MIT’s unique academic rigor is enabled by an undergraduate residential system which is idiosyncratic to MIT, and that is good.

I was asked by some of our students to contribute my point of view to the essays being assembled in this collection. The issue at hand is so much more important to MIT’s success than most of my academic and administrative colleagues seem to understand that I feel compelled to comply with this request. In fact, I would have liked to have spent an extended effort on this essay, collecting my thoughts into a brief but compelling argument of only a few paragraphs in length. Alas, time is against me. With apologies, I have made no attempt to be brief.

I want to add my voice to that of the other writers in this collection in expressing my conviction that MIT’s undergraduate residential system is one of the core elements that contributes to our success as a school. However, I must also express agreement with those writers who point out that the residential system only contributes positively to MIT when it is operating according to certain values — like personal choice, a sense of ownership by the residents, and academic community governance — which our students seem to intuitively understand, but which are being eroded by a series of policy changes that appear to be attempting to bring MIT’s idiosyncratic system more in line with what would be more broadly recognized as modern best practices in the field of student life administration. I have no doubt that this gradual elimination of the natural support system which enabled MIT’s highly demanding academic culture in years past, together with the more recent attempts to replace it with a more managed and controllable system, are the principal causes for the escalation of student stress in unhealthy directions that we have all observed in recent years, and which has been extensively discussed in the news media both inside and out of MIT. To enable their success under the rigors of our academics, we need our students to feel like their living group at MIT is their home, not a temporary shelter owned by an organization hostile to their interests. When we take action to undermine that sense of the home, we insert new sources of stress into the community which carry no educational merit.

As of this writing at the start of the 2014 academic year, I am starting my twentieth year at MIT. I’ve been an undergraduate student, a graduate student, an administrator of various sorts, and part of the academic teaching staff. There have been times when I’ve been involved in pushing forward important issues in various parts of our community, getting deep in the practical details of policy and procedure. At other times I’ve stepped back and let others take the lead, keeping my attention on my own immediate work and contenting myself with scratching my head when a decision coming down the pipe makes little apparent sense, hoping that the colleagues we’re trusting with these decisions know what they’re doing.

When I look broadly at all the things MIT does — not just as a school and community, but also as a research institution with all the associated business functions required to administer the professional needs of 23,000 people — and compare them with the way things are done by our colleagues at other institutions, sometimes I see that we do things better, sometimes not. I’m sure you have your own observations in this regard. Often times we just do things differently, resulting in no end of entertaining conversations with baffled colleagues who perform ostensibly identical jobs at other institutions, especially administrative professionals in the for-profit private sector (sometimes called “the real world”). At some level, different institutions with different goals should of course do things differently in order to maximize the alignment of their business functions with their differing community values. So, difference is to be expected.

Sometimes we do things the same as everyone else, and that can be good. For example, academic accredidations and 501(c)(3) status are routine issues for which originality of execution is not called for. On the other hand, the worst case comparisons I see with other institutions are those involving practices which we share with a variety of colleagues and which aren’t really working out well for any of us, but are just entrenched as expedient mediocrity, accepted as the standard for the field. Even worse than these worst cases are when an individual within an institution actively seeks out such mediocrity so as to be recognized and rewarded by his professional peers as a maven of convention. This is the hallmark of a second-rate researcher — the opposite of innovation — but it seems to be a path to success in some other fields.

MIT’s residential system is one of the better things we do. Across the years, there has always been pressure from members of the MIT community whose interpretation of our community values differs from that of our students and faculty to bring the residential system and other aspects of student life under progressively tighter administrative control, leaving its character less and less in the hands of the academic community. Nevertheless, the core ideas of our residential system remain intact, vital, and critical to the practical execution of our educational mission. These core ideas are (1) allowing students to naturally form the hierarchy of social structures — in the form of living groups, entries, halls, suites, and so forth — they need to support each other and then (2) giving each individual the freedom to choose where they will settle themselves within this landscape.

All this remains intact despite a string of transient phases when the aforementioned pressures have been acquiesced to by various members of the senior academic leadership, presumably during times when it was determined that the leadership’s attention was more pressingly needed in managing MIT’s interaction with the external world, such that the stewardship of the student community would best be delegated to non-academic student life professionals. In retrospect, it is easy to see why these decisions were made, but again in retrospect, it is also easy to see that the option to delegate faculty and student responsibility for community leadership to student life professionals has been overused. This is a genie which should be returned to its bottle.

Other essays in this collection express the oft-raised concern that somewhere between the assistant deans in the Division of Student Life and the MIT President, there is a secret plan to eliminate all that is interesting and special from MIT student culture, or at least everything that deviates from “normal”. The details of these conspiracy scenarios don’t hold up under scrutiny. I’ve seen enough of MIT to understand the old adage that advises against attributing to malice that which has certain other explanations. However, I’ve also met a few isolated colleagues in academic and student life administration at MIT whose behavior genuinely bolsters those concerns. It’s inevitable that some of the people we hire to keep the academic community running behind the scenes will see our students solely as a resource to advance their career, service their ego, or bandage their insecurities. I believe we have to take this reality as a design constraint, and place bounds on the authority and roles of our valued non-academic professional colleagues so that their contributions to our community remain valuable. Without such bounds in place, the inevitable existence of a few bad eggs renders the whole system unstable to a toxic culture of paternalism in which inappropriate intrusions into the social engineering of student life are seen as an acceptable means of doing business instead of as an instrument of last resort.

You’ve likely heard and read numerous testimonials as to how living groups which serve as a home instead of simply as a dormitory have been critical to the academic and future career success of countless MIT students over the decades, and how destructive to that sense of home an awkwardly implemented policy regarding dining, building security, live-in administrators, incoming student orientation, restrictions to housing choice, social gathering registration systems, group fund spending restrictions, bans or vetoes on cosmetic alterations, moratoriums on banners and flags, renovations, cleaning and maintenance policies, prioritization of students versus conference attendees in summer housing, and other issues can be. Now, our students are a diverse population, so we should admit that there is likely to be a fraction of our students body for whom — despite all that has been said on this issue — a dormitory which carries the distinct feeling of belonging to an institution instead of to its residents (as is overwhelmingly the norm across US universities) is actually the more ideal situation. For these students, a managed community provides a welcome reduction to the bewildering dimensionality of the space of options in their social education at MIT, enabling a more undivided focus on classroom and textbook learning. I have certainly met several such students in my decades here, as I’m sure you have, and I would guess that they are perhaps 20–30% of the undergraduate population. I hope that you, like me, do not enjoy teaching these students. In an ideal world, the Office of Admissions would be able to identify these students and determine that despite their high academic credentials, they would be best served by offers of admission from more conventional universities. I, by far, prefer students who think for themselves and who don’t do what they are told. I prefer the students that we hold up as the image of an MIT student in our recruiting material. Most of our students prefer that too, because that’s what we sold them on to get them here in the first place.

Let me focus for a moment on the so-called East Side living groups, especially my old home of Senior House. This is the comfort zone for my favorite students, who are not just unconventional thinkers, but also genuinely edgy and perhaps even downright funky. Given the choice, this where students will end up when they have some natural affinity for counterculture, or subculture, or who just find mainstream culture stressful, uncomfortable, or irrelevant. It’s not what every MIT student wants, but I have to say, it’s want I would want for every MIT student. To me, these are the people that really make MIT what it is, but I admit that I’m digressing into personal preference now. To be fair, it’s not all a freak show: there are a diverse array of perfectly normal people mixed in, as well, who are in fact the majority. Because of the live-and-let-live ethos, the East Side living groups have been MIT’s traditional home not just for the punks, goths, metalheads, all variety of artists, hackers, makers and so forth, but also for all students seeking a safe haven away from the threats and the distractions of social ridicule. Thus, in places like Senior House, one could sometimes find groups of LGBT students and devoted Christians living side by side, in defiance of stereotypes, supporting each other’s need to just be themselves. (I am unaware if the religious groups I knew of as a student remain cloistered at Senior House nowadays, but my suspicion is that they have achieved a wider acceptance throughout campus in the past 20 years.)

The point of all this is not just in trying to meet some liberal ideal of tolerance and diversity, but also the more practical goal of generating a trusted peer network in a home environment that enables each student to engage the highest level of challenges available at MIT. Try to imagine a housing system designed for optimum manageability by student life professionals which also achieves this goal of intellectual, emotional, and academic support. Try to imagine the impossible job of meeting every undergraduate’s support needs via academic advisors and counselors if these functions were no longer to be fulfilled by the complex social networks in the living groups. There are many universities where the performance of such a managed system would be perfectly adequate, but at MIT we place much more rigorous demands on our students, and they need a support system as robust as themselves, beyond what a conventional university housing system could provide.

This doesn’t mean that there’s no place at MIT for students who would be more comfortable as temporary clients of a residence system rather than central elements of the system itself. I believe it would be eminently reasonable for the Division of Student Life to develop a tiered management system where some living groups opt for a conventional university experience, with RAs roaming monochrome hallways searching for rule violators, while students oscillate between timing the security guard’s route so that they can sneak a keg up the stairwell on one hand and wondering what they will have served to them for breakfast in the morning on the other, accepting the stereotypical but normalized polarization of the community into a paternalized role for the institution and a infantilized role for the student. Perhaps some students would do their best work that way. The majority of the living group communities, however, would opt for a relationship with the Division of Student Life which treats students the way we would expect to be treated, as residential junior colleagues living alongside more senior colleagues like graduate resident tutors, faculty housemasters, and other academic fellows. This is the model that best serves the ideal MIT student.

It has been said about many aspects of student life policy that while we anguish over details and consequences, ultimately MIT students function at such an impressively high level that they will do well no matter what mistakes we might make. In many cases, this is true. The residential system should be handled more carefully, however, because it is at present the bottleneck on the excellence of the student body as a whole. If we were to transplant all MIT undergrads into a residence system optimized for a typical second-tier university whose core mission placed service to a broad spectrum of intellectual ability above service to individual excellence, then even these amazing students — the best in the world — would simply not be able to perform at the level demanded by the MIT faculty. They would not be able engage each other in the kind of unstructured learning that leads to the most essential insights. They would not be able to bond with compatriots in a natural way and recuperate their mental energies before the next round of challenges from the faculty. They would not form the social connections which span many student generations, routinely evolving into professional connections, and which are one of the basic currencies of our present innovation economy.

I’ve heard the sentiment sincerely expressed by administrative colleagues that it is almost as if the residential communities exist outside of MIT. I hope you can see that this is the opposite of the truth. For our undergraduates, the residential communities are MIT — or at least the vessels through which their connection to the rest of MIT flows — and the sentiment expressed above only indicates that it is the speaker who is outside of MIT. Please listen to our students on this issue and apply a healthy skepticism to any of our colleagues who claim to know better.

2 thoughts on “MIT’s unique academic rigor is enabled by an undergraduate residential system which is idiosyncratic to MIT, and that is good.

  1. One of my proudest academic moments was in junior lab when Sean walked up to me and my jlab partner and said, “Oh, You two!”

    We were working on the Compton scattering and attenuation experiment and had decided to measure the attenuation of lead (which isn’t a standard material you measure in the setup). We were getting a signal when everything had been blocked, and discovered that another group had left a radiation source on the table (destroying our data for the day). We called over Sean to take a look before we figured out what exactly was happening, and that’s when he made that comment.

    We had been doing a lot of unusual things with the lab setups, and by Sean’s comment, I realized we had gained a reputation for being unconventional and creative with our work. I was never more honored.

  2. Hahaha “With apologies, I have made no attempt to be brief”, I am definitely going to steal that line!

    Sean, this is one of the best things I’ve ever read about the MIT housing system, this deserves to be put into the orientation packet for new administrators, and then periodically resent to them with little pieces here and there updated to reflect the present day. Zoz mentioned that he thought very highly of your post, so I knew I was looking forward to reading it but this exceeded even my wildest expectation. Thanks for writing this.

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