Is MIT a Good Place to Live?
The University Campus as a Residential Environment
I started the process of writing this thesis on August 26, 1998. I had just arrived as a freshman at MIT a few days before, and, while I had come to MIT expecting to take my place among all the other engineers-to-be, I had just been introduced to a discipline little-pursued among MIT undergraduates called Urban Studies and Planning.
On that particular day I picked up a copy of the MIT Tech whose headline read: ``All Freshmen to Live in Dormitories Starting in 2001''. This was an important announcement that carried with it some major political baggage, but at the time I didn't really know enough to understand all the issues pertaining to this decision. However, I had focused in on a particular part of the article, a short sentence or two indicating that a new dormitory would be constructed by 2001 in order to accommodate the expanded housing need. This new dorm was intended to be finished at the beginning of my senior year. My immediate thought was, ``As soon as this building opens, I want to be living there.''
During my first few days at MIT, prior to seeing this announcement, I had been getting a feel for what residential life at MIT was like since I knew I would soon have to select where I wanted to live for the next four years. I was particularly interested in learning about MIT's dormitory system, and was fascinated by the way in which each house had established its own student-directed community, its own character, its own culture, built upon its own history and traditions. When I heard that a new residential community was going to be established during my time at MIT, I was excited about the possibility of seeing this culture and tradition begin to develop from nothing. Indeed, I was excited to think that I might play a major role in shaping the traditions that would be carried on over time.
So for about four months, I kept my ears open for any information related to this new dorm and bothered just about everyone I could find who might have something to do with it, looking for an opportunity to become a part of the project. Finally, in January of 1999, I was asked to serve as a member of the Founders Group, a committee of students, faculty, and staff charged with developing and overseeing the social mission of the new residence. We would be the surrogate ``community'' for the dorm as it progressed through design and construction and into its eventual occupation. By that point, however, the space program for the building had already been written, and the architect had already been selected.
Over the next three years of my life, my involvement in this project, later known as Simmons Hall, was an extraordinary learning experience. The project itself was a pressure-cooker, into which were thrown a university with an ambitious new social and educational agenda, some political pressure from outside to ensure that the freshmen-on-campus policy change was implemented, a university leadership that wanted to use this opportunity to procure a symbolic, "signature" architectural piece for its campus, and an architect with a bold, strong, and very uncompromising artistic vision. My involvement in these issues was peripheral, but that was fine because they were not my central concern. To me, the success of the project was measured by how the students living there would start to form a sense of camaraderie and develop a unique culture, both among themselves, and as an integral unit in the social fabric of the MIT residential community. MIT ended up spending quite a large amount of money to create a building with powerful artistic elements. But the building's residents did not need a work of art--- they needed a structure that they could shape into their home. Why couldn't we focus on giving them a good place to live?
While participating in the Simmons Hall project, I was also becoming increasingly involved with the politics of MIT residential life at the upper levels. During my sophomore year, I became part of a group of students (known officially as the Strategic Advisory Committee to the Chancellor, but referred to by many simply as ``the conspiracy'') who were working to draft new housing policy to be put in place when the freshmen-on-campus decision was implemented. This group represented the ``elite'' of the MIT student leadership, and they knew how to get things done on the higher levels of the Institute. I helped them write the new policy, most of which was adopted by the upper MIT administration, and then continued to oversee its development and implementation through my various student government roles, most importantly President of the Dormitory Council for one year and Rush Chairman of the Dormitory Council for the next.
The catchphrase that guided most of this policy making, from the student and the administrative side, was ``campus-wide community''. It had just been recognized in the report of the Presidential Task Force on Student Life and Learning that MIT lacked an overall sense of community and ``school spirit'' among its students, faculty, staff, and alumni, though individual living groups, including dormitories as well as fraternities and other independent houses, have developed very strong internal communities. Students, faculty, and administrators alike seemed to agree on this point. As a result, policy decisions coming from the administration, including the freshmen-on-campus decision, tended to be justified by the assertion that they would create a stronger sense of campus-wide community. However, these policies often led to a perceived weakening of the sense of community within individual living groups. The students who truly wanted to develop a stronger campus-wide community at MIT understood that weakening the living group communities would not strengthen the campus-wide community, but would simply weaken community altogether and remove an important social support structure that students depended on.
As an urban studies major, my hunch was that the reason why campus-wide community is lacking at MIT has to do with the structure of the campus itself. MIT residences, having a form that allows them to be shaped and ``owned'' by the students who live there, encourage social interaction, cooperation, and community within them along with lending a sense of common identity to the people who live there. The campus itself, I gathered, has few features that contribute to a ``residential experience'', with spaces and uses distributed in such a way that they do not encourage interaction among individuals from different residences.
It was also around this time that I was beginning to develop the Program in Non-Academic Studies. Already known by some around campus as ``Professor Roberts'' for keeping regular ``office hours'' on a bench along the Infinite Corridor and discussing student life issues with academic rigor, I decided that student life itself, the part of a student's education that occurs outside the formal curriculum, is worthy of academic inquiry. In my student leadership roles, I spent quite a bit of time getting to know the active members of the MIT residential community, understanding how they live, what their interests are, and what their vision of student life at MIT is. I wrote a fair bit as well, usually for MIT student publications, and spoke about the Program on at least one occasion. Of course, the Program never really went anywhere--- I still comprise its entire faculty, student body, and research staff. But the nice thing about the Program is that it will never die, since collegiate communities will continue to form and shape the education of students, faculty, and other affiliates at MIT. In a sense, everyone majors in Non-Academic Studies.
In the end, I never got the chance to live in Simmons Hall, and I quickly graduated before I could be dragged into dealing with the reality of the 2002 housing policy changes. I also never got the Program in Non-Academic Studies officially recognized, though I can't say I tried very hard. Instead, I spent my one year as a graduate student living in the new Sidney-Pacific graduate residence, gaining an understanding of what it is like to live on the ``fringe'' between the central MIT campus and the neighborhood outside of it. This experience has prompted me to think even more seriously about the problem of investing only in buildings, and ignoring the location of uses, spaces, and connections on the campus as a whole that impact the sense of community across MIT. It has also given me a new understanding of the relationship between ``campus'' and ``neighborhood'', and how the campus might be viewed as a part of one or more neighborhoods, an isolated neighborhood in itself, or some combination of the above.
Also during my one year as a graduate student, I became the research assistant for a project called the Cambridge Urban Design Studio, a design class in which students would present recommendations for the future development of the area around MIT. My task was to provide students in the studio with the information on which they could base their design solutions. As a resident of the campus for four years, I felt that I had a knowledge of the area that could be valuable in making design decisions. This prompted me to think, ``Exactly what is it that designers should know, and what important factors should they consider, when they create development recommendations for MIT?''
This thesis represents a marriage of my two fields of study--- my ``real'' academic work in Urban Studies and Planning and my more fanciful inquiry into Non-Academic Studies. It is a project intended to create a strong basis for analyzing and evaluating how the MIT campus performs as a residential environment, that is, how it influences the living and learning experience of those individuals who call it their home. It is driven by my hunch that the MIT campus has not developed in such a way as to accomplish the goals of fostering community-wide interaction, and that through the careful creation of a new development policy and wiser investments into campus design, the campus could be greatly improved for residents. I hope it will be considered, criticized, and perhaps even used by students, faculty, and administrators alike, and that it will aid in future campus development policy and design.
Finally, while I cannot guarantee that the results of this study will be applicable to other universities, it seems that the approach I have taken might be useful in a larger university planning context. In the course of this study I have looked at about all the material available to me relating to residential planning at universities, and, just like at MIT, the focus has almost always been on the internal design of dormitory facilities, with the only larger planning question being how many ``beds'' the university can supply on its campus. Other universities in a similar position to MIT might consider studying how their campus performs as a residential environment, and this thesis may help in guiding such a study.
Copyright MMIII Jeffrey C. Roberts. All rights reserved.