After several years of negotiations between residents and MIT administrators, Senior House has now become the last dormitory to get a Residential Life Area Director.
Since the start of the RLAD program in 2012, Senior House residents have had concerns about what the position would mean for their community.
This spring, Senior House conducted an internal survey to gauge how residents felt about getting an RLAD. Among all Senior House residents, 86 percent responded. On average, students rated the non-residential RLAD position a 2.52 on a scale of 1 to 7, 1 being strongly oppose and 7 being strongly support. They rated the residential (live-in) RLAD position a 1.55 on average.
The role of an RLAD is similar to that of housemasters and GRTs; the main difference is that an RLAD works full-time while other house team members must balance their roles with academic responsibilities. An RLAD, or AD, is “a professional who is there to support the community 24 hours per day,” Dean of Residential Life and Dining Henry J. Humphreys told The Tech. “An AD is there to support the housemaster and GRTs and also to support the residents.”
While GRTs are meant to support smaller groups of students, RLADs support the dorm community as a whole and go through more extensive training. According to Dean Humphreys, some topics in their training include active listening skills, knowledge about all resources for students, logistics and planning, names and roles of key people on campus, and “how MIT works as an institution.”
Residents of Senior House said they were concerned that the RLAD position is superfluous because they feel that they already have a particularly strong and trusting support network.
“The students here have a very positive relationship with the house team,” said Aaron P. Hammond ‘17, current treasurer of Senior House, in an interview between three Senior House residents and The Tech.
“The general feeling here is that the GRTs are looking out for your best interests,” added Senior House resident James T. Handy ‘18.
“An unknown person with an unknown role negotiated under unknown terms suddenly attending house or house team meetings is perceived in itself to be invasive by the community,” Hammond said. “Even beyond that, it would further have a harmfully chilling effect on the relationship between students and GRTs.”
Senior House residents say it’s important that members of their house team fit into their community. Most of the GRTs are alumni of East Campus or Senior House, and one is a former Bexley GRT.
When hiring new GRTs last year, residents made sure that candidates were familiar with the Senior House culture. “One of the things we considered was whether they wanted both to be a GRT and to be a GRT in Senior House,” Hammond said.
The residents of Senior House said they valued the connection that their house team has with the community and were skeptical that an RLAD, who they also interview but is ultimately selected by the Division of Student Life, could make the same connection. For example, the GRTs that are familiar with Senior House culture are comfortable with its sex-positive attitude and clothing-optional policies.
“Given that Senior House has an especially high population of gender and sexual minorities, the idea of an unknown person suddenly privy to knowledge of residents’ personal lives is incredibly disheartening, especially for those not yet out,” said Hammond.
Senior House residents are also concerned that making physical space for an RLAD within the building would require replacing student rooms in a dorm that is already relatively small.
When the first RLADs were hired in 2012, Senior House did not receive one. “In 2012, DSL responded to requests for more community input and postponed the implementation of an AD in Senior House,” wrote Chancellor Cynthia A. Barnhart PhD ’88 in an email to The Tech.
Conversations about an RLAD started with the previous housemaster of Senior House, Professor Agustin Rayo PhD ’01. In May 2014, residents of Senior House were informed via email that they were to receive an RLAD at the start of the fall 2014 semester, despite their vocal opposition.
However, this did not end up happening because the RLAD search would have coincided with the search for a new housemaster.
According to Dean Humphreys, administrators “put a hold on the conversations until we got a new housemaster in place.” Professor Jay R. Scheib took the position in January and conversations about hiring an RLAD started that spring.
“Personally, I was blindsided by the intensity of the conflict, and I have a lot of respect for that intensity,” Scheib wrote in an email to The Tech.
Given that the administration was pushing for Senior House to get an AD but residents still had many qualms, Senior House residents and administrators met in the middle.
“Throughout my meetings with the chancellor, she also assured me that this position would not be made residential if we could prove that we successfully integrated this person into our community while he just had an office here,” said Adrianna C. Rodriguez ’16, president of Senior House.
“A Non-Residential AD was the only position that seemed even remotely to land in the middle of some very passionate debates. It became the fundamental position,” wrote Scheib. “During the entire spring semester I was actively involved in finding my way into negotiating the terms of a non-residential area director.”
Also as part of the negotiations, the Senior House community collectively proposed a modified RLAD job description so that the role would be a better fit for their community. “In the officers’ meeting, everyone went through and looked at it; it was a really community-based process where we went through and refined the job description to something that we thought would be more suitable,” said Handy.
Among the proposed changes was a call for stronger qualifications in mental health and counseling.
However, according to Dean Humphreys, “the Senior House area director search was conducted using a uniform Institute job description, which guides all AD searches across campus,” meaning that the modified version that Senior House created was not used.
During the hiring process, the Senior House community reviewed three resumes, given to them by the DSL, and decided to interview one candidate.
“I wasn’t involved in a search. To my knowledge there was no process particular to a Senior Haus AD. A candidate surfaced during another search and DSL thought it might be a match. We interviewed only one candidate—with students and GRT’s participating. So, that’s not really a search, per se,” wrote Scheib.
DSL selected this candidate, Joseph J. Zimakas, for the RLAD position and he will receive office space within Senior House. The construction of the new RLAD office is currently under way, which requires repurposing a handicapped double on the first floor.
The plans for developing the handicapped double into an office space also include a second phase for developing the office into a full residential suite, which would include a master bedroom, guest bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen; however, according to the administration, this second phase of the plan is inactive. Dean Humphreys said that phase two is a “contingency plan” that was made with “full knowledge that we would not move forward at all until the housemaster and community gave the thumbs up.”
“Phase-two is not an active plan,” wrote Chancellor Barnhart. “Our expectation is that the AD will be successfully integrated as a non-residential member of the community.”
The administration is not pursuing discussions at this time to evolve the RLAD at Senior House into a residential position. “Right now we’re not talking about it,” said Dean Humphreys. “We’re seeing how the AD integrates with the community.”
“The AD role is different for every community,” said Dean Humphreys. “I think the AD position for Senior House will evolve into what it’s needed for.”
Scheib wrote, “For now we are committed to taking steps to ensure that it is a useful position.”
But some students are remain skeptical.
“I’m still confused as to why exactly an AD space is considered completely necessary, particularly in light of the housing crisis,” Rodriguez wrote in an email to The Tech. “I think we have enough residential support roles currently, adding more would just detract from the number of people who can experience Senior Haus.”