Document revision:
Oct 1, 1999 * Jeff Roberts * First draft.
Oct 5, 1999 * Chris Beland * Added section numbers. Revisions in green to Community and Home sections. Deleted text in red italics.
More revisions coming soon from Jeremy Sher.
Oct 7, 1999 * Jake Parrott * Copy-edit.

3. Fundamental Objectives of the MIT Residence System


3.1 Why have these objectives been created?

The MIT residence system exists by virtue of itself. When MIT was founded, students came from the Boston area and commuted to school. A residence system was never planned nor was it formally established, it was simply the result of different fraternities and other independent MIT-related residences being established in the Boston area, followed by the move of the Institute itself and the subsequent addition of MIT-owned residences. The growth of the system was due to the establishment of individual buildings, while the system itself was never established with specific objectives in mind. We feel that when a new residence system is established, it should be established based on some fundamental objectives so that it can evolve with specific goals in mind.

We feel that there are three fundamental objectives which should describe the purpose of the MIT residence system. The objectives are based on what we feel are the most important resources provided by the current residence system as well as what we feel are the most important resources lacking of the current residence system. They are also philosophical and interpretive, and so might lead to different conclusions under different circumstances. We have given each of these objectives a one-word description, and in the following section we describe the philosophy underlying each objectives and give some examples of the more specific goals which we feel to be directly implied from each objective.

We have decided to refer to the three fundamental objectives of the MIT residence system as House, Home, and Community, always listed in that order.

3.2 What are the objectives?

3.2.1 House

Philosophy: The first, and perhaps most easily overlooked, fundamental objective of the residence system is to provide students with housing. This includes the basic requirements of a particular place to live, along with the space to sleep, to "put stuff," to read, to work, and even to entertain guests. Housing provides students with personal space, which, however small, is necessary for emotional well-being. Essentially, all aspects of a student's physical survival and comfort are described by this objective. Though this is a very simple objective, it is a very important one. If there is not adequate housing for students at MIT, it makes the MIT residence system that much weaker. The very existence of the system depends on its ability to provide all students with a place to live.

Implied Goals: The major implied goal to be taken from this fundamental objective is that the MIT residence system should house as much of its student population as possible. It is clear to us that if the MIT housing system housed fewer students than it could, it would be a step backwards toward the days when MIT had no residence system at all. The system thus becomes even less valuable than it is now. One must keep in mind that the guarantee of four years of housing for undergraduates is one of the strongest aspects of the residence system as it currently exists. Another implied goal derived directly from this is that if the current amount of housing is inadequate to house the student population, MIT should take measures to ensure that it becomes so.

3.2.2 Home

Philosophy: The second fundamental objective of the residence system is to provide students with a home. Though this objective is not necessarily a unique feature of the MIT residence system, we feel it is an especially important objective at MIT for multiple reasons. One is that a very large portion of the student population of MIT comes from outside the area, many even coming from other countries. With so many students moving very far away from home, often with little chance of their being able to travel back on a regular basis, it is important for students to establish a "second home" at MIT as opposed to just "temporary accommodations". Therefore a student's living environment must be as comfortable and welcoming as possible. Another reason is that MIT is very academically challenging, and when things get stressful for a student it is important for the student to receive personal support. We feel that the best immediate support a student can get is from those who live nearby, and therefore a friendly relationship with one's living community can be necessary to a student's surviving the academic rigor of the Institute. Support could come in the form of volunteer tutoring (which at MIT can be just as common and useful as organized tutoring), or even just in the form of a friend to talk to or a group of people in which one feels welcome. A friendly living environment, which is what we feel describes a "home", is one of the most treasured aspects of the MIT housing system as it now stands.

Implied Goals: One goal implied by this objective is that students should be able to exercise some choice in where they live. Different students may have different needs with regard to their living environments, and it is therefore possible that students may feel more comfortable in one living environment than another, or that a particular student might not feel comfortable at all in a particular living environment. The objective of providing a home implies that a student's comfort should be maximized, and so not only is it important for students to have a wide range of options from which to choose, it is also important that students know as much as possible about each of their options before making their decisions. Another goal is the proper maintenance of current and future facilities. A dangerous or decaying infrastructure is not very supportive of student needs.

3.2.3 Community

Philosophy: The Presidential Task Force on Student Life and Learning establishes [1] the following working definition of "community":

"Community" refers to students, faculty, staff, and alumni who have come together on campus for the common purpose of developing the qualities that define the educated individual....informal personal interaction can be considered the life of the "community": student activities, casual social get-togethers, cultural events, and daily encounters with friends and colleagues are a few general categories of such interaction.

Looking at the social dynamics of Institute from afar, it seems clear that the greater "MIT community" is made up of a wide diversity of smaller communities - everything from living groups to academic departments, from laboratory teams to student activities. The informal action described by the Task Force occurs both within these group boundaries, and in a cross-group fashion. The overlapping membership and activities of these groups contributes to inter-community interaction, but many times this intermingling is weak, and it is usually unplanned.

Implied Goals: In general, the goal of residence system reform, with respect to community, is to increase interaction among students, faculty, staff, administration, and alumni, both intra- and inter-category. But not just any interaction will do. In the words of the Task Force, the purpose of "professional, recreational, and social interaction" is to "build a culture of discovery and learning that distinguishes MIT from other universities." Given the structure of MIT's social patchwork, two distinct sub-goals become obvious. One is to improve the strength of the "community-in-the-large" through campus-wide events and programs. The other is to intentionally encourage mixing and overlap between existing "communities-in-the-small" in ways which preserve the valuable intra-group interactions those communities foster.

Relevance to Educational Mission: The Task Force further states[1]:

If the goal of an MIT education is to develop the elements of reason, knowledge, and wisdom that characterize the educated individual, MIT cannot rely on structured learning alone. In the past, MIT has drawn upon the research university model of Von Humboldt, who proposed educating students by exploiting the informal interaction between research and academic study. In the future, the third element of the triad -- community -- will play a larger educational role.

Skills for leadership, communication, and consensus-building; the ability to think critically about societal issues; and the broadening of intimate experience with cultural and intellectual diversity are all important components of an MIT education. Some of these elements might be provided by the residence system, either through planned activities, or through the experiences students have which are facilitated by the nature of the physical and social structures they inhabit. Note that not all of the goals encapsulated by the broadly defined "third pillar" of the academic triad might be accomplished in the residence and dining systems alone. Student activities, athletics, academic societies, campus-wide programming, and supportive academic and research experiences also have strong roles to play in this area.

Philosophy: The final fundamental objective of the residence system is to support the concept of an MIT community. This support has never been a particularly strong aspect of the residence system, and is therefore one of the most heavily addressed aspects of recent redesign efforts. The Task Force Report on Student Life and Learning and related documents have recently brought the concept of community to the attention of the Institute. We shall briefly explain the basic concept of community, though these documents do a much better and more detailed job of describing it.
The residence system as it stands is a collection of separate dormitories and independent living groups, all of which are in essence independent from each other. These are also very independent from the larger Institute, the faculty and administrators who interact little if at all with the students' lives outside the classroom. Community is an ideal very different from what exists currently. Community means that there is more social interaction among students of all different living environments and more influence of faculty members in the lives of students (beyond the typical influence of making their lives more difficult by assigning homework). We feel that interacting with many different people with many different perspectives on life is an important part of the MIT experience. True learning, as we see it, is more than simply study, problem sets and lab work. Community is also important because it provides to the faculty, administration and staff of MIT as well as its students.
Implied Goals: Since one can see that community is not yet fully provided to students or faculty, one should conclude that the only major goal implied by this objective is the creation of an MIT community. There are conceivably many ways this creation could be done, some of which are described clearly in the Task Force Report and are reiterated in the design section of this proposal. Therefore any specific goals which are implied by this objective have been left to the remainder of this document.

3.3 What makes these objectives valuable to MIT?

We have explained how these fundamental objectives are important to MIT students, and thus should be considered important to MIT. But the Institute should also recognize the educational value in having a residence system founded on these objectives. First of all, the objective of providing housing has educational value by allowing students to live close to where they study, making education more accessible to students, as well as by saving students from the worry of having to live on their own, a worry which might force students to spend more of their time concentrating on things other that their education. There is educational value in having a roof over one's head. A home also has educational value, not only by providing the support students need to survive a rigorous academic discipline but also by allowing people the opportunity to learn from each other. The educational value of a community similarly lies in the tendency of a wide range of students, faculty, and others from all corners of MIT to interact and learn from each other. True education, as stated before, is not only to be found in books; it is to be found in life. The educational value of a residence system can make it a very important asset to a University.

3.4 How do these objectives interact with each other?

When thinking of these objectives as a set, it is important to recognize several things about them. First, one notices that they are mutually supportive in many respects. Without adequate housing, it would be impossible for students to create the kinds of homes they would need. Also, if there aren't any students living "at MIT" (in dorms or FSILGs), there could be no such thing as an MIT community. In the other direction, the benefits of an MIT community would emphasize the need for housing, as it has pushed for the construction of a new dormitory. Also the strength and support of a home would support the call for new facilities and improvements to the physical aspects of housing, as is the case when dormitories lobby for weight rooms and dining halls and FSILGs install such facilities themselves.

One must also recognize that there are ways in which the three can be mutually exclusive. For instance, one might conclude that to support the house objective it would make sense to build bigger dormitories. On the other hand, larger buildings might reduce the closeness of students within a living environment and detract from the home objective. One of the most important conflicts tends to be that between home and community. Promoting interaction among different living groups becomes difficult if students rely on constant interaction within their own living groups. Also, when faculty members interact with students within their living groups, it can be seen by some as the academic part of the Institute encroaching on the "sanctuary" of a student's home. However, since we recognize the equal importance of home and community, we cannot simply say that the preservation of one objective demands the rejection of the other. Our goal in this situation is to strike a balance between the two, and to provide that the promotion of one objective does not go so far as to undermine the importance of another.

One may also recognize certain mechanisms which tend to support all three objectives. For instance, common dining space provides students with physical sustenance (which is related to the "house" function), provides living environments with space in which to meet and socialize, and a place for members of the larger community to come together. In a different way, FSILGs also support all three objectives by providing additional rooms to the system, providing close living environments in which students to receive support, and broadening the MIT community as a whole. Thus the three objectives are very closely related and can sometimes be treated as one.

However, there are also mechanisms which have somewhat mixed effects on the three goals. Crowding is an especially enigmatic mechanism. On one hand, it provides more places for students to live, thus promoting the house objective. But it also decreases each student's personal space, seemingly detracting from the house objective. From a different perspective, one might think that crowding makes students less comfortable, thus detracting from the home objective. Alternatively one might think that it creates closer relationships between students by forcing them to live closer to each other, thus supporting the home objective. So the effect of mechanisms in meeting objectives are not always clear-cut, and sometimes one must weigh the benefits and costs of a mechanism to decide to what degree it should be implemented. In the case of crowding, one cannot simply say it is bad and discard it nor can one say it is good and implement it universally, one must try to find the way it can benefit the objectives of the system the most while detracting from them as little as possible.

3.5 How do the objectives relate to the design?

These objectives have been set forth as a means of evaluating the mechanisms proposed in the following design and of recognizing the benefits and problems they might create for the residence system. Most any idea which might be implemented within the system can be thought of in terms of how it influences house, home and community. The ultimate goal of this design is to maximize the achievement of all three goals together while maintaining a level of balance among them, that is not allowing one objective to become overemphasized at any great cost of another. Mechanisms which equally support one or more of the objectives are ideal. However, in areas where trade-offs must be made between certain objectives, we have tried to figure out how to provide the optimal balance among the three. In addition to this, we recognize that in the real world there is no way of telling whether a proposed system is "perfect". However, we feel that these objectives can be used as a guideline in comparing different concepts of how the residence system should function. Therefore they might be used to decide whether one of two or more options is best. So one should always have these primary objectives in mind when evaluating the mechanisms given in the design and should use them as a way of understanding their purpose.


  1. (Citation to PTFSLL report, section 4.1.)