little to none. After the leak, MIT made attempts to bring students into the interview process and collected feedback on potential hires. However, there was no communication through the normal channels: the Undergraduate Association knew nothing and no committees were formed to consider the proposal. The UA’s plan for a campus-wide survey on the issue has not materialized. Grimson said the policy was developed with input from a select group of students who, to the best of our knowledge, were not appointed by any recognized student government. The identities of those students are unknown.
4. MIT’s messaging on the matter has been weak and inconsistent. More so than usual, student life officials have been wary of saying anything even remotely concrete to The Tech about why the position is necessary or what the RLADs will actually do.
5. The RLAD hired to serve in MacGregor is already gone, not one month on the job. The circumstances surrounding her departure are not known.
6. Contacted individually, none of the RLADs agreed to an interview. Every single one referred The Tech to a DSL spokesperson.
7. The day after The Tech ran its August 1 article on new RLAD hires and referenced their LinkedIn.com profiles, those profiles were taken down or made private.
This behavior is not what we’ve come to expect from MIT over the past few years. There have been recent indicators, in fact, that MIT and its students were moving towards a healthier, more constructive policymaking relationship. For example, student members of the presidential search advisory committee said they felt their input was listened to and genuinely valued, and President L. Rafael Reif made some of their comments a cornerstone of his election-day speech. Recent changes to Orientation were made with deep and substantial student involvement.
The RLAD process has been a major setback. In one swoop, DSL has undone at least two years of work strengthening its relationship with students, and Grimson has probably spent much of his substantial political capital with students.
None of this makes sense from the perspective of good policy-making, either. If MIT wants to enhance residential support structures for students — a noble goal, especially after a tragic year — why do it so hastily? Why not pilot RLADs in one or two dorms, first, and evaluate their true effectiveness with clear benchmarks for success? And why not solicit meaningful input from the very people you’re trying to help? Not to mention, since the implementation was so incredibly opaque, some students and GRTs may be reflexively (though unjustifiably) suspicious of the RLADs themselves. Is this compatible with the idea that RLADs exist so that “students feel more support, that there is another person they can turn to,” according to Humphreys?
That being said, let’s be clear: the RLADs did not make any policy decisions, and they did not ask for any controversy. They simply took advantage of a great opportunity for career advancement and to work at an incredible, world-class institution. They’re part of our community now, and they deserve to be treated with the same dignity and respect as any other community member. Students should engage positively with RLADs and should go to them for advice and support, if they want to.
We now have to think about how to fix the damaged student-administration relationship, and we must continue to consider what motivations MIT might have for so blatantly ignoring the many lessons they learned about student engagement over the past few years. The Tech looks forward to continued dialogue on this issue, and we will seek to closely examine the factors that have driven MIT to act so unexpectedly.
In the meantime, we call on the administration to return to the values that made us so hopeful in March 2011, when Grimson took office: “I’ve seen times when I think the level of trust has been better than it is now,” he said at the time. “Part of my concern is to rebuild that.”