HOUSED

MIT is “fixing” the low graduation rate in its low-income, LGBT-friendly dorm by kicking everyone out

Senior House, a dorm beloved by many underrepresented minority groups at MIT, has been described many ways: free-wheeling, experimental, diverse, inclusive—and, in the words of one former student, in constant violation of “campus policy on smoking, pets, drugs, alcohol, public sex, (insert flavor-of-the-month form of rebellion here).”

The dorm is about to be dismantled. MIT has decided to kick everyone out, allowing its current members to reapply for residence in the space for the fall, but insisting it will repopulate it. “You will see that we are seeking individuals who are committed to contributing to a residential environment that supports residents’ academic and personal development,” chancellor Cynthia Barnhart wrote in a letter to current and former student members, obtained by Quartz and confirmed by the university.

MIT, which prides itself on exalting data, says data drove the decision: 59.7% of students who start off (pdf) living in Senior House graduate in four years. That compares to a university-wide average of 83.7%. More than a fifth of students had not graduated after their sixth year, nearly double the rate of the next worst-performing dorm, called Random.

MIT initially proposed overhauling the house, based on the graduation data and concerns over illegal drug use. It halted 2016-2017 freshman from moving in, appointed a turnaround committee, and added more mental health resources to the house. But the administration ultimately concluded that revamping it wasn’t worth the bother. Senior House was filled with “serious and unsafe behaviors” which undermine the university’s goals for the health, safety and academic success of the students, the letter stated. The university declined to elaborate on the nature of the serious and unsafe behaviors.

Culture clash

To many students, the announcement amounts to cultural sterilization, an effort to turn the most interesting, diverse, and accepting dorm into another haven for aspiring doctors and engineers.

House member Sabrina M., class of 2019, was devastated by the changes. On a blog on MIT’s admissions page, she described Senior House (lovingly nicknamed Haus, motto: “Sport Death, Only Life Can Kill You” ) as:

…a dorm for a disproportionately high amount of LGBT students, students of color, and first generation students, people who are already statistically more likely to deal with mental issues and struggle in school. It is a place with a colorful and rich and sometimes even unsavory history, and a place I couldn’t be happier to call my home. There are very real problems here, but no one cares more about them than the people who deal with them every day.

Timur Sahin, now a quantitative trader who graduated in 2011 with a degree in physics, said Senior House taught him that “it’s not only OK to challenge your ideas, convictions, and philosophies, it’s downright intellectually irresponsible not to do so. Senior House is a place that’s so diverse, politically, economically, and socially, that you were going to meet someone that really forced you to contest at least some of your own long-held beliefs.”

In an emotional post on Reddit, Sahin, previously a member of an MIT graduate council that interviews high school applicants, said that the university’s decision was a brazen attempt at gentrification. Administrators plan to replace the house’s original core values—taking care of each other, welcoming differences, individual freedom and communal responsibility—with new ones, “career exploration, food & cooking (with meal kits!), and mind & body wellness.”

Last year, Barnhart defended the turnaround attempts by saying MIT was dedicated to providing students with an environment in which they could succeed academically. “In come all you smart students, and so the expectation I’m sure that you have, and we have, is that we provide you with an excellent education and you succeed academically,” she told the Tech, MIT’s student newspaper. When pressed about whether the university had any real control over students who choose to use drugs, she said if the policy is seen to be cracking down on drugs, so be it, because drug use is “destructive” to communities. “This isn’t about punishment. This is about support.”

High risk, high reward

On the same admissions blog, Michelle G., class of 2018, questioned whether the graduation data cited by the university ignored that “students of certain demographic backgrounds are significantly more likely to take longer than four years to graduate.” Senior House, she wrote, is one of the most inexpensive dorms to live in, and attracts a disproportionately high share of low-income students. According to her post, the three most expensive dorms have the highest graduation rates vs. the cheapest ones, which have the lowest. She also noted that, according to the chancellor’s office, 40% of Senior House students are LGBT.

Charisse L’Pree, an assistant professor of communications at Syracuse University, (who graduated from MIT in 2003 with dual degrees in brain and cognitive science and comparative media studies), agrees: “The students who came to Senior House were high risk in the first place,” she said. “Collapsing the community doesn’t keep them from being high risk—it scatters them so the university can’t address their risk in the community.”

If Senior House really was a rarified den of free-thinking and acceptance, it is a sad day for MIT. L’Pree said Senior House helped her cope with a lot: getting to university too young, being sexually assaulted, and making a lot of big mistakes. At a recent reunion, she said in a speech that she had just finished the best year of her life: She is a tenure-track professor at a research university, and landed a book deal. She credited Senior House. “I was a bad stat, I dropped out,” she said, noting that she took a year off while studying. “But now I am a good stat. You as a community did that.”

She is immensely proud of MIT’s policy toward low-income students, from scrapping legacy admissions (when the child of a graduate, and usually donor, gets preference) to lowering tuitions. But she is deeply disappointed in the decision to scrap the house’s mission and repopulate the dorm.

Sahin agrees, arguing everyone should mourn the loss of Senior House. “MIT is not just a part of our identity as alumni, it’s a part of the collective cultural identity of anyone who loves the things MIT symbolizes: love of science, love of collaboration, love of individuality and of creativity.”

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