In Defense of Senior House

Prior to coming to MIT for the summer of 2007 for the Interphase program, I spent the first 18 years of my life living in the same house in the same town with the same friends and the same experiences. I had left my home state precisely twice, and then for less than a week each time. I barely even remembered the experience. The prospect of transplanting my life to a new state 2,000 miles from home for at least four years, living with people I didn’t know, facing the necessity of making new friends for the first time in my life, and having the added pressure of needed to succeed at a school like MIT almost gave me panic attacks. I was terrified for the start of term, especially after the Interphase program taught me that my high school had not prepared me at all for the strenuous academics at MIT.

I had chosen a temporary dormitory solely based on the fact that a man I knew from my home town was a senior in that dormitory. I wanted to be close to someone I knew to ease the transition a little. Soon, I experienced concern about my choice. During Interphase, I met several students who lived in what would become my temporary dormitory and found that other than being superficially similar to them (we were from similar regions of the US, had similar racial backgrounds) I had very little in common with them. I realized that if I were given the choice, I wouldn’t hang out with them. They weren’t the kind of people I sought out for my friends and as such, I worried incessantly about my dormitory decision.

However, I had the good fortune of having a TA during my time in Interphase who lived in Senior House. He and I became good friends and he encouraged me to take a look at all of the dorms during what was then called REX, informing me that if I was unhappy in my temporary dormitory I may be able to move into another one. He emphasized that to properly succeed at MIT, one must feel that their dormitory is a safe haven and not just some building that they were forced to sleep in. He explained further that there was no one-size-fits-all dormitory and that every student feels most comfortable in a particular place and that the incoming freshman must find their niche before they can really be happy. After moving into my room in my temporary dormitory and realizing that I absolutely loathed everything about it, I resolved to find someplace better. At the beginning of REX, I visited all of the dormitories and found a home in Senior House.

The people I met in Senior House shared many of my ideals, my tastes in music and art, and my philosophy of nonjudgmental living-and-letting-live. Those who didn’t share my opinions and tastes didn’t judge me for my own, and were willing to converse and chat about our differences instead. I felt accepted, I felt comfortable, and in some ways, I felt more at home at Senior House than I had growing up. The culture of Senior House encouraged the residents to make their dormitory as much of a home, a family-like atmosphere as we could, and we all thrived in the environment. I decided that for my own mental health, I needed to move in immediately, so I applied for a transfer.

At the end of REX, I moved into Senior House and quickly fell even more in love with it. The sense of community and family shared by the entire house was warming and welcoming to me. It felt as friendly as a small town, and as compassionate and caring as a group of close friends. With its murals and ubiquitous art, it felt vibrant and a stark contrast from the bland, oppressionist architecture of much of the Institute. Other students, Graduate Resident Tutors (GRTs) and Housemasters alike were always ready and willing to have a chat. They were also non-judgmental, kind and helpful. For the first time in my life, I was interacting with authority figures (the GRTs and Housemasters) who did not patronize me and did not treat me like an ignorant child. The message from them was clear: Senior House belongs to its residents and as such it is up to the residents to care for it and each other. And we did.

The culture of nonjudgmental acceptance and autonomy was massively essential in my development and success at MIT. It allowed me to focus on my schoolwork without feeling self-conscious or paranoid. Furthermore, the small, familial nature of the dorm meant that upperclassmen were constantly offering to help the newer students with anything they could. One of the seniors on my hall when I was a freshman (who eventually became my closest friend and confidant) was almost constantly taking breaks from his own work in order to come and check on “the frosh” in my double.

We felt like a family because, as I mentioned, we felt an obligation to look after each other. For many of us, home was thousands of miles away. For several of us, home was half a world away. Few of us had any family less than a day’s travel away. During my years at MIT, the other residents of Senior House were the only family I had, and most other students felt that way, too. It was very common that when someone (undergrad or Graduate Resident Tutor) was going to run to get groceries, or cook, or grab dinner someplace, they’d walk through the hall and ask if anyone felt like joining them. We spent a lot of time together, just like a family, going to restaurants or shopping or cooking. I recall fondly hours spent alternately working and cooking with my friends on hall and from other places, all of us crammed into the kitchen, laughing and chatting between questions on our problem sets or paragraphs in our books. I had such a wonderful time learning and developing into my own person that I rarely felt homesick and didn’t have the time to feel stressed.

The interactions seemed very genuine because they were. Everyone on hall was there of their own volition; they had chosen to live there. We had things in common, we got along on a personal level, and because of all of this, we felt safe. We painted murals together to make the space comfortable for all of us. We played music together in our lounges or the music room, developing our talents and having a really good time. We pitched in to buy kitchen items and to make pot-luck dinners. If someone was having a bad day, we came together as a family and helped them to work through it. If someone was facing challenges in class or life, we came together to see if we could help them.

In this way, through this supremely MIT-styled autonomous system of student living, we came unto our own. Most of us arrived at MIT as legal adults – we were 17 or 18 (of course, the occasional first year student is younger) – but we truly developed our own personalities and opinions in Senior House and in other dorms. For its residents (and its friends) Senior House was a safe place, an island of calm in the chaotic tempest that is life at MIT. As soon as we stepped through the doors and said our greeting to the friendly student desk worker (who was almost assuredly a friend of ours), we could feel our nerves calm and the stresses begin to wash away. From this peaceful base, we felt more confident in expanding our horizons and exploring other aspects of the Institute. Many of us felt more capable of accepting challenges academically and otherwise because at the end of the day, we could come back to the only place we truly felt at home and leave the anxieties of student life outside.

The fact that Senior House (and the East Side in general) behaves very much like a large family is exemplified in Steer Roast. For the uninitiated, Steer Roast is a three-day long reunion event that occurs at Senior House the first weekend of May. It is funded by a variety of sources and completely organized and run by undergraduates. During the event (which has been occurring annually since 1964) alumni (mostly from the East Side of campus, but realistically from all dorms) and friends of the House return from their lives all over the world to reminisce about MIT and meet new undergraduates. MIT students, alumni, and faculty are all invited to the courtyard to enjoy the hired music acts, but it’s not all fun and games. Continuing the theme of family and mutual assistance, Steer Roast also serves as a useful networking event. Many an alum and undergrad has found a new job or a new investor at Steer Roast. Business plans are sketched out, partnerships are made, and start-ups are founded. It is a time for exchanging ideas and phone numbers in addition to business cards. I, for one, met many of my most respected and closest friends at Steer Roast.

My largest concern with MIT’s emerging student policies is not how difficult it appears to be becoming to return to MIT after going on leave (as it is for many students and alumni). My largest concern with MIT’s emerging student policies is how much the Division of Student Life appears to be treating students like children and attempting to remove from MIT the culture and student autonomy that makes the Institute unique. From what I have read and seen, it appears that the Division of Student Life (known as DSL) believes that these 18-21 year-old students don’t know “what’s good for them” and are attempting to act in loco parentis. Personally, I find this degrading. If anything, students of today’s information era are more well-informed and knowledgeable about things than those of thirty or forty years ago. This in loco parentis movement does not extend merely to things like attempting to force students to buy into a dining plan, or attempting to ban murals inside dormitories, but also to such ludicrous wastes of money and shocking abuses of power as the new security systems in dormitories.
I attended one meeting where Dean Humphreys discussed the security cameras which have since been placed in Senior House and other dormitories. He promised those present that no one other than the newly hired security personnel would see the video feed. Furthermore, he promised that the cameras would prevent thefts.

To begin, I have seen no data whatsoever that the cameras have prevented any thefts. In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it eventually came to light that thefts still occurred at one of the dorms in which cameras have been installed and that the perpetrators went uncaught and unpunished. Furthermore, there has been a rumor that in addition to the security personnel (who are, I will reiterate, unnecessary) at least one dean has unlimited access to the camera feed in his or her office. This is either an example of disgusting voyeurism or disgusting paranoia. Either way, I am appalled that MIT would waste money on this system that could very easily go toward scholarships or research funding or increasing salaries for useful MIT employees.

In the same vein as the installation of useless security cameras is the elimination of the student-run desk and the introduction of third-party security employees. After decades (perhaps close to a century; I’m not sure) of successful and efficient staffing of dormitory desks by students, I have found out that DSL is phasing out the program in order to contract out desk work to a third-party security firm. This is an outrageous waste of time and money. There is no logical reason why after decades of success the student deskworker system is being abolished. Furthermore, I know several undergraduates who are nervous about the prospect of an unknown person having unlimited access to their rooms and mail, who who may abuse such power to harass and spy on students. There are occasions, for example, when a student accidentally locks themselves out of their room when showering. Speaking from experience, students are generally far more comfortable with going up to a friend of theirs at desk while dripping wet and wrapped in a towel to get their spare key than they would be with approaching a middle-aged stranger in the same condition. At the same aforementioned security meeting with Dean Humphreys, a student voiced her concern with this situation and asked what would happen if a third-party security worker harassed a student sexually or otherwise. Dean Humphreys cheerfully responded that he knew exactly how to answer that question because it had already happened and the third-party security worker in question was transferred to another job. This is completely and utterly unacceptable. From what could be gathered from that transaction, this system isn’t even campus-wide and there has already been an occurrence of a student being made to feel threatened and harassed. I don’t see how this is a beneficial or intelligent decision at all. If any other office at MIT was enacting a policy that caused students to feel threatened and harassed, it would be considered a disgusting affront to human rights, but for some reason it’s okay if DSL does it.

Lastly, I am terrified of the damage that will be done by the implementation of the now-guaranteed RLAD program. To begin with, it has never been explained why the program is necessary. There is literally no task that can be given to the RLADs that is not already performed by either the current house team or by students themselves. No one has been able to explain why the RLADs are being hired or what problem they are supposed to solve. The closest thing to an explanation of their purpose I have heard thus far is that their job is to act essentially as Gestapo agents, lurking the halls of the dormitories in order to catch any student that may be acting out of accordance with the Mens et Manus handbook and reprimanding them immediately. Again, not only is this belittling and patronizing to students, but will make all students (not just those who might choose to bend or break the rules) paranoid and scared of reprimand. Also, the building of RLAD apartments inside the dormitories will not only ruin the feeling of student-dictated culture (these RLADs will come to MIT knowing absolutely nothing about the nuances of MIT life or the culture thereof and will assuredly demand changes be made to suit them) but will also remove student rooms, potentially forcing students that would otherwise be happy in a particular dormitory to live somewhere else and maybe “fall through the cracks” so to speak. It appears that the DSL is willing to sacrifice student mental health for the hiring of new administrators.

The DSL’s mantra has consistently been that the only reason students and alumni are upset by their actions is because students and alumni are scared of change. This is not the case at all. MIT has changed greatly from its inception, and few times has that change been met with the anger and frustration that has accompanied decisions made by the DSL. Students and alumni are flexible and receptive to change – in science and technology one must be – but they are hostile toward inefficiency, ignorance, and stupidity, and are staunch proponents of an MIT culture that is welcoming, enjoyable, and supportive. The DSL is actively attempting to destroy this culture.

I am offended by all the decisions made by the Division of Student Life (which did not even exist prior to 2007 or 2006 and has since bloated to a massive size) to remove the aspects of MIT life that makes MIT a unique and enjoyable experience. They are removing the parts of the MIT experience that made the stresses and hardships of MIT bearable and instituting polices that are adding additional stresses and senses of paranoia to the load currently faced by students. It appears that the members of the DSL (most of whom had no experience with the intricate and unique culture of MIT prior to their employment in DSL) don’t care that MIT is special and different and instead want to turn it into a flavorless, generic copy of a university like Harvard or Columbia or Yale. They don’t seem to care that MIT is desirable because it is MIT and not Harvard or Columbia or Yale. It is almost as if the members of the DSL are trying to sabotage MIT as it has existed for the past 150+ years. MIT was a successful and esteemed institution for over a century prior to the establishment of the Division of Student Life, and cannot flourish again until the Division of Student Life is prevented from destroying MIT’s identity and is completely eradicated from campus along with its foolhardy institutions.

4 thoughts on “In Defense of Senior House”

  1. Well said, Jasso! I went to SH once after graduating and I felt the difference in the air. It wasn’t the same anymore. it’s pretty upsetting that the administration is trying to wipe out what makes MIT unique (its culture) while simultaneously using it to sell itself to prospective students. I hope the kids realize MIT won’t be quirky for much longer…

  2. This is an extreme over reaction. If you have such a big problem with it, then don’t live in a dorm. Criticizing MIT for trying to make their students safer in such an unsafe world is childish. In terms of preserving culture, MIT is a private institution and can promote or demote whatever culture they please. Nobody is forcing you to go to MIT. It’s a privelage. Grow up.

    • Tim, maybe you should learn how to spell, but on a more serious note yes MIT is a private institution and can demote culture as they wish, but that doesn’t mean they can do it without consequences or without criticism. MIT making its institution safer = good. Pretending that MIT students are children and they cannot possibly know what’s best for themselves = bad. Also, Jasso you rock.

  3. Thank you, Jasso.

    Milena – The people who talk about MIT culture to prospective students are people who are huge fans of it. DSL, not so much. The Administration is not unified about this at all.