The East Side is a residential culture of trust and self-determination the enabling of which is critical to MIT’s educational mission

When I first arrived at MIT not all that long ago in historical terms, I was simply blown away by what I saw at East Campus and Senior House. I found it remarkable what a rich residential culture existed and the way in which it was all organized and created organically by the students themselves. Students were in charge of everything! From huge events like Steer Roast, Dorm Rush and Spring Picnic, to fundamental house management functions (desk, room assignments, dispute adjudication via judcomms), to even retail food service (student-run Pritchett Cafeteria). I remember wondering (and then having the history explained to me) how MIT had gotten so lucky as to have developed a self-sustaining residential organizational system that returned so much from so little overhead in institutional effort. It wasn’t until later, after I lived in Senior House, that I realized that part of this equation was precisely the limitation of top-down external input that allowed the residents the freedom to own and take responsibility for the emergence of their preferred environment.

I must mention here that I was hardly a newcomer to the university system and the co-residential environment; I would not have been so impressed with just any institution. I had already studied at two universities before MIT, lived in two very different student dormitory residences, and been familiar with the operations and cultures of many more, including representing one as a delegate to a national conference on university residences. The East Side of MIT, and Senior House in particular, quite simply took the concept of an academic residential learning environment to an entirely new level, and I knew immediately that I wanted to live there. And once I did live there, I finally felt, after years of experiencing similar but not equal residences, that I had found home. A place where people like me, highly motivated to explore and resistant to being pigeonholed or spoon-fed, could thrive.

It is hardly controversial to state that the worth of a university education extends beyond what is taught in the classroom. It is more difficult to define the nature of that additional learning. However, it is clear to me that not only are we who lived on the East Side extremely fortunate to have been immersed in an environment so conducive to experiencing those intangibles, but MIT itself is extremely fortunate to have allowed such an environment to coalesce, and extremely foolish to tinker with it in ways that place a short-sighted value on its ability to top-down manage it rather than giving students the opportunity to experience managing it themselves and trusting them to learn from mistakes made along the way. By taking responsibility away from students and attempting to create an expectation that most aspects of residential life are to be handled by hired facilitators, MIT is doing a grave disservice to its educational mission and making a terrible long-term mistake. How many other institutions are lucky enough to have students fight to perform the bulk of their recruitment (CPW) and orientation (Dorm Rush) work for them, all while gaining invaluable skills in the process?

Here’s a few of the things I loved that the East Side helped its denizens learn:

  • To organize events top to bottom. When I first heard it out of the mouth of a newly hired junior administrator, “residential programming” was an absurdity — this was what students did for themselves! From major events like Steer Roast and the Voo Doo party to smaller social gatherings like FACs, all kinds of logistics were taught this way, from budgeting to preparing event space to hiring bands to arranging food for up to hundreds of people to organizing cleanup details.
  • Community governance, conflict resolution and interpersonal skills. From House Government to JudComms, students learned how to take responsibility for the governance and harmony of an autonomous collection of their peers, garnering irreplaceable experience which will serve them well in any future corporation or collective.
  • To feed themselves and others. Students had the choice to learn to cook for themselves, and many did. Many organized into food co-ops and learned how to self-cater for groups as well. When Pritchett was student-run, students learned business, customer service and industrial food handling skills.
  • Via student-managed Desk, to take responsibility for the safety and security of everyone in the building, including simple but community-strengthening things like knowing each person in the House and their routines and associates. Also, in the case of Senior House, merchandising and funds handling were involved.
  • To creatively modify their environment, through murals and lofts and many other wondrous projects. To take pride in their art and to help one another with realizing individual visions in collaborative fashion.
  • To nurture, support, assist and uplift their peers. To say people make friends in EC and Senior House does the true situation a disservice. By observation and practice, assisted by being able to choose to be among people who understand one another, residents learn counseling and pastoral care skills in addition to mere camaraderie.

I personally learned in all of these areas while I lived in Senior House. All of them have served me well since. And it would have been to my detriment in all of them if there had been someone hired to do them for me, denying me the experience that came from the trust that was placed in me that I would take responsibility for making them happen. And the same is true for the students around me who did likewise. I often said of my university residential experience prior to MIT that you get out of it what you put into it. Our top priority in the residential system should therefore be to zealously protect a precious resource like the East Side where students get to put everything into it, because they will get everything out of it in return!

Conversely, the major stress in the lives of many Senior House students during my time there was not the result of the intense classroom learning typical of the MIT formal educational process, but the feeling of their home itself being ever insecure from constant external threats — threats of having what was most important to them taken away. The defining aspects of the culture they had created — from Steer Roast, to Dorm Rush, to murals, to the all-academic House Team, to student desk workers, to the literal removal of members of their community to make space for residential administrators, and on and on down the list, threatened and subject to duplicitous pronouncements from without, year after year. If you ask the alumni what the worst aspect of MIT was, you’ll usually discover this was it. And the best aspect — you’re reading about it now. That culture, so difficult to describe in full, but created, nurtured, grown and owned from within in a process of discovery and learning unparalleled elsewhere.

Every so often I’m privileged enough to be asked to write a reference for one of the students I got to know from the East Side. It’s a privilege because it’s so easy to point out their strengths based on my observations of them participating in East Side culture, and so rewarding to reflect on these strengths. Perhaps they Veeped Steer Roast? I know they have attention to detail, the ability to creatively multitask in an environment far more dynamic than any class, and stellar budgeting and project management skills! They were a Dorm Rush chair? They are excellent communicators and have experience supervising major construction projects! They worked Desk? They are dependable and know how to challenge a stranger and not back down. No matter what the specifics of their individual participation, I know that they have grown from the experience because they did it themselves.

It’s rewarding to be able to say those things and know that they are true. Trust is rewarding. We’re going to trust MIT graduates with all manner of things as they invent and refine the future. Isn’t it a good idea to maintain our East Side residences as incubators where we can verify that our trust is earned, instead of allowing subdivisions concerned primarily with simplicity of management to be actively hostile to the culture of self-determination that allows this to occur?  It’s not just a good idea; in a possibly burgeoning revolution in online education, maintaining this residential environment that so effectively achieves independent learning is essential to MIT’s educational mission.