The walls of Senior House, a dorm on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s campus, are not composed of lifeless, cream-colored cinder blocks. Instead, they ooze passion and raw emotion, providing a concrete canvas for residents’ renderings of cartoon characters, inspirational phrases, and internal dialogues. The murals reflect the community of students who knew Senior House not just as a place to sleep, but also as a place to call home.
But the dorm, which has been housing MIT students for the last century or so, is about to become a different kind of home—one, perhaps, where the murals will revert back to nondescript walls. Last year, MIT administrators released data showing just 60 percent of Senior House residents graduated in four years. Campus-wide, the four-year graduation rate is 84 percent. Illegal drug usage among residents was also cause for concern. “What this is all about is the safety of our students in the residential communities,” MIT Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart told me. “We have an obligation to provide students with a safe, healthy living environment and what we are up against right now is an unhealthy dorm culture that has crossed dangerous lines.”
In response, the school launched a turnaround process slated to last the entire 2016-17 school year and convened a coalition of faculty, administrators, and students who met regularly to brainstorm strategies for stymieing the problematic behavior. But for reasons that vary depending on whom you ask, the initiative failed to come up with a solution. The upshot: Current Senior House residents were recently notified that they have to move out. Non-freshmen who wish to live in the building, which will reopen under the name “Pilot 2021” in the fall, will go through a selective application process to secure a bed. MIT administrators will act as architects of the new student community, vetting potential residents and selecting those whom they believe embody the goals of the failed turnaround effort. Dorms are often crucial to students’ college experience—especially when halls have storied traditions like Senior House—but Pilot 2021 will essentially be starting from scratch.
Barnhart said that the data, particularly the low graduation rates, spurred the turnaround initiative, but not the decision to oust residents from the dorm for good. Pilot 2021—whose founding principles are career exploration, wellness, and food—effectively serves as a stopgap that the administration hopes will eventually evolve into a new community with its own unique culture. In other words, something like Senior House sans the academic struggles and drugs.
The move has proven controversial within the MIT community. Senior House supporters staged a sleep-in outside the president’s office to protest the decision. The MIT subreddit exploded with posts lamenting the news, with one thread describing itself as a “eulogy.” At SaveSeniorHouse.mit.edu, visitors can learn more about the dorm’s history, the administration’s “transgressions,” and upcoming events; the website even has a “press kit” tab where interested journalists can peruse previous press coverage.
The outrage is hardly surprising: For decades, Senior House was a hub of counter-culture on a campus whose students are often stereotyped as being antisocial and work-obsessed—a school where the median family income is $137,400 and where nearly a third of attendees come from the top 5 percent of Americans in terms of wealth. Senior House was known for housing many low-income, first-generation, and non-white students. Additionally, 40 percent of the Senior House community identified as LGBT, according to university data from the 2015-16 school year. Studies have shown that low-income students are less likely to graduate from college on time, and drug usage in general is also higher among the LGBT population than it is among those who don’t identify as LGBT.
The community, according to those who have lived in the building, was monumental in shaping and enhancing their college experiences. Charisse L’Pree, who graduated from MIT in 2003 and is now an assistant professor at Syracuse University, spoke fondly of Senior House’s work-hard, play-hard mentality, and said her fellow residents were incredibly supportive throughout difficult times in her life. An incoming freshman who had hoped to live in Senior House said the dorm’s diversity and dedication to individuality were especially compelling. To Abraham Quintero, who received his bachelor’s degree from MIT in the spring and lived in Senior House during the turnaround process, the community exemplified the precise values that the university purports to promote. That, he said, made the decision to alter the building all the more devastating.
“I think MIT carries a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they promote having this quirky culture full of interesting characters ... And then on the other hand, they are trying to stomp out the communities that matter most to these people,” Quintero said. “While MIT likes to advertise itself as the hacker culture and having all these hacks, at the same time, they’re waging war on the communities that are making those things happen and that are making MIT special.”
In response to a question about students and alumni who feel their community is being disbanded, Barnhart emphasized that the administration, faculty, and staff had thought the turnaround process was going well. It was “especially difficult,” she said, to learn not everyone was on the same page. “What we asked for was the goodwill of the students in working with us. What we learned was collectively, the community didn’t have the same goals as we did in creating a safe environment,” Barnhart told me. “We worked really hard with the community. We invested deeply in this effort. We were committed to it.”
To be sure, Senior House residents acknowledged that illegal drug use was prevalent in the dorm. L’Pree, however, suggested that Senior House wasn’t unique in that respect—rather, its residents were simply more willing than students elsewhere on campus to talk about drug use and work through those problems collectively. That openness, according to L’Pree, does not necessarily indicate a higher risk.
But the debate surrounding Senior House is far more than an exercise in student-administration relations. (Sources on both sides said they worked together throughout the turnaround process despite its negative end results.) Administrators appear stuck between a rock and a hard place, having ostensibly done their due diligence to work with students to remedy the complex situation. The experiences at Senior House offer a vivid glimpse into the powerful role of administrators play in cultivating college students’ non-academic experiences and in shaping on-campus communities. Whether those communities provide refuge for students seeking genuine connection remains to be seen.