Is MIT a Good Place to Live?
The University Campus as a Residential Environment
4.1 Overview of Methodology
CHAPTER 4. DISCUSSIONS WITH RESIDENTS ON THE MIT CAMPUS ENVIRONMENT
I believe that the most critical step in assessing the strengths and weaknesses of a particular urban environment is to discuss that environment with the people who live there. Therefore, I chose to base my assessment of the MIT campus mainly on discussions with campus residents.
The method through which I engaged campus residents was a series of discussion sessions held at thirteen different residences on the MIT campus. These thirteen residences included undergraduate dormitories, graduate dormitories, and independent living groups of varying sizes and locations, but all located so as to be considered on or near the MIT campus. Altogether, over 100 people participated in these sessions, with participation per session ranging from as few as three to as many as fifteen. Participants included normal residents, house officers, graduate student staff, and even some faculty housemasters and their families. Most of these sessions were held simultaneously with social hours, study breaks, house dinners, or other community-based events, while a couple sessions were held independently from other social events. Each session was open to anyone who wanted to participate, and was advertised through the leadership of the house.
The discussions were held in six undergraduate dormitories (Random Hall, Next House, Simmons Hall, East Campus, McCormick Hall, and MacGregor House), one undergraduate cultural house (French House), one undergraduate fraternity (Phi Beta Epsilon or ``PBE''), one undergraduate independent living group (the Women's Independent Living Group or ``WILG''), three single graduate student dormitories (NW30 or ``the Warehouse'', Edgerton House, and Tang Hall), and one married student dormitory (Eastgate). The main factors in selecting these locations included the desire to obtain a broad geographic cross-section as well as to include all types of residence and all types of resident, although simple scheduling complications also played a role in selecting the discussions.
Appendix B shows a table of specific information regarding each session as well as a map showing the locations where the sessions took place. It may be helpful to refer to this map while reading about the results of the discussions.
At each of the sessions, I asked for comments regarding the quality of the MIT campus as viewed from a residential perspective. The goal was to have participants engage with one another in a dialogue on the issues in campus development that they felt were important to their quality of life. I intentionally asked open-ended questions in order to allow the participants themselves to choose what topics were of most interest to them and to allow conversation to flow naturally.
I structured each discussion around three broad questions. These questions, and some variations in the way they were asked, are presented below:
In the earlier sessions, I typically did not introduce the third question because discussion around the second question naturally and often quickly flowed into discussion related to MIT. In later sessions, I simply posed the second and third questions at the same time, to allow participants to discuss both the campus in general and the specifics of MIT interchangeably.
I sometimes asked additional questions when there were pauses in the conversation. Most often I would simply ask ``What else?'' or paraphrase the last major question that had been asked. However, I would sometimes prompt participants on a general topic that had not been discussed yet. For example, when conversation stalled I might ask ``How do you feel about safety?'' or ``How do you feel about transportation?'' I posed the questions in as neutral a way possible, and I noted in my discussion notes that it was I and not a participant who actually raised the subject. Another circumstance in which I would involve myself in discussion was when one participant raised a point to which the other participants did not have an immediate reaction. When that happened, I would ask the other participants ``Do you agree?'' or ``What do the rest of you think about that?'' in order to get an impression of how all the participants felt.
There are a few reasons why I chose this method of gathering information, as opposed to a more quantitatively-oriented method such as surveys, randomly selected interviews, or controlled focus groups. One reason was that I wanted to explore the issues from the perspective of the residential community or communities, not from the perspective of individual residents. I wanted to listen to and understand the conversation that occurs naturally around this subject within the living groups, not to gather data from a quantifiable but artificial sample of individuals. I also thought it was beneficial to allow the community to lead the discussion in order to make people feel more willing to say what they really think. This is is why I consider the members of the discussion groups to be ``participants'' instead of ``subjects''.
Another reason for not undertaking a more specific, quantitative investigation is that I simply would not have known what specific questions to ask. As mentioned, my goal was to explore the topics that are of most concern to people within the residential community. Therefore, constructing a questionnaire that asked participants to, for example, rate how they feel about the physical layout of the campus, would neither tell me why participants feel the physical layout is important to their quality of life nor allow me to interpret what aspects of the physical layout of the campus the respondent was referring to. Any questionnaire that could possibly be thorough enough would have been too long and difficult to process.
This method has some drawbacks, however, which should be noted. One drawback is the phenomenon that the participants in an open discussion will tend to be those individuals with a predetermined interested in the subject, possibly because they have a negative opinion about something related to the subject and might want to use the discussion as a platform to air a grievance. Altogether, this did not concern me greatly, because I was prepared to acknowledge that there might be a bias towards negative opinions, and I was interested in hearing the opinions of people who have thought about and discussed the topic before. In addition, I found that holding the discussions with group social events tended to draw a good mix of people with varying levels of prior knowledge of the topic. However, I cannot demonstrate scientifically that the participants in the sessions were representative of the residential community at large.
Another potential problem occurs when more vocal participants tend to dominate discussions, while others refuse to comment. This is characteristic of all types of discussion, and I inherited this problem when I chose to use discussions as my method of gathering information. In order to compensate, I made sure to continually encourage all participants to comment. But I also found that even though some participants were more vocal than others, participants were typically not shy about speaking up if they wanted to qualify or argue against a point made by another participant. This might have resulted from the fact that participants within the discussions tended to know each other and were thus already comfortable talking and arguing with one another.
Finally, I need to note that since I only involved MIT students, and the discussion was focused only on MIT, the results would not have a basis for comparison with respect to other university campuses. This is true, and it would be interesting to compare the results of this study with the results of a comparable study at another university. However, this study was not intended to rank the quality of the MIT campus, but rather to determine what effect different features of the campus have on residents' quality of life. It is also true that participants in the discussions brought with them a wide range of experiences from other places, and so as they discussed the features of the MIT campus, participants often used other campuses they have seen as points of reference.
4.2 Conversation on Reasons for Having a Residential Campus
The following is an analysis of the discussions surrounding the question, ``Why should a university have a residential campus?'' This question was largely intended to serve as a ``warm-up'' to the subsequent discussion about the MIT campus in particular by getting participants thinking and talking about what university residence really means. Participants approached the question by brainstorming as many reasons as they could think of, with little discussion on each point (though there was some debate over certain points). The list of reasons suggested by participants often served as a basis for the subsequent discussion on the features of the campus environment.
Similarly, I shall use a compilation of answers to this question as an introduction to the analysis of information from discussions on the other questions. Over the course of the 13 sessions, participants made 84 suggestions for why a university should have a residential campus. Many of these suggestions are similar enough to one another that they may be considered different expressions of the same reason. By consolidating identical or similar suggestions, I have determined that 35 unique reasons were given to explain why a university should include housing as part of its campus.
I have defined eight different categories into which these reasons may be grouped. Each category is based on a different perspective from which the question can be viewed. I have used a "c-word" to describe each of these categories: convenience, community, collegiality, cost, control, comfort, coherence, and competition.
The following is an overview of the suggested reasons, grouped by category. For each reason described, a number in parentheses describes the number of times that reason was suggested over the course of the 13 sessions. The categories are listed by the number of times that reasons within each category were suggested, beginning with the most commonly mentioned category and ending with the least.
Most of the suggestions fell into the general category of convenience. While specific specific types of convenience were recognized as being important, some participants simply suggested ``convenience'' in general is a reason for having a residential campus (4).
Many participants suggested that university housing allows students to avoid the inconvenience of finding private housing in an urban area (8). For many individuals, particularly people coming to a university from outside the area or country, finding a place to live can be very difficult and time-consuming. Interestingly, this reason does not directly address the question of why a university should have housing on its campus. A university could own, lease, or manage housing that is nowhere near the campus. It could also manage a professional service that would find housing in the private market for anyone who wants it.
Another suggested type of convenience relates to the time constraints and hassles associated with having to commute long distances to campus (6). Living on campus allows for easier commuting, avoids reliance on driving or public transportation, and allows for a more flexible work schedule. Additionally, some participants commented that living on campus makes it easier to participate in on-campus activities (2), and some commented that living on campus makes social interaction more convenient (2). A participant also suggested that on-campus housing can offer amenities, such as high-speed internet connections and laundry facilities, that make everyday life more convenient for residents (1). As before, this reason is not directly related to the issue of living on campus, for such facilities could be provided in properties away from campus as well.
The next most common category contains responses dealing with the issue of community. As before, while several specific reasons were mentioned relating to this category, many participants suggested ``community'' in general as a reason (5). Participants also suggested that it is important to be able to interact and socialize with others within the university (5), that living with other students provides internal social support networks (4), and that individuals should have the opportunity to interact with a diverse range of people during their time at a university (2).
Collegiality is the term I have used to describe a group of suggested reasons related to the notion that living on campus contributes to an educational experience. Some participants suggested that living on campus is part of an overall ``academic experience'' (1) or, more generally, a ``college experience'' (1).
It was suggested, primarily within undergraduate residences, that the university residential function is important in allowing students to work in groups (5). It was also suggested that living on campus removes the physical and the psychological distance between work and home (1), and that living on campus makes the college experience more ``immersive'' (1) or ``encompassing'' (1). Viewing the issue from some slightly different perspectives, participants suggested that students learn from each other through sharing a common residential experience (1), and that the experience of living with others itself changes how people think (1).
The most common uniquely suggested reason for having housing on a university campus was that the costs of market housing are too high for students (9). Here, again, the reason does not directly address the question of why housing should be on campus. A university, or even a private developer, could offer below-market-rate units exclusively to students that are nowhere near the campus. Conversely, a university or developer, depending on who owns the land and what is allowed under the zoning, could develop market-priced units that are directly on the campus.
A frequently mentioned category of reasons, which also tended to raise some discussion and debate among participants in the discussions, dealt with the idea of university housing as a means of having some control over the student body. It was suggested that a university has the responsibility to oversee the well-being of its students, particularly undergraduates, and so it needs to house them nearby (4). More specifically, it was suggested that housing on campus allows the university to provide a structured support system for students (2), and it was also suggested that the university feels it must maintain some control over student behavior (1). It was also mentioned that the university needs to assume this sort of control because students' parents expect them to do so (1). On some of these points, debate was raised within discussions over whether this is actually a good reason for a university to want to have housing on campus, or if it is a responsibility imposed from the outside that a university would rather not assume. Additionally, when this point was raised in sessions at graduate residents, participants tended to indicate that this is only a consideration for undergraduate students.
Another group of reasons raise a general claim that individuals feel some level of comfort living on campus that they would not get while living off campus. There were many specific reasons for this. One suggestion was that students, particularly undergraduates, may need a comfortable transition from living at home to living on their own (2), and similarly, international students may need a supportive environment in which to adjust to life in the US (1). Another suggestion was that people in general, and particularly people in academia, are more comfortable living among similar-minded people (2). Some other reasons included the idea that living in residences spread out across a city might make students feel isolated (1), and that an on-campus residential environment provides a sense of personal safety and security that might not be guaranteed in other parts of the city (1).
It was suggested that having people living on campus provides a sense of ``coherence'' to the university (1), and that it is generally unfavorable from the university's point of view to ``disperse'' the student population (1). Several other suggestions seem to fall into this category, including the idea that a ``critical mass'' of on-campus residents is needed to fuel after-hours research and academic activities (1), to create a sense of nightlife on campus (1), to foster the creation of community-wide gathering places (1), and to contribute to a sense of "school spirit" (1).
A final category consists of a unique reason. This is the simple notion that a university needs to have housing on campus because every other major university has it as well (3). The implication of this is that for a university to compete with other universities, and draw from a cross-national or even international pool of students, it must provide housing on its campus. Some participants qualified this by explaining that in many other countries, universities typically do not provide housing and have a more regional focus. But it was generally understood that on-campus housing is an expectation of competitive American universities.
4.3 Conversation on the MIT Campus
In this section I analyze the discussion surrounding the questions, ``What elements should a university campus have in order to support its residential function?'' and ``How does the MIT campus perform with regards to these elements?'' As previously mentioned, the responses to these two questions were not easily separable into two discussions. This is because whenever participants began to discuss a particular campus feature, it was natural for them to discuss that feature within the context of the MIT campus, or to explain a point by comparing the MIT campus to other university campuses. Sometimes, conversely, participants would begin a topic of discussion by making a comment about the MIT campus, and the discussion would then lead to a broader issues about residential campuses in general. In order to reflect the nature of the discussions, this section analyzes the discussions surrounding both questions simultaneously.
The structure of this section is meant to reflect a ``campus-wide conversation'' on the topic of how campus development affects quality of life for MIT residents. To accomplish this, I have first identified major discussion topics that arose in multiple conversations. The topics are presented in a series, broken into the three major theme categories of resource provision, campus layout, and campus feel. The topics have not been ordered by any specific method, but the order is intended partly to reflect the order in which the topics typically arose in conversation, partly to reflect the frequency with which topics arose, and partly to maintain a natural, conversational flow from one topic to another.
Within each topic, I have presented the comments, discussions, and debates relating to that topic as if they were part of a single conversation, with participants from different sessions agreeing with, disagreeing with, or extrapolating upon each others' ideas. It is worth noting that not all comments and discussions fit easily under one topic, and it is my hope that the reader will recognize where discussions presented within one topic have relevance to other topics as well.
One of the most common topics of discussion across campus was the provision of resources such as food, shopping and entertainment to campus residents. Discussions at the Warehouse, PBE, and East Campus involved a general discussion of the MIT as being ``self-sufficient,'' as having the resources of a ``small city,'' and providing resources that are ``at one's fingertips.'' Some suggested that having necessities provided conveniently on campus allows students to focus more time and energy on their work.
As a complement to this discussion, participants at Tang suggested that a university may either provide resources internally or provide convenient transportation in order to access them within the city. Participants at WILG suggested that parts of the city neighboring the campus also play a role in supplementing the resources available on campus.
Food was by far the most prominent topic of conversation. In nine out of the thirteen sessions, the ability to provide food conveniently and at low cost was either the first or second feature identified as a necessary element of a residential campus.
On the more general side of the food discussion, there was a common sentiment that choice is an important quality. Participants at WILG agreed that the campus must provide a wide variety of options so that residents can choose themselves how to eat. Participants at MacGregor agreed that they favor the current ``non-mandatory'' dining system at MIT because it allows people greater choice. Participants in many residences including Random and East Campus indicated that they appreciate the freedom allowed by having kitchens in residence, while participants at PBE and French House expressed satisfaction in being able to share meals at home as a community. The importance of variety and choice is a pervasive theme throughout the discussion of food in the MIT context, as many of the comments reflect there being ``too few options'' for food on campus.
Grocery stores were commonly mentioned as a primary necessity in providing residents with a variety of food options. Participants at Warehouse, Edgerton, Random and WILG agreed that access to a supermarket is important, and that having Star Market nearby positively supports their quality of life. At East Campus, McCormick, French House, and Next House, participants emphasized the importance of being able to buy groceries, but agreed that Star Market is very inconvenient to access without a car. For some, this trip involves both a long walk to Massachusetts Avenue and then another long walk up Massachusetts Avenue to Star Market. The other grocery option for these residents is LaVerde's Market, which has a smaller selection and higher overall prices. But residents of French House and Next House indicated that even LaVerde's can be inconvenient, and some grocery shopping is done at the MacGregor convenience store, which has even less selection and higher costs than LaVerde's. East Campus residents expressed similar frustrations with Pritchett convenience store in Walker Memorial. For French House, in which residents cook common meals and thus must buy large quantities of groceries for the house, residents have groceries delivered, which they say can be very expensive.
On-campus dining services were discussed as well. At Next House, which contains an in-house dining hall, participants agreed that the quality of the food prepared is not worth the price charged for it. At Simmons Hall, participants did not express dissatisfaction with the food but mentioned that they must participate in a dining plan that discourages them from eating at other places. At McCormick Hall, which contains an in-house dining hall that is not functional, residents expressed displeasure that they do not have a commons dining experience that might enhance community interaction within the residence. At East Campus, which is not near any active dining halls (dinner is not served at Walker Memorial), participants acknowledged that the area is underserved by campus dining but said that they would prefer not to have dining services provided by MIT, and would rather see more private food providers established in the area. One rare positive reaction to on-campus dining services was that participants at Eastgate said they liked the new restaurants in the Student Center, the Alpine Bagel Cafe and Arrow Street Crepes.
Participants in other sessions also commented about off-campus restaurants. In the session at Edgerton House, participants commented that there are not many ``cheap, convenient'' restaurants in the area. However, in the session at Random Hall, participants expressed satisfaction in having a variety of restaurants nearby, and that those restaurants are ``integral'' to life at Random.
Some participants commented specifically about the provision of food late at night. Participants at the Warehouse, Random, and Simmons mentioned that late-night dining is something that is needed but largely lacking around MIT. One important exception that was mentioned by participants at Random is Munchies, an all-night convenience store located within the gas station next door to them. Also, while participants at Edgerton expressed appreciation in having Star Market nearby, they also expressed frustration that it is no longer open all night.
Finally, some of the discussion on the importance of food provision emphasized the function of food as a supporter of community interaction. In many of the sessions, the importance of food in supporting community was implicit-- most sessions took place during a common dinner or social event with snacks and refreshments. At McCormick, participants indicated that the lack of a fully-functioning dining hall has led many residents to cook and eat dinners alone. At Random, participants pointed out that the phenomenon of seeing MIT community members at area restaurants or Star Market provides a ``neighborhood'' feel for people living there.
Most of the comments regarding shopping for day-to-day necessities were similar to the comments regarding food. In discussions at PBE and WILG, participants mentioned that the campus itself is ``self-sustaining'' in terms of providing many retail necessities in the student center, though most of them are overpriced. In discussions at East Campus and Eastgate, participants pointed out that there were few places to do shopping in the area, or that the campus seemed to be isolated from many retail amenities.
It appears from the discussions at the Warehouse, Random, and McCormick that the Cambridgeside Galleria is a popular shopping destination for MIT residents. However, participants in these sessions shared the opinion that it requires a long walk to get there, and there is no convenient transit route to it. While some commented that on a nice day they appreciate taking the walk, others mentioned that it is a difficult trip when one has to carry large purchases.
Getting into ``the city''
A common topic of conversation was access to ``the city'' in order to access resources and amenities, including food, retail, and entertainment as well. While ``the city'' was typically discussed in vague terms, it tended to refer to areas such as downtown Boston and the Back Bay, as well as Harvard Square and Davis Square in Cambridge. Getting into the city was mentioned as being particularly important for entertainment and recreational opportunities.
At sessions in six undergraduate residences, participants commented that while the campus provides some recreational opportunities, students also often like to get into the city, or even outside the city, on weekends. In a couple of these discussions people commented that they appreciated the choice of having things to do on campus or off campus. In three graduate residences, participants said that recreational opportunities were largely lacking around the campus, and that the ability to travel into Boston, Harvard Square, or Davis Square is a necessity.
While reactions to the location of the MIT campus proximate to ``the city'' were uniformly positive, the discussion around transportation into the city was more varied. Most of the discussion of transportation to and from the campus area centered around transit service, although participants at Edgerton noted that the lack of parking around campus is an issue, and participants at Random commented that a rental car service available to students might provide needed opportunities to escape the city and go to places not served by transit.
On the subject of transit access, participants at Eastgate and East Campus agreed that they are well served, and that having the Kendall Square T station nearby is a major convenience. Participants at Random expressed similar thoughts about the Central Square station. They even expressed a special sense of pride that their closest T station is not the official MIT station, noting that the Kendall Square station is not really on the MIT campus, anyway.
Participants at most other residences, including Edgerton, French House, Next House, Simmons, PBE, Tang, McCormick and MacGregor, commented that the Kendall Square station is too far away, in some cases prohibitively far. Participants at Tang suggested that MIT needs to provide more frequent and reliable transportation to travel between the transit stations and their home.
Walking into the city also seemed frustrating for residents of most west campus residences. Participants at PBE, MacGregor, French House, Next House and Tang expressed frustration at being located right across the river from Boston with no means to get there, except by a walk to Massachusetts Avenue and then a long walk across the Harvard Bridge. At two of these sessions, participants made the comment (somewhat facetiously) that they would like to have a bridge connecting the front of their residence directly to Boston.
Participants also commented that the campus requires better east-west transportation. This relates to the aforementioned issue of getting to the Galleria, which is in an area not well connected to the MIT campus via public transportation (though it does have service), as well as the issue of getting to the Kendall Square station from west campus and even more generally getting from one side of campus to the other. Participants at three sessions commented that the CT2 bus would be a great benefit to residents if it ran on a more convenient schedule.
In many sessions, the overall shape and layout of the campus featured as a prominent topic of discussion. As part of these discussions, I often posed the question, ``Do you consider your residence to be on or off campus?'' The answers led to interesting discussions about the shape and character of the campus.
The residences that considered themselves ``off campus'' or outside of the campus area were Random, WILG, and the Warehouse, although there was some debate among participants as to whether their residence could actually be defined as a piece of the campus that was separated from the rest, like an island. In each of these discussions I asked participants to define where the campus boundary actually was. In all cases participants agreed that the northern boundary of campus was along Massachusetts Avenue somewhere between Vassar Street and Albany Street. In fact, most participants agreed that the landmark designating the northern edge of the campus is the nuclear reactor.
Participants' comments about the shape of the campus were largely negative. In discussions at the Warehouse, WILG, Next, Simmons, PBE, Tang, Eastgate, and East Campus, participants commented that the campus was either ``too long,'' ``too linear,'' ``too rectangular,'' ``too extended,'' or ``fragmented.'' In almost all of these discussions, participants agreed that the campus lacks necessary central elements for providing a campus feel, as the Harvard Yard/Harvard Square area does for Harvard University.
Participants had largely negative things to say about the configuration of ``dorm row.'' In six of the sessions, including those at McCormick, PBE, French House, Next House and Tang, participants stated that they did not like the current arrangement of dorms along a row, or wished that residences were configured differently. In these discussions, participants said that a ``courtyard'' style of residence distribution would have been preferable to a row, and that clustering residences in general would have been better than spreading them out. Only at MacGregor did participants indicate that they liked dorm row, particularly because their position in the middle allowed them to have a greater degree of interaction with people traveling along Amherst Alley.
Discussions on the layout of the campus and the placement of residences led to a discussion on how campus layout effects the residential experience. One effect that was cited in several discussions is something called ``MIT inertia.'' This is commonly used to describe the phenomenon of students not wanting to leave their residence, but in these discussions it more specifically referred to a phenomenon of students not wanting to travel ``farther out'' (i.e., farther away from the main campus) than their place of residence. This was reflected in comments from participants at Next House that few people from other residents like to visit, along with participants in a few other discussions who independently expressed pity for those who live at Next. Participants at Simmons reflected similarly on their own experience, because no other students live on Vassar Street and thus it seems that few people venture out.
Another noted effect was the difference in the characteristics and ``personalities'' of the communities within the different residences. Each residential group at MIT has a specific culture that has its own unique characteristics and carries with it stereotypes about the people who live there. A phenomenon known as the ``east-west divide,'' cited in at least five of the sessions, refers to the differences in student culture between undergraduate dormitories on the eastern and western sides of campus (with Random falling into the ``east'' category). There was much debate over the positive and negative aspects of this phenomenon among and within the sessions. Many participants felt that it is important for residences to be separate in order to form independent cultures and thus strong internal communities, and that having all residences clustered together would ``homogenize'' the residential cultures. However, others commented that the separation among residences, and the fact that many students interact infrequently with residences that are not their own, leads to negative stereotypes and some social friction among members of different residences. Some participants felt that it would be ideal to have a campus in which residences had different internal cultures but could interact with one another more easily, while others felt that the internal cultures would not survive without some sense of isolation. This debate did not reach any clear resolution.
Within the discussion of the overall shape of the campus, participants frequently commented that the campus is too long or spread out, with no sense of a center. In many sessions, this theme continued into a discussion on the lack of a central congregating area around campus. In almost all discussions, participants expressed some sort of dissatisfaction at the lack of an activity center, particularly after hours, and felt that this was costly to a sense of MIT community and school spirit.
Participants in discussions at the Warehouse, Next House, Simmons and MacGregor all noted that MIT is in need of a central congregating area that is active at night. They mentioned Harvard Square and the student center at Northeastern University as examples of successful college activity areas, and noted the efforts being made by the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University in Philadelphia to support a greater nightlife around their campuses. Participants at Eastgate noted that they would like to see more coffee shops and general places to hang out around campus, especially ones open on evenings and weekends. On the other hand, participants at the Warehouse commented that the MIT campus contains many activities and small gathering places, such as LSC movies, the Thirsty Ear Pub, the student center video arcade, and department lounges, but the problem is that these activities are too scattered around the campus.
Related to this discussion of a lack of a central congregating area was a discussion around the use of the Student Center. Participants at WILG, Simmons, and McCormick noted that the Student Center is inconvenient and not actually ``central'' to anything. It is at the edge of the academic and research side of campus and at the edge of the student housing side of campus as well, but does not link the two. Participants at Next House and Simmons noted that the Student Center doesn't perform well because it is unattractive and its internal structure does not best support its uses. On the other hand, participants in many sessions including those at the Warehouse, Random, PBE, Tang, Eastgate, and East Campus mentioned that they think the new furniture on the first floor of the student center is a good improvement that allows more people to ``hang out'' there and provides a stronger community feel.
Participants in many sessions expressed disappointment at the lack of common recreational areas on the main campus. Participants at the Warehouse and WILG brought up the idea of establishing an all-night ``Student Center-like'' activity area somewhere in the center of the main campus, such as Lobby 10 or Lobby 13, but debated whether such a place would be used. Participants at Random, Simmons, PBE, and Tang also mentioned that they would like to see more places to sit and hang out around main campus, pointing out that the Dome Cafe seems to be the only central place on main campus to do that. Some mentioned that lounges along the infinite corridor would be useful, since it is probably the most active of all places on campus, yet there is no place to ``stop'' along the way.
Residential and academic uses
The broader discussion of campus layout also involved discussions on the relationship of particular uses to one another. In one discussion, participants specifically questioned why MIT made the decision to separate academics and research from residential uses. It seemed that some of the sites where new research centers are being constructed might have been appropriate for new residences as well.
Participants in residences that considered themselves away from academic parts of campus such as Random and Next House made comments indicating that a physical distance from campus led to a psychological distance as well, allowing for a comfortable ``buffer'' between work and home. However, participants in residences closer to campus did not indicate negative feelings associated with being too close to their workplace. On the contrary, it was agreed upon at PBE that their house constitutes a ``home within campus,'' a refuge that is nearby enough that students can escape the academic world even for a short time during the day if they need to. At East Campus, where some participants considered themselves ``one with the campus,'' they similarly felt that they were ``on the edge'' in the sense that their dorm is separated enough, at least psychologically, from the academic uses of campus to allow for escape.
Another set of discussions focused specifically on the topic of libraries. Participants at Next House, Random, and WILG noted that the library system does not work very well for them, either because it is difficult to access or because it is too decentralized. Participants at Next House agreed that the lack of academic resources such as libraries has an effect on their learning. Some even mentioned, perhaps facetiously, that students at Next House might perform better academically if the libraries weren't so far away for them. These participants also mentioned the counter-example of Radcliffe College at Harvard, where, even though the residential quad is somewhat separated from the main campus, there is still a library and other common facilities for study and community gathering.
On the other side of this discussion were participants at East Campus, who commented that they found library facilities to be very convenient for study. They even mentioned that empty classrooms could be used at night for group study or other after-hours academic activities.
In several sessions, participants noted that access to athletics facilities is an important quality of a residential campus. At the conversation at the Warehouse, participants pointed out that participation in sports can serve a community-building function. Those participants who commented expressed overall satisfaction with the convenience of accessing athletics facilities, and participants in at least four discussions agreed that people are very satisfied with the new Zesiger Sports and Fitness Center. One participant even observed that MIT seems like an overly fitness-conscious campus, with ample centralized fitness facilities as well as exercise facilities in most residences.
Part of this conversation focused on Briggs Field. Participants in some sessions mentioned that this field serves as a good resource when the weather is warm, and that it must be useful because it is booked solid whenever it is usable. However, participants in discussions at MacGregor, French House, Next House, Tang, and Simmons strongly agree that Briggs field is too large and empty most of the time, especially at night, that it becomes muddy and unusable during winter months, and that the fence around it is an annoyance. The muddiness, darkness, and possibility of having to climb fences makes the field very uncomfortable to cross, but people cross it anyway because it is the most convenient way to get back and forth from Vassar Street to dorm row. As previously mentioned, this difficulty contributes to a sense of isolation for residents of Simmons.
Many aforementioned discussion topics deal with the ability of campus residents to access different parts of the campus by foot. Issues relating to the ``linearity'' of the campus, the ``inertia'' that isolates residential communities from one another along dorm row, the difficulty of west campus residents in accessing Star Market and public transit, and the barrier created by Briggs Field are all examples of issues that relate to the topic of pedestrian access. A few other issues were mentioned as well. Participants at the Warehouse and Tang commented that there needs to be a safe and convenient way to cross the railroad tracks, so that Warehouse residents can access west campus facilities and Tang residents can access the emerging graduate student community in Cambridgeport. The current problem is that the Fort Washington crossing and the Vassar Street Garage overpass both feel unsafe, and so the preferred and most convenient way to cross is illegally, by passing through the fences surrounding the tracks at the end of Pacific Street. In addition, participants at the Warehouse and Edgerton mentioned that sidewalks along Albany Street and from Albany Street to campus are in fairly bad shape.
Providing another perspective, participants at East Campus expressed overall satisfaction with pedestrian access around the campus. They mentioned that the campus feels well-connected, that pathways are convenient and that everything is close. One participant claimed that the MIT campus has advantages over larger campuses that may be more spread out and require transportation to get from one side to the other, because one can get from one end of the MIT campus to the other in about 15 minutes. This is contrasted with the comments of participants at Next House, Tang and Simmons, who complain that it takes 25 minutes or more to get from one end of campus to the other.
A conversation topic that came up several times was the quality and amount of ``open space'' or ``green space'' on the campus. This was an interesting part of the conversation because participants differentiated among different types and functions of open spaces. For example, in the aforementioned discussions criticizing Briggs Field, many participants believed that it does not serve effectively as an ``open space'' because it is enclosed by a fence.
Participants at Edgerton, Random, Next House, Tang, Eastgate, East Campus and McCormick all mentioned that outdoor lawn space is an important feature that enhances the quality of life on campus. These participants also largely agreed that MIT is lacking in the provision of open space. MIT was compared to campuses such as Berkeley and Wellesley, where there seems to be much more outdoor activity, at least during the daytime.
There was debate, however, as to whether more green space was actually needed on the MIT campus, and whether it would be used. Participants at Next House, Simmons, and PBE all suggested that outdoor activity at MIT is heavily impacted by the fact that the weather is bad for most of the academic year. Participants in a couple of sessions even suggested that instead of providing more green space, MIT should extend its tunnel system to the residences. Participants at McCormick made a counter-point that when the weather does get nice, it makes people happier to be outside. In addition, participants at Edgerton debated whether or not the open space that did exist at MIT was underused because students simply do not have time to enjoy it, and so more open space would go underused as well.
Participants at Tang brought up the idea that open space at MIT needs to be more usable and ``efficient.'' Spaces need to have more places to sit, picnic tables, barbecue pits, and the like to allow people to use them for casual recreation. Participants at McCormick and East Campus agreed that the campus would be improved with more outdoor seating.
In one case a faculty housemaster, discussing the impact of living on the MIT campus with a family of children, mentioned that MIT needs to provide more ``play space'' on the campus in order to support more families and children in residence. While this could not be supported through discussions involving other residents with children, the topic of ``play space'' did come up within the context of the student experience. At McCormick, participants mentioned liking the ``play spaces'' available to East Campus dorms, which have courtyards with places to sit and areas for games. Participants at East Campus similarly acknowledged their own barbecue pits and volleyball court as well as the tire swing in the Senior House courtyard. Also, participants at MacGregor agreed that outdoor courts that are open for general use, such as basketball courts, would be a useful addition on the western part of campus.
As a final topic within the broad subject of campus layout and uses, there was some discussion on the relationship between the campus and the Charles River. This began with a participant at the Warehouse commenting that the design of the MIT campus does not take good advantage of its river access. The construction of residences along Memorial Drive created a ``wall'' between the campus and the river. Participants at Eastgate mentioned that the river side of the campus could make a nice park with more places to sit and better plantings.
Participants along dorm row hardly mentioned the river in their discussions, and so I had to prompt them on the topic. Participants at Tang, French House, and McCormick agreed that the river is difficult to access because Memorial Drive serves as a barrier, and because the spaces at the fronts of their residences are not designed to open to the river. On the subject of river views, participants at French House commented that the river view is nice, but not important enough to justify the separation from other residences, while participants at Tang mentioned that residents appreciate the river view but realize that it is one of the few amenities the building has, and participants at MacGregor mentioned that they enjoy the river view but equally enjoy the ability to view what is happening on campus.
Some of the prior topics of conversation contain items also related to the theme of overall campus ``feel.'' The impressions of the campus being too linear, non-centralized, and fragmented imply a particular kind of feel, leading one participant to comment that MIT doesn't really feel like a ``campus'' at all. The discussions regarding the lack of activity centers and late-night dining on campus contributed to feelings expressed in several sessions that the campus has no sense of nightlife. Similarly, the discussions related to open space and river view on campus are generally related to a sense of campus look, feel, and character.
Aesthetics and architecture
Continuing on this topic of ``campus feel,'' participants made several comments regarding the overall aesthetics of the campus. Participants at Random, French House, and Tang commented that the MIT campus has an industrial or factory-like feel. Participants at the Warehouse and Edgerton commented on the poor aesthetic quality of the streetscape. Participants at Simmons and Eastgate simply commented that MIT is not pretty.
Some participants commented on the architecture of the MIT campus being ugly and depressing. A participant at East Campus commented that most buildings seem to be a uniform gray, and that more color in campus architecture might have a positive effect. Some participants also seemed to feel that the newer architectural elements on the campus are not helping to solve the problem. Participants at Tang agreed that the look of Simmons Hall, along with the rest of MIT's architecture, puts people in a ``bad mood.'' Participants at East Campus note that the major types of architecture on campus--- the gray limestone neoclassical, the cast concrete, and the new metallic avant-garde--- all contribute to the same depressing effect. The exception was the Zesiger Sports and Fitness Center, which received only positive comments.
There were similar reactions to the new MIT campus aesthetic in other sessions as well. A participant at Simmons asserted that MIT could get a better design result without ``world-class architects,'' citing the Warehouse and Sidney-Pacific as examples of good design that was more cost-effective than other recent building projects on campus. Participants at McCormick, discussing the lack of availability of seating areas on campus, stressed that benches should not be ``artistic'' but should simply serve their function well. Participants at the Warehouse and Random commented that they hate the new information kiosks in Lobby 7, and wish that MIT would return to allowing drop posters. In addition, participants at Random indicated they would like to see more sculpture pieces in lobbies, and a participant at East Campus commented that some of the most interesting aesthetic pieces on campus are ones whose author is unknown, such as the bubble machine in Lobby 6 and small murals that have appeared outside of some buildings.
Participants in many discussions indicated that MIT's architecture is highly ``varied,'' and an interesting debate arose over the question of whether this is appropriate, or whether it would be better to have all the architecture on campus fit a similar style. Participants at Tang wondered whether more architectural ``continuity'' would help make the campus less depressing. At McCormick, that sentiment initiated a debate between the idea that continuity in architecture creates a stronger campus feel and the counter-point that variation in the architecture of residences reflects the different communities and cultures in each. At MacGregor and Simmons, participants agreed that variation in the architecture is preferable.
Safety and security
A final topic discussed in the category of overall campus feel is the feeling of safety and security on campus. In most sessions, this topic did not come up until I prompted participants to discuss it. In eight sessions, participants indicated that they felt very safe, or that safety was not a major consideration for them.
However, participants at the Warehouse and Simmons mentioned that they had safety concerns traveling from main campus to their residences. Participants in both sessions indicated that traveling on Albany Street or Vassar Street at night feels unsafe, mainly because those streets are dark and largely deserted at night. Also, as previously mentioned, participants at the Warehouse expressed serious concerns about safety while crossing the railroad tracks, and participants at Simmons expressed similar concerns about safety while crossing Briggs Field.
There was also some discussion related to off-campus safety and comfort in general. At the Warehouse, Eastgate, and McCormick, participants argued over whether Central Square is safe or unsafe. Some participants mentioned that Central Square is an unpleasant and unsafe place, while others responded that they did not feel uncomfortable there at all. Participants at the Warehouse acknowledged that there may be a gender issue, and that women may find the area more unsafe than men, as this was reflected in the debate. However, at Random, located very near Central Square on Massachusetts Avenue, participants agreed that the area feels very safe--- despite acknowledging some incidents of violence that have occurred very nearby in recent years. Participants indicated that living at Random involves developing an ``urban sensibility'' and an understanding of how to deal with potential problems. Moreover, some participants at Random indicated that they felt less safe walking by the residences along dorm row, where there is much less pedestrian activity at night.
4.1 Overview of Methodology
Copyright MMIII Jeffrey C. Roberts. All rights reserved.