Last week, Burton 1 became the second floor of Burton-Conner to have a mural repainted this year, after Burton Third’s summer renovations left them without their signature bar and with several murals painted over. On Burton 1, a mural based off a strip from the Penny Arcade webcomic was altered to remove certain language. The mural originally read: “This floor will eviscerate you with pleasure. You will bleed to death.” After being brought to the attention of the housemasters, the word “eviscerate” and the phrase “bleed to death” were painted over without advance warning.
Burton Third has since built a new bar that is not a permanent fixture of the floor, featuring a modular design to stay within the bounds of the Mind and Hand Book. However, in a written statement to The Tech, the Burton Third floor chairs collectively expressed concerns that Burton-Conner is being held to a double standard. According to the floor chairs’ statement, Senior Associate Dean for Residential Life and Dining Henry J. Humphreys and Dean for Student Life Chris Colombo “said in a meeting that Burton-Conner will not be held to a double standard (that is, other dorms will be held under the same scrutiny), but have not been willing to confirm this point in writing. Burton-Conner is currently being held to a double standard.”
Regarding Burton 1’s mural, “Two residents of the building … reported [to the RLAD] that they thought that there was something in that mural that was inconsistent with the Mind and Hand Book,” said Burton-Conner housemaster Anne E. C. McCants. “The RLAD, Bill, and I conferred, and we agreed, and so it was taken down.” The Tech has not yet confirmed when these reports occurred, or whether these complaints were by regular building residents or summer residents.
MIT’s Policy on Harassment in the Mind and Hand Book defines harassment as “any conduct, verbal or physical, on or off campus, that has the intent or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual or group’s educational or work performance at MIT or that creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive educational, work, or living environment.”
“There have been a few students who … are pleased, actually, to see that someone’s taking these questions seriously. I’m hopeful,” said McCants. “I think that it certainly makes for a better environment for people who work in Burton-Conner … Those people have identical rights, actually, on this campus as the students. And I think that’s something that’s really easy for students and faculty to forget. Whatever these provisions are, they aren’t just to protect us — the people who are here in the education part of it — they’re here to protect everyone on this campus.”
In an email to the Burton 1 floor chairs, McCants explained that material inconsistent with the Mind and Hand Book had to be removed immediately “so as to prevent any confusion about the message MIT is sending to residents, staff and visitors” and to treat all floors equitably, given the prompt removal of offending material from Burton Third.
Burton-Conner is currently in the process of drafting a new formalized policy on painting and murals within the dormitory. While most of the proposed guidelines are consistent with the informal rules observed in the past, two additions distinguish the new policy. The first set of changes introduces fees for those wishing to paint within Burton-Conner. Permission to paint in an individual room will require a payment of $50. $40 may be returned to the student at the end of the year if he or she repaints the space with its original color.
Some Burton-Conner residents have expressed concern that these fees may discourage painting, a perk that has been integrated into aspects of Burton-Conner culture. “I don’t agree with the fee,” said Kristen L. Cotner ’15, a resident of Conner 5. She worries that $50 is a lot of money for some students. “It could actually prevent them from painting their rooms [and improving the floor for everyone.]”
This fee was designed to recoup the costs associated with paint-related damage and those stemming from having to repaint the walls of graduating seniors. Neither McCants nor Donaghey could provide an exact number for these expenses each year; however, the McCants said that these costs come out of the renovation budget, which have become more constrained.
“I think there’s been some misunderstanding about what the money was for. The student government is trying to make it money for buying supplies. Of course, that’s not actually what Ken needed,” said McCants. “Ken needed money to actually repair things that he had to redo. And of course, Ken doesn’t go out and buy paintbrushes. Ken has to hire contractors who paint. They’re very expensive. I think, actually, that residents in the dorm have no idea how expensive it is.”
The second set of changes adds an additional layer of scrutiny to the mural approval policy, which traditionally was solely left up to the discretion of the house manager, Ken Donaghey. This is in line with the Residential Housing and Dining Policies, which stipulate that “any alterations to the physical conditions of your residence hall, (painting, constructing lofts, etc.)” require the approval of the house manager.
At the same time, these Residential Housing Policies also state that the “house government develops its own guidelines for materials that may be displayed within the residence.” With murals, the physical alteration and the content matter are inextricably connected, and where the authority of approval ultimately resides becomes ambiguous.
In their written statement to The Tech, the Burton Third floor chairs collectively characterized the situation as such: “Burton-Conner murals were removed without notice due to Title IX violations and a new interpretation of the MIT Mind and Hand Book. The Burton Third bar was removed to install new floor tiles, but Burton Third is no longer allowed to have a permanent bar based on those same policies.”
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is a federal law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex in any education program or activity. In particular, it places obligations on colleges and universities to respond to sexual harassment and sexual violence, and, in a broader sense, the creation of a “hostile” educational environment.
In a “Dear Colleague” letter published by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, it is written that “if a school knows or reasonably should know about student-on-student harassment that creates a hostile environment, Title IX requires the school to take immediate action to eliminate the harassment, prevent its recurrence, and address its effects.”
Some residents of Burton-Conner have characterized the repainting of murals on Burton 1 and Burton Third as acts of censorship. “There’s not a place for censorship within our living space,” said Cotner. “I think the freedom to say and create what we want is an important part of MIT culture and dorm culture.”
However, McCants dismissed these concerns. “The word ‘censorship’ actually has a very specific legal meaning. It is not applicable in this case,” she said. “Censorship applies in a free speech environment. A university campus dormitory, on public walls, is not a free speech environment.” According to the McCants, students, parents, housekeeping staff, and other people assigned to the space are “entitled to certain protections under state and federal law, as well as protections that are written up in the MIT Mind and Hand Book.”
Humphreys said that he supported the Burton-Conner housemasters’ decision. He added that each community should have its own conversation about how to balance the concerns of cultural preservation with those of maintaining a positive and safe environment.