Important Update About Housing and the Community

July 11, 2017

To the members of the undergraduate student body,

As you probably know, MIT's other senior leaders and I recently decided that, starting this fall, Senior House will house graduate students only. For students outside the Senior House community, I expect this decision felt sudden. You may also find yourself with practical questions about how it might affect housing assignments for this year.

I'm writing now to explain how we arrived at this decision and what we're doing to help those students directly affected. Near the end of this letter, I also explain the steps we're taking to minimize the impact on the overall housing system, and where you can turn with questions about your own situation.

The Senior House turnaround process
Over the last year, I've spent a great deal of time working with residents of Senior House and thinking about how to address certain longstanding dynamics in the house that produced damaging outcomes.

In person and in print, I have received a wide range of feedback about the situation there. I have read every letter, including many heartfelt tributes to the Senior House community. I know that Senior House has played a wonderful role in the lives of many students and graduates, and I know how deeply many of you care about it.

The positive aspects of this community were clear to me even a year ago. That's why, despite our serious concerns, we took the step last summer of launching the turnaround; we hoped that by working with the residents of Senior House, we could together find a way to stop the troubling behaviors.

Unfortunately, as I recently explained in The Tech, despite significant effort and countless hours on the part of many students, faculty and staff, it became clear this spring that the turnaround had failed. We learned that dangerous behavior – behavior explicitly prohibited by MIT policy and completely counter to the spirit of the turnaround – was taking place in the house. And we learned that the community knew about the behavior, but was neither stopping that behavior on its own, nor turning to us for help in stopping it. 

The problem we struggled with was this: A signature part of the MIT experience is that students have great freedom to shape their own communities. The outcome is usually excellent: students gain a sense of independence, they take responsibility for themselves and their friends, and they develop a deep sense of home at MIT. I know that, at its best, Senior House did this, too. 

But freedom requires a baseline of trust, and commonsense limits around what's safe and what's legal.

The turnaround was an effort based on trust. Once that trust was broken, and once it became clear that residents did not share our commitment to such commonsense limits, it became impossible for us to continue on the turnaround path. 

As we made clear to the residents at the time, a complete reset was necessary and a new community needed to form; Pilot 2021 was our first attempt. In the best MIT tradition of open debate and collaborative problem-solving, some students responded with peaceful protests and suggestions for improving the plan. Unfortunately, to our great regret, the plan was also met with intensive efforts to perpetuate and reimpose Senior House, thus undermining any chance for a new community to succeed.

We reluctantly came to the conclusion that the only path left to us was for the building to house graduate students. We would never have brought such distress to the residents of Senior House if we thought we had a realistic and workable choice. 

Helping those directly affected
This change requires some undergraduates to move at a crucial point in our housing assignment process. We also recognize that it eliminates a critical safe space for members of our LBGTQ+ community. We are responding to these legitimate concerns in several ways.

We are helping each undergraduate who needs to relocate find a welcoming living situation. In partnership with our heads of house and house teams, we are also making sure that our residential support staff have the right training to meet the needs of new members of their communities.

This fall, with student guidance and leadership, we will be taking steps to create a living-learning community that explores issues relating to gender, sexuality, diversity, equity and inclusion.

Housing options for juniors and seniors
The shift to housing graduate students would appear to create a shortage of undergraduate beds, which would naturally raise concerns about crowding. After consulting with undergraduate leaders, we are optimistic that we can avoid crowding by shifting a number of juniors and seniors into graduate residence halls. Rising juniors and seniors will soon receive a letter explaining their options and incentives. This may be a particularly good choice for students contemplating graduate school. Lotteries for students to pursue these options will open soon. 

We are also working with heads of house, house governments and student leaders to make sure that students who choose to move will feel welcome and supported. If you have questions about your specific situation, please contact David Randall or Jennifer Hapgood-White at residential-support@mit.edu.

Going forward
Since I came to MIT as a graduate student, I have been struck, over and over, by the capacity of the MIT community to confront difficult facts and struggle together towards a solution. 

In that work, we will not always agree with each other's judgments. But I hope we can take each other seriously as people of goodwill and members of the same community.

Respectfully,

Cynthia Barnhart