Is MIT a Good Place to Live?
The University Campus as a Residential Environment

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  • Chapter 2. Historical Overview of Residence at MIT and Other Universities
    2.1 Pre-American University Residence
    2.2 The Early American Colleges
    2.3 The University Movement
    2.4 Fraternity Housing
    2.5 Campus Planning and the Residence Hall Tradition
    2.6 The House System
    2.7 MIT Planning 1950-1990
    2.8 MIT Planning 1990-present
    2.9 Continuing Themes and Current Implications


    2.1 Pre-American University Residence

    The roots of the modern American university, and the university's residential function, are found in the European universities of the middle ages. Historical records show that beginning in the 12th century, universities in western European cities were emerging, growing, and enrolling students from diverse regions of the continent (Adelman p. 15). Young students traveling from afar to study would have to find accommodations in boarding houses or apartments within the city. The first known university-oriented residential groups were called ``Nations''. These were owned or rented residences that were operated by students, independent from the university. Each Nation was typically intended to house students from a particular regional area (hence the name). Howard Adelman argues that the primary reason for students to establish these residences was that, as aliens, many students did not have legal rights. ``Using their commercial value to the city as a weapon, the students banded together in Nations to create an artificial citizenry and through group action worked for the right of jurisdiction over their own members.'' (Adelman p. 15)

    Following the development of Nations was the establishment of the residential college model, which became particularly important in the English university system. Residential colleges were administratively owned and operated, though students did play a large role in their operation, and members came from all regional backgrounds. Adelman (p. 20) argues that the primary reason for the creation of residential colleges was to provide housing for poor students, and that later the residential colleges became important as a mechanism for control and discipline of the student body. In addition, the college dining hall could serve as a venue for lectures, thus avoiding the cost of renting space in the city. The Universities at Oxford and Cambridge in England began the tradition of housing faculty in the colleges along with students and holding lectures within college dining halls (Adelman p. 21). This resulted in the college taking on the role of an integrated residential and educational facility. Currently, the Universities at Oxford and Cambridge each contain many residential colleges, which serve as the setting for both residence and education.

    2.2 The Early American Colleges

    Early American colleges were designed to mimic the colleges at Oxford and Cambridge in England. They were institutions intended to provide a joint living and learning experience for students and faculty. However, because the population of the colonies was so dispersed and the demand was not particularly high, colleges were established individually across the continent instead of being clustered around single large universities (Dober p. 13). In addition, because students tended to be young (in their mid-teens) and colleges tended to be far away from their homes, the American residential colleges took on an ``in loco parentis'' function in supervising their students' behavior (Frederiksen p. 168).

    Residences were a central element in the development of early American college campuses. However, American colleges had significantly smaller resources than English colleges, which resulted in differences between the design of American and English college campuses. For example, Harvard College, founded in 1638 as the first American college, originally wanted to house its entire faculty and student population within an interconnected campus complex. However, due to insufficient funds, the College ultimately developed its campus over time, building by building, leading to the distinctive form of "Harvard Yard" seen today. (Dober p. 14)

    Later American campuses also moved away from the interconnected building scheme of English campuses, but the residential function still played a central role. The 1813 plan for Union College consisted of two buildings for housing students and faculty along either side of a ``court of honor'' (Dober p. 20). Thomas Jefferson's plan for the University of Virginia campus in 1818, conceived on the model of the ``academical village'', involved a central court surrounded by a U-shaped series of interconnected classroom buildings, within which were apartments for professors and their families, and directly behind which were dormitories for students. According to a Commissioners' report at the time, the reasons for this arrangement included: ``greater security against fire and infection; tranquility and comfort to the professors and their families thus insulated; retirement to the students; and the admission of enlargement to any degree to which the institution may extend in future times.'' (Dober p. 21) On these campuses, as was the case with Harvard and most other colleges, the basic dormitory unit was a small cluster housing two to four students, intended to allow students to focus on their studies while allowing for close supervision by adults (Dober p. 14, 22). On some campuses, housing and classrooms even shared the same building (Dober p. 121).

    The inclusion of housing as a central element to college campuses continued until the middle of the 19th century. However, with students and faculty living in close proximity and with faculty assuming disciplinary responsibilities over students, conflicts arose which compromised order and even safety within the colleges. As Adelman (p. 31) describes: ``At Princeton in 1802, the students burned down Nassau Hall, the only college building, and in 1814 almost wrecked the hall again by exploding two pounds of gun-powder in a corridor. At Yale in 1828, poor food triggered off the `Bread and Butter Rebellion', and in 1830, riots followed what has come to be known as the `Conic Section Rebellion'. At Harvard, George Bancroft, who became one of America's most famous historians, lost an eye while attempting to quell a riot while another tutor bore a lifelong limp as a memento of his encounter.'' As an example of an even more serious case, ``In one violent scene at the University of Virginia, a professor was killed and armed constables had to be brought in to put down the disorder'' (Dober p. 120).

    Many college administrators in the middle of the 19th century believed that such problems were occurring because the residential college lifestyle did not encourage responsible behavior among students. President Tappan of Michigan commented, ``By withdrawing young men from the influence of domestic circles and forming them into a separate community, they are often prone to fall into disorderly conduct'' (Frederiksen p. 169). This sentiment would lead to a new phase in university residential planning in the latter half of the 19th century.

    2.3 The University Movement

    This new phase in residential planning was based on the model used by German universities at the time. While the two large English universities had been successful in developing a residential college system throughout the middle ages, German universities had failed. Instead, a large number of smaller universities were established across a large number of cities. Because these universities were smaller and tended to draw students who resided within the region, university housing for students was considered unnecessary and thus was not developed. (Adelman p. 27)

    As noted above, many American college administrators were observing problems within college housing and began to feel that the residential college system, as applied in American universities, was not contributing positively to the student or faculty experience. These administrators included President Tappan of Michigan, as well as the presidents of Brown University, Columbia University, and Harvard (Frederiksen p. 169). As a result of this trend, Adelman (p. 31-32) argues that ``The German tradition of not providing residences became the new vogue, a vogue reinforced by large numbers of scholars returning from post graduate studies in Germany.''

    Starting in around 1860, universities moved away from including housing as a central element of the campus. In the older colleges, as the housing stock deteriorated in quality, ``the majority of dormitories were converted into classrooms or demolished if the state of disrepair had gone too far'' (Adelman p. 31). Moreover, after the Civil War, the land-grant movement initiated by the Morrill Acts spurred the formation of many new public universities, particularly in the West, and many of these were developed without housing systems altogether (Frederiksen p. 169).

    This movement away from residence also paralleled broader changes in university education. Since the founding of Harvard University, which was intended to prepare students to become clergymen, lawyers and other professionals, the nature of universities had been changing to include the teaching of more scientific and practical skills that would be useful in business and industry. The University of Virginia, noted previously for its campus plan, is best known for its innovative non-religion based curriculum, which incorporated elements of science and technology (Dober p. 21). As the industrial revolution grew in America, universities gradually shifted their focus away from the religion or classics-based curriculum to a more liberal arts-based curriculum including science and the humanities. During this time, universities became increasingly widely attended, and enrollments rose from 70,000 in 1870 to 238,000 in 1900. (Dober p. 31)

    It was during this period that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was founded. First chartered in 1861, MIT began enrolling students after the Civil War in 1865. It was founded by William Barton Rogers, who envisioned an educational institution focused primarily on the teaching of science for application to industry, a type of institution that was already becoming popular in Europe. Rogers and other proponents of such an institution felt that "In New England, and especially in our own Commonwealth, the time has arrived when, as we believe, the interests of Commerce and the Arts, as well as of General Education, call for the most earnest co-operation of intelligent culture with industrial pursuits" (Rogers p. 4).

    The original MIT "campus" was a single building located within the urban fabric of Boston's recently filled Back Bay, and over the next fifty years the Institute simply expanded into other buildings within the area. Known as "Boston Tech", it mainly drew students from around the Boston region, though the number of out-of-state students increased steadily over its first fifty years. MIT did not own or control any housing until it moved to its present Cambridge campus in 1916.

    2.4 Fraternity Housing

    While American universities were moving away from providing their own housing, once again students took the initiative to establish housing independently. This time it was the fraternities and sororities, which had up until that point served as intellectual societies, that began to establish themselves as residential groups in order to provide housing to students living away from home. Across the country, fraternities were becoming increasingly popular because they could provide a higher quality of affordable housing than boarding houses, as well as social connections with other students, and also opportunities for extracurricular activities, such as sports, which were not available before this period (Frederiksen p. 170).

    Reflecting this movement, fraternities emerged as the first model of university housing at MIT. The first fraternities began to appear in the 1880s, and these started to provide housing (rented as blocks of apartment units) in 1886. In that year, there were three fraternities with 39 members, while by 1900 they had grown to eight fraternities with 234 members (Knight). In 1913, shortly after MIT decided to move its campus to Cambridge, 25% of the student body belonged to fraternities and 15% lived in fraternity housing (Committee on Student Housing, 1913: p. 341). Unlike at other universities, the fraternity housing system continued to grow even as MIT developed on-campus housing, such that in 2002, about one-third of MIT undergraduates were living within MIT's 35 fraternities, sororities and independent living groups.

    The anti-residence movement in American universities was not particularly long-lived. Around the end of the 19th century, universities once again began to construct housing at rapid rates. Such construction seemed necessary because universities were drawing more students from outside their immediate region, and these students were facing problems in the private housing market such as overcrowding, poor quality, and high costs (Frederiksen p. 170).

    However, the fraternity housing movement that grew from this anti-residence tradition left an impact on the types of university housing that would follow it. Adelman (p. 32) argues that fraternities ``did inculcate in a number of future academic leaders the unique concept and original American contribution to residence planning of using the residence as a method of producing well-rounded adjustable men for the industrial melting pot of the United States.'' In addition, the increased popularity of extracurricular activities during this time period affected future campus development by encouraging the development of facilities for athletics and recreation (Frederiksen p. 170).

    2.5 Campus Planning and the Residence Hall Tradition

    In the late 19th century, around the time of the landscape designs of the Olmsteds and the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the foundations of 20th century city planning were being formed. Paralleling this larger movement towards city planning was a movement towards comprehensive university campus planning. This movement emphasized the use of site analyses and long-range development strategies, instead of detailed architectural designs for an entire campus (Dober p. 34). The relationship between the city planning movement and campus planning also manifested itself in the adoption of a land use strategy comparable to ``Euclidean zoning'', which involved ``placing like functions together, or separating functions with landscape or topography when they were dissonant'' (Dober p. 34).

    Campuses starting in the late 1800s were being planned to include academic, residential, and recreational facilities that were separated into areas of like function. This is when the residence hall was established as a facility that housed many students but was not as closely integrated with the academic parts of campus as in the early American colleges. Adelman (p. 29) describes the residence hall as ``the apparent compromise between full fledged educational residences and the absence of any institutionally backed residences whatsoever.'' New colleges across the Midwest, as well as new eastern colleges such as Mount Holyoke, Wellesley, Vassar, and Smith were established with such residential facilities (Adelman p. 32).

    In the early 1900s, MIT was becoming increasingly constrained within its land in Boston. In 1912, MIT's leadership took advantage of an opportunity to purchase a large tract of newly-filled land along the bank of the Charles River in Cambridge, the site of an ambitious yet unsuccessful residential real estate venture. Construction began on the new campus in 1913, and the ``New Technology'', as it was known, opened in 1916.

    The ``New Technology'' marked the beginning of MIT's transformation into a different type of institution, particularly with regard to its residential function. The alumni who participated in planning the New Technology were faced with a student body only about half of whom hailed from Massachusetts (Mink and Porter, p. III-2). According to data from the alumni committee assigned to study student housing, in the 1912-1913 academic year, only about 43% of students lived at home with their parents and 15% lived in fraternities, meaning that up to 42% of students were living in apartments or rooming houses in the Boston area. The planners of the New Technology thus decided that it needed to include residential facilities to accommodate those students who did not live at home or in fraternities. (Committee on Student Housing to the Alumni Council, 1913: p. 341)

    The alumni committee recommended that the goal of MIT's new housing should be to ``bring moral and physical healthfulness to the student body,'' and the considerations guiding its planning should include ``Simplicity and economy with attractiveness'' and ``Uniformity or democracy of service with freedom of choice where possible.'' These facilities were not intended to be central to the educational functions of the Institute, as demonstrated in the site planning of the campus. The residential facilities were planned to be built on the eastern side of the campus, along the ``side or rear streets,'' so that they would not ``conflict with the proper planning of other features'' such as the academic buildings. (Committee on Student Housing to the Alumni Council, 1913: pp. 342-343)

    When the New Technology opened in 1916, the residential part of the campus consisted of the Faculty Houses (now called Senior House), a series of six small dormitories contained within a single building partially encircling the president's residence. Across Ames Street from the Faculty Houses was Walker Memorial, a building containing a dining hall and some athletic and recreational facilities. Some distance north of Walker Memorial was the track and athletic field. MIT continued its development of residential uses by constructing and opening the Alumni Houses, a row of three dormitories positioned directly to the north of Walker Memorial, from 1924 to 1927. MIT built another set of three Alumni Houses parallel to this set in 1931, with the intention to continue building residential buildings in the form of ``quads'' with courtyards and to expand the common facilities around Walker Memorial to handle the increasing numbers of students and their evolving dining and recreational needs (Committee on the Dormitory Situation, 1928: p. 415). However, no additional residential facilities were built on that part of campus after 1931. The two Alumni House parallels are now known as the East Campus dormitory.

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    2.6 The House System

    While universities across the country were establishing residential facilities out of apparent necessity, some were rediscovering the value that such facilities could add to the university's educational value and prestige. In the early 20th century, Harvard was developing an extravagant set of residential buildings that were located along the Charles River and were ``convenient to the social clubs along Mt. Auburn Street and the Yard'' (Dober p. 122). This set of housing came to be known as the ``Gold Coast,'' and, by its extravagant displays of wealth, it increased the prestige of the University and prompted some other universities to mimic it (Dober p. 122).

    Also in the early half of the 20th century, administrators at Harvard and other elite private universities took an interest in the educational value of their residential systems. President Abbott Lawrence Lowell of Harvard, reacting in some ways against the extravagance of the ``Gold Coast'', decided to shape the operations of Harvard's housing system to promote goals of social equality and scholarly community. The ``Lawrence House System'', established in 1931 and still used today, involves randomly assigning first-year undergraduates to residences around Harvard Yard. After the first year, students take residence in a particular ``house'' for the following three years. Each house contains facilities for living, dining, study, and recreation, intended to satisfy most of a student's living and educational needs. Shortly after Harvard implemented the house system, Yale implemented a similar system of ``residential colleges''. As with the early American colleges, the ideal of these systems was to integrate the residential and educational experience as at Oxford and Cambridge Universities in England (Dober p. 122). Though Harvard and Yale are proud of their systems, there is debate as to whether they are truly successful in achieving their educational goals. Adelman (p. 32) argues, ``though the facilities were splendid--- indeed lavish--- they never did succeed in integrating the educational and residential functions as had been the case at Oxbridge.''

    Both the ``Gold Coast'' and the ``house system'' influenced the development of MIT's housing at the time. By the late 1920s, MIT was still planning to concentrate its undergraduate housing on the eastern side of its campus. However, it was also considering the future housing needs of its growing graduate student and staff populations. An MIT committee identified the MIT-owned land to the west of Massachusetts Avenue as a suitable site for graduate and staff housing (Committee on the Dormitory Situation, 1928: p. 415). In the 1930s, MIT purchased the Rivercourt Hotel and Bexley Hall apartment building, just across Massachusetts Avenue from the main campus, to serve as housing for graduate students and junior staff, respectively. The Rivercourt, known then as the Graduate House and currently called Ashdown House, was developed to include common spaces and study areas as well as a dining service. MIT's previous dormitories contained only rooms with no common areas, with Walker Memorial intended to serve the students' dining, recreational, and community needs. Its elegant aesthetics, its location along the river, and its interior facilities make the Graduate House seem comparable to the ``house-style'' facilities being developed at Harvard around the same time.

    MIT began to undergo major institutional changes during World War II, as its work for the defense department began to shape the foundation of its future research programs. The War also resulted in development that would set a new direction for the development of the MIT housing system. During the War, most student housing was converted into military barracks. After the War, MIT made use of land it had purchased in the 1920s on the west side of Massachusetts Avenue (most of which is now Briggs Field) to construct wooden housing units for veterans returning to MIT and their families. MIT also decided to expand its undergraduate housing system further and, in doing so, to change its policy on the location of undergraduate housing. It began construction on Baker House in 1947 and completed it in 1949, and converted the Riverside apartments to Burton House (which is now called Burton-Conner) in 1950. Both of these residences were located along Memorial Drive overlooking the Charles River, and both were developed on the ``house plan'' model to include common spaces and facilities such as dining halls, so that educational and living resources would be provided in-house. Figure 2-2 shows the layout of the MIT campus in 1950, highlighting the new research and residential facilities that were added during and just after World War II.

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    The "house plan" model, while focusing on the internal provision of resources to students, also had impacts on larger-scale campus planning. Richard Dober (p. 123) points out that because the house plan provides educational, dining, and recreational facilities in one place, there is more flexibility in where the houses can be sited. He says (p. 123), ``Enlargement of total housing facilities by constructing a new group, and the siting of the groups on a scattered pattern throughout the campus, give maximum opportunity and flexibility for accommodating growth in the total physical plant or reorganization of the campus plan, should new academic alignments be called for.'' On the other hand, scattering residences might have negative impacts on the cohesion of the university residential community at large. Gordon Potter, an MIT undergraduate, notes in his 1951 architecture thesis (p. 6), ``Already the Graduate House, Baker House, and Riverside are strung out to an extent that will make their inclusion in any future M.I.T. Community of the West Campus difficult.''

    Meanwhile, as MIT was developing its housing according to the house model, the fraternity system continued to thrive. In addition, a new housing model emerged in the 1931 with the establishment of Student House, a non-fraternal independent living group. Several more of these cooperative-style independent residences would be established at MIT in the future, mainly from the 1970s onward.

    2.7 MIT Planning 1950-1990

    Following World War II, university enrollments surged across the United States. In order to keep up with this increase, most universities began to develop large quantities of new housing for their students (Frederiksen, p. 172). MIT was in a similar position, as it was facing not only an increasing undergraduate and graduate enrollment, but also an increase in the regional diversity of its student body. While in the 1930s, about 50% of MIT students were originally from Massachusetts, by 1940 this figure had dropped to around 30%, and by 1970 this number was below 15% (Mink and Porter).

    As so much university housing was being developed across the nation, universities needed to plan for where this housing would be located. The housing elements of campus plans, while different for every university, tended to follow some common patterns. Richard Dober (p. 137) explains some of the trends that appeared in American campus housing development in the middle of the century: ``Rather than concentrated housing in a single area, units are being dispersed throughout the campus. ... Single student housing, graduate student housing and married student housing are usually separated from one another, the general opinion being that social and living patterns of each group might be in conflict. ... Generally housing is being kept out of the central campus areas and placed on the periphery. This segregation of land uses assures long-range land reserves for expansion of academic buildings and core facilities such as libraries, unions, and other central structures.''

    As MIT was developing policies to help define its new role as a major center of government-sponsored research as well as education, it was also solidifying its policy on housing. The Committee on Educational Survey (Lewis Committee) in 1949 included as part of MIT's educational mission the provision of housing on campus for students, faculty and staff. This Committee also suggested a campus development strategy that would locate residential and student life facilities only west of Massachusetts Avenue and concentrate academic and research facilities east side of Massachusetts Avenue. Thus, according to the Lewis Committee, the western part of campus would be designed to create ``a warmer atmosphere and more homelike surroundings.'' In 1956, the Committee on Student Housing to the President (Ryer Committee) affirmed this policy of developing undergraduate housing on the west side of campus but also suggested adapting the current residential and recreational facilities on the east side of campus to serve as a graduate student center (later, the intended site of the graduate center was moved to directly behind Kresge Auditorium, but this center was never developed). This Committee also helped to establish a policy that all first-year undergraduates be housed in MIT dormitories, fraternities, or at home with their parents; freshmen could not live in off-campus apartments. With these policies in mind, and anticipating major growth in academic, research and housing activities, MIT created a Planning Office in 1957 to devise and implement an ongoing campus development strategy.

    Frederiksen (p. 172) comments that during this time period, American college residences tended to be built ``to maximize the number of beds constructed for the dollars available, with little or no regard for the quality of students' educational experiences and personal development.'' However, MIT's planners were deliberate in defining the residential experience they were trying to create for students. The development of new undergraduate men's housing was preceded by a study of the faculty Committee on Student Environment, which in 1963 concluded that the best model for new dormitories was the house-entry-suite model. This model was an elaboration on the ``house-plan'' model, in which dining, study, and recreational facilities are included within the building. Each ``house'' would consist of a number of smaller ``entries'' (housing about 30-40 students) with their own set of common facilities, and each ``entry'' would be composed of ``suites'' of about 4-8 student rooms clustered together. Also in support of the ``house-plan'' ideal, the ``Rule Committee'' in 1957 recommended a system of housemasters (faculty-in-residence) and tutors (graduate student advisors) to provide social and educational support within the houses.

    For the location of new undergraduate men's housing, the MIT Planning Office (1965) designated the strip of land along Memorial Drive between Burton House and Westgate. This reflected MIT's desire to provide aesthetically pleasing accommodation for its students and also to protect the playing fields as an important open space resource. A housing site between the Charles River bank and the athletics fields would ``represent the Institute's commitment to residential amenity for its students.'' This plan guided the development of MacGregor House, the New West Campus Houses (New House), and 500 Memorial Drive (Next House) between 1968 and 1981.

    For some time, the strategy of consolidating undergraduate men's housing on the west side of campus included demolishing or adapting MIT's original undergraduate residences on the east side of campus. An MIT Planning Office report from 1968 indicates that East Campus and Senior House should be closed as soon as more housing is available on the west side of campus, making the sites available for ``alternate uses''. This general theme has pervaded MIT's planning strategies up until the 1990s, and has included proposals to change the buildings into academic offices, graduate student housing, or faculty housing. In all of these cases, the proposal has lapsed to due to the infeasibility of dislocating undergraduates at the time, student resistance to the proposal, or a combination of the two. Instead, East Campus and Senior House have each been renovated over time in an attempt to match the characteristics of newly constructed undergraduate housing. Most importantly, in the 1960s, both facilities were reconfigured to include lounges and common spaces and thus better fit the ``house-entry-suite'' model. (MIT Planning Office, 1968)

    In fact, the difficulties in creating and maintaining an undergraduate housing supply to meet demand significantly shaped the housing system MIT has today. Because of housing shortages prior to the construction of MacGregor House, New House, and Next House, MIT had to convert Bexley Hall to undergraduate housing in 1963. Then, to accommodate students during the 1968 renovation of Burton House, MIT acquired an apartment building north of campus on Massachusetts Avenue which later became Random Hall. Housing plans indicated that Bexley and Random should be removed from undergraduate housing along with Senior House and East Campus, as soon as enough new housing was developed on the west side of campus to compensate (MIT Planning Office, 1968). This objective was never achieved, and all four buildings exist as undergraduate residences today.

    MIT expanded its housing in other ways as well. While most undergraduate housing built before the 1970s was directed towards undergraduate men, an increasing number of non-local women students were enrolling at MIT and were in need of housing facilities (Simha p. 32). After maintaining, for several years, a small women's dormitory in a house on Bay State Road in Boston, MIT constructed McCormick Hall between 1963 to 1968 (in two parts) to house women students, eventually only women undergraduates. As still more women enrolled during the 1970s, and as attitudes changed with regards to coeducational housing, the men's undergraduate dormitories gradually began to house both men and women. McCormick has remained an all-women's residence.

    Since World War II, MIT has also acknowledged a need to provide housing for students with families. At the end of World War II, MIT had built ``Westgate'' and ``Westgate West'' on the west end of the present athletic fields, largely comprised of wooden housing units, to accomodate students returning from the war to study and live with their families. By 1959, MIT had demolished those temporary units and by 1963 had reconstructed Westgate, with a tower and a series of low-rise buildings, as a residence for students with families. A second Westgate tower was intended to be built, but when it was finally constructed in 1973, it was as Tang Hall, a dormitory for single graduate students (Simha p. 35). In the mid-1960s, MIT planned the Eastgate project as part of its Sloan School of Management development to house both graduate students and faculty. While originally planned to comprise two high-rise towers, only one tower of Eastgate was constructed in 1967, and its use has mainly been the housing of students with families, not faculty (Simha p. 61-62).

    MIT used a special mechanism to provide housing for faculty and staff as well. In 1946, MIT leased a parcel of land at 100 Memorial Drive to be privately developed with 270 rental apartment units. It was then the policy, as it is now, that when a vacancy arises, MIT faculty and staff members have first priority in renting the unit (Simha p. 10).

    While the primary focus in MIT's development plan has been Institute-owned dormitory housing, independent housing has always been a large component of MIT's housing system. The 1965 Program for Men's Undergraduate Housing states that ``The balance among fraternity, independent and Institute-owned housing facilities is encouraged and is consistent with our educational objectives.'' A 1957 ``Report on Fraternity Housing'' indicates that land on the western part of campus, near Westgate, should be dedicated to the relocation of fraternity houses to Cambridge. The strategy would be to lease to fraternities land on which they could develop new, privately-owned houses.

    In the 1970s, there was a broad movement away from large-scale institutional housing and towards more independent, student-controlled housing. This trend is reflected in Howard Adelman's book The Beds of Academe, in which he argues that institutionally-controlled residence halls have become settings for destructive behavior, while student-organized residences are in comparison ``models of responsibility and concern'' (pp. 9-11). At this time, MIT implemented its land-lease plan by leasing a parcel of west of Burton-Conner to be developed as the Alpha Tau Omega and Kappa Sigma fraternity houses. In addition, several new fraternities and cooperative living groups established themselves along the fringes of campus during the 1970s. The movement towards smaller, independent residences also manifested itself in the development of New House in 1974. New House did not follow the house-entry-suite model but was rather comprised of several independent houses, to provide a range of ``themed'' living options. This led to a new housing model, the ``cultural house'', of which five currently exist at MIT, all within New House.

    One of the more ambitious development projects undertaken by MIT during this time period was the acquisition in 1970 of a large site to the northwest of the campus occupied by the factories of the Simplex Wire and Cable Company, which had decided to move its plant to the suburbs. MIT's initial plan for this site involved developing a large residential center for students, faculty and staff (Northwest Area Development Plan). However, the MIT administration determined in the mid-1970s that such a program would be too difficult to implement financially, and so the plan was changed to develop the land as commercial property with only a small amount of private housing (MIT Office of the Executive Vice President, 1974). Political complications delayed the development of this area until the 1990s, when it was developed as University Park. Presently, the area is mostly developed, though MIT still owns and controls some land in the area that has been reserved for graduate student, faculty, and staff housing.

    MIT's West Campus was meant to be a site not just for housing, but for athletics and recreational facilities as well. MIT's original athletics facilities were located near the East Campus residences, but the new campus development strategy of concentrating academics and research activities on the eastern half of campus necessitated the movement of athletics facilities to the west side of campus. The Briggs Field House was built in 1939, indicating that much of the land MIT had purchased west of Massachusetts Avenue in 1924 would be used as athletics fields. The leaders of the MIT athletics program have been fiercely protective of this space ever since (Simha p. 91). In 1949, MIT converted an existing armory west of Massachusetts Avenue, along with some built additions, into the Rockwell Cage gymnasium and DuPont Athletics Center (Simha p. 90). The Johnson Athletics Center was located adjacent to these facilities in 1981, containing a new skating rink and indoor track (Simha p. 110). This complex is now complemented by the Zesiger Sports and Fitness Center, completed in 2002. The only remaining athletics facilities on the main campus are the Alumni Pool, built in 1939, and the MIT Sailing Pavilion.

    MIT also built the Stratton Student Center in 1965 to replace Walker Memorial as the center of student recreation. It was built to complete the plaza (``Kresge Oval'') between Kresge Auditorium and the MIT Chapel, completed in the early 1950s. The intent of the Student Center was to provide space for student activities and businesses, which at the time included the Technology Store (MIT Bookstore, now the Harvard/MIT Cooperative Society), the Hobby Shop, and an undergraduate library (Simha p. 26). However, the function of the Student Center evolved over time to include more campus dining facilities and private retail establishments, particularly as in-residence dining became unpopular in the 1980s and 1990s (Simha p. 29).

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    2.8 MIT Planning 1990-Present

    Though the development of housing slowed after the conversion of Green Hall to single women's graduate student housing in 1983, MIT continued to develop its policies and campus plans in the late 1980s and 1990s to accommodate future housing expansion. In 1991, MIT solidified a policy that it should provide housing for all undergraduate students who desire it and up to 50% of the graduate student population, along with rental housing near the campus for faculty and staff. The goal would be to ``create a sizeable MIT residential presence within a specified radius of the campus ... in order to enhance the total educational environment'' (MIT Planning Office, 1991). In addition to this housing strategy, MIT continued to consider expanding its recreational facilities, leading to the construction of the Zesiger Sports and Fitness Center in 2002.

    Undergraduate housing underwent some significant planning and policy changes in the 1990s. Since the Memorial Drive housing sites had all been filled, MIT's planners indicated that the location of new undergraduate housing would be along the north side of Vassar Street. This site was chosen because ``Increasing the concentration of residences around the playing fields and other community facilities will serve to strengthen the focus on undergraduate life on the West Campus'' (MIT Planning Office, 1993).

    The most significant housing policy change during this time period was first proposed by the Freshman Housing Committee of the faculty (Potter Committee) in 1989. This committee proposed requiring all freshmen to live in MIT dormitories, no longer allowing them to live in fraternities or independent living groups, as a large proportion of undergraduates chose to do at the time. Students objected to this policy, asserting that it would conflict with MIT's policy of allowing students to exercise choice among a wide diversity of residential options, would threaten the viability of MIT's independent living groups, and would compromise MIT's ability to guarantee on-campus housing for upperclass students given its present amount of housing.

    In 1997, the death of a freshman at an MIT fraternity due to alcohol poisoning triggered a wave of outside scrutiny directed at MIT's housing system, which by then was one of few universities in America that continued to support fraternities as a four-year housing option. This event prompted MIT to re-think its policy of allowing freshmen to live in fraternities and other independent living groups. In 1998, the president of MIT announced a new policy that all first-year students be required to live in dormitories. In order to accommodate this, the first undergraduate dormitory on Vassar Street, Simmons Hall, was constructed and opened in 2002. Due to a combination of legal difficulties in beginning construction, a complicated building design, and the pressure to house all freshmen by a specific deadline, the Simmons Hall project ended up being financially costly for MIT. Additionally, in order to ensure that the new policy would not interfere with MIT's commitment to offer four years of on-campus housing to all undergraduates who request it, MIT adopted a policy in 2002 of allowing some undergraduates, mainly seniors, to live in single graduate student housing.

    MIT's graduate student housing development program progressed throughout the 1990s as well. While it had maintained a goal of providing housing for 50% of its graduate students for many decades, the enormous increase in graduate student enrollment had made achieving this goal difficult. While in the late 1950s MIT was enrolling only around 2,000 graduate students, by 2000 this number was near 6,000.

    New graduate student housing has been located primarily on MIT-owned land in Cambridgeport near University Park. Thus far, the development that has taken place includes the conversion of a former industrial property on Albany Street to Edgerton House in 1990, the conversion of building NW30, formerly an MIT warehouse, to a graduate dormitory (now called ``The Warehouse'') in 2001, and the completion of a new 700-bed graduate dormitory at the corner of Sidney and Pacific Streets in 2002. Additionally, in the mid-1990s, due to the fact that Ashdown House, Senior House, and East Campus were all in need of renovation, an administrative committee (Strategic Housing Planning Committee) proposed that Ashdown be converted into undergraduate housing, to be closer to other undergraduate residences, and that Senior House and East Campus be converted to graduate student housing, in order to establish the long-sought ``graduate student center'' around the Walker Memorial area. This plan met with resistance from both graduate and undergraduate students, and ultimately was not implemented. While Senior House was renovated in 1997 and remained undergraduate housing, Ashdown and East Campus still await renovations.

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    While MIT was planning for its new graduate student housing in the 1990s, it took the rare occasion to study the effects of the location of graduate student housing by conducting some focus group sessions with students living on and off campus. These indicated that the students who preferred to live on campus did so largely to avoid the inconvenience of finding private housing and of having to travel far to get to campus. Secondarily, students viewed on-campus housing as a setting for community interaction. Students living on-campus indicated that they experienced a sense of isolation and insufficient dining choices, and would like a residential environment with better access to public transportation and a better perception of safety. Overall, students indicated a desire to feel part of a ``real neighborhood'', which the analyzers of the focus groups considered ``paradoxical'' since they also indicated that they wanted to live close to campus (MIT Planning Office, 1997).

    MIT's future policy on housing and education was defined in a 1998 report by the Presidential Task Force on Student Life and Learning. This faculty committee was the first group since the Lewis Committee in 1949 to redefine MIT's educational mission. This group described the MIT education as comprised of three major elements--- academics, which includes classroom instruction; research, the hands-on scientific work undertaken by students and faculty; and community, which includes residential and recreational activities along with all other kinds of informal social interaction among students, faculty, staff, and alumni. In assessing MIT's strengths and weaknesses with regards to the community element of its education, the Task Force reported that MIT fared positively in offering a diverse collection of strong, independent residential and social groups and giving students ample choice in their living environment. However, it identified a weakness in overall ``campus-wide community'' that does not allow for easy interaction outside of defined residential groups, and indicated that MIT fares particularly poorly in providing opportunities for informal interaction among undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, and staff. The Task Force recommended that MIT's future development in general, and particularly in its residential, dining and recreational facilities, promote informal interaction among all members of the MIT community. (Presidential Task Force on Student Life and Learning, Chapter 4)

    Currently, MIT has no planning strategy to respond to the educational strategy set forth by the Task Force. The administration decided to discontinue its Planning Office in 1999, and since the completion of Simmons Hall and Sidney-Pacific in 2002, there is no plan for further residential expansion.

    2.9 Continuing Themes and Current Implications

    There are some continuing themes worth noting in the history of the university's residential function and the ideas that have shaped it. Some of these themes are particularly relevant when considering the past, present, and potential future development of the MIT campus.

    One theme, relating to the historic purposes and goals of collegiate housing, is the tendency for housing development to be driven by necessity, despite the continual insistence that collegiate housing serves a function that is primarily educational. While universities like MIT have always affirmed that the primary reason for collegiate housing is to provide an integrated educational experience for students, and in some cases faculty, the actual trends in housing development indicate that more practical, usually economic, motives play a stronger role in guiding housing development decisions.

    For MIT, housing development seems to have been driven primarily by increases in enrollment and steady decreases in the percentage of commuter students. Because necessity seems to drive development, there has been a continuing theme of short-term measures having long-term impacts on the overall housing program. One example of this trend is MIT's use of land west of Massachusetts Avenue as the location of several scattered residential facilities developed before 1950, leading to the subsequent policy of developing housing on west campus and particularly along Memorial Drive. Another example of this trend is the use of Bexley Hall and Random Hall as ``temporary housing'' structures that have since established themselves as long-term residential communities. A more recent example has been the freshmen-on-campus policy, leading to the rapid construction of Simmons Hall, a decision that will impact the future development possibilities along Vassar Street.

    Another continuing theme is the shifting change in attitudes on the question of what residential model best achieves the social goals of university housing. Throughout history, there seem to have been two competing schools of thought. On one side there is the idea that universities should provide a structured and administered educational program in residence, in order to ensure that all students can equally participate in an integrated academic and residential experience. This idea is exemplified by the English residential college system and the American systems that have emulated it. On the other side is the idea that universities should allow students manage their own residences and residential programs, thus allowing them to learn responsibility and life skills. This system was exemplified by the Nations and later by the American system of residential fraternities and sororities. The prevailing trend seems to swing like a pendulum from one of these ideas to the other.

    MIT is unique in having continued to support its independent residences, while most other American universities have eliminated or significantly reduced their fraternity and independent house systems. Perhaps this policy was maintained because MIT has always needed the complementary housing capacity of its fraternity system to accommodate its students, and thus, as noted in the point above, policy was driven by necessity. However, MIT has also openly recognized the social and educational benefits of providing a diverse selection of independent residential options to its students. Under MIT's new policy of housing all freshmen on campus, it is uncertain whether the Institute will continue to support the same balance of university-owned and independent residential options.

    Finally, there is the theme that residential planning over at least the past fifty years has been guided by a strategy of separating residences and recreational facilities from the core academic uses of the campus. While MIT and other universities have worked to establish a student living environment that contributes positively to education and personal development, this idea has primarily been applied to the interior residential experience, not to the experience of living on the campus at large. The design of MIT's campus does not seem to have considered the relationship between academic, residential, and recreational uses and how this relationship affects the lives of students for whom the campus is their home.

    Adelman (p. 63) reflects on this notion by suggesting that separating academic and residential functions is comparable to the American suburban ideal of separating workplace and homeplace. Therefore, living and learning remain separate, and ``We do not have a planning expression of the life of learning which was the university but an expression of learning in order to live.'' Perhaps this partially explains why MIT was beginning to separate its residential and academic uses at the same time as it was beginning to develop as a research institution. As MIT's activities began to include more sponsored research, the MIT experience may have begun to feel more like a ``work'' experience than an integrated learning experience, and thus there was a perceived incompatibility between living facilities and academic or research facilities.

    However, the trends that have developed in city planning over at least the past twenty years seem to reject the idea that cities should be designed with all work uses in the center and all residential uses in the suburban periphery. Contemporary planning in urban areas recognizes the benefits of having a mixture of uses within a particular area, to create a more lively environment at all times of day and night and to support walking and public transit as transportation alternatives to the automobile. Moreover, city centers are becoming increasingly desirable for individuals who want to live close to their workplace as well as retail, entertainment, and cultural attractions. While some of these issues are not particularly relevant to the university experience, perhaps MIT could learn from these trends in city planning and consider the benefits mixed-use development might provide to campus residents as well as the educational mission of the university at large.


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  • Preface
  • Chapter 1. Introduction
  • Chapter 2. Historical Overview of Residence at MIT and Other Universities
    2.1 Pre-American University Residence
    2.2 The Early American Colleges
    2.3 The University Movement
    2.4 Fraternity Housing
    2.5 Campus Planning and the Residence Hall Tradition
    2.6 The House System
    2.7 MIT Planning 1950-1990
    2.8 MIT Planning 1990-present
    2.9 Continuing Themes and Current Implications
  • Chapter 3. Background Information on the MIT Residential Experience
  • Chapter 4. Discussions with Residents on the MIT Campus Environment
  • Chapter 5. Conclusions and Strategies
  • Appendix A: Figures and Maps for Chapters 2 and 3
  • Appendix B: Chart (PDF 3.0K) and Map (PDF 640K) of Residence Discussion Sessions

  • Copyright MMIII Jeffrey C. Roberts. All rights reserved.