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.