MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXIV No. 4
March / April 2012
The Next President of MIT
The Search for MIT's Seventeenth President
MIT 2030: A Capital Planning Framework for the Future
MIT's Ongoing Commitment to OpenCourseWare
New Open Access Working Group Formed:
Formulating Response to Elsevier's Policy Change
MIT: Rebuilding Community
Over-Schooled and Under-Skilled
Faculty Committee Activity: Spring 2012 Update
Travis Merritt and the Founding of Charm School Training Scores Big at MIT:
Gets Personal with lyndaCampus
MAP Program: Calling All Faculty
Workshop: Leadership Skills for Engineering and Science Faculty
On the Creation of MITx
Past Presidents of MIT
Printable Version

MIT: Rebuilding Community

O. R. Simha

As the Institute considers a change in its leadership, it would seem like a good time to consider the issues and opportunities that will confront the next generation of administrative leaders. These will certainly include securing the resources necessary to sustain the kind of institution that MIT has been, wants to be, and can be. It will require that we recognize that while we necessarily dwell on quantitative measures for much of our work, our ultimate success will be measured by our ability to recapture and rejuvenate the close human and intellectual relationships among faculty, students, and staff that have been the hallmark of the MIT learning community. This has been a quality marked by respect and civility, inclusiveness and support for the fact that MIT's greatest successes emerge when the leadership of the Institute devotes itself to ensuring that resources are gathered and directed for the benefit of the faculty and students, the Institute’s primary source of initiative and creativity.

One hopes that the next administration will focus on the vision that there can be a seamless and rich connection between work and personal development. We should expect that it will have the skill and ability to build and sustain a community where social, physical, and governance mechanisms can be devised to make the most of our talents.

The Chair of the Faculty, Professor Sam Allen, has spoken eloquently about the need to rebuild the relationships between individual faculty members and students through direct interaction and collaboration. Professor Woodie Flowers has spoken about the high value of building intellectual capital and shared values through communal effort; and Professor Sherry Turkel has written about the dangers of relationships that are too remote, engendered by too much dependence on electronic media. Their observations suggest that we need to think more clearly and act more vigorously to create opportunities for direct physical interactions between faculty and students in both the academic and residential setting.

For almost a century MIT has tried to build a residential community worthy of its students and faculty; one that recognizes the special character and needs of our diverse community. Building such a community, however, has always seemed to present both a financial and organizational challenge.

President Maclaurin, with his memories of Cambridge University college life, included in his plan for the new MIT a vision of undergraduate residential quadrangles on the new campus in Cambridge. Beginning with Senior House and his own residence on Memorial Drive, the seeds of a residential community were planted. President Karl Compton saw the need to provide housing for graduate students when he came to MIT from Princeton, where graduate life thrived in their graduate center. The reports of the Lewis, Hrones, Ryer, Bush-Brown, and McBay Committees all pressed for a greater commitment to building a residential community. Indeed, in the 1960 Second Century Fund Campaign, a major element was the development of a graduate center and a goal of housing 50 percent of the graduate community in Cambridge. While some progress has been made to meet that goal, the net additions have fallen short, almost always due to a lack of traditional financial resources.

Several attempts have also been made to create a residential community for faculty and staff that would help fulfill the dream of bringing students and faculty together more easily outside the classroom. These efforts included the successful development of 100 Memorial Drive that created rental housing close to the campus, as well as the unsuccessful effort to create a faculty-housing coop in the early 1960s. Later, MIT established the Northgate Community Corporation that was to be a mechanism for developing faculty housing in Cambridge. It did not survive, but the dream did not die. Most recently, an initiative by MIT faculty and staff members to create a cooperative residence in Kendall Square has been only partially successful.

Overcoming Impediments to a Residential Community

Given the rocky road this persistent aspiration has traveled, we might ask why have there been so many impediments to building a residential community at MIT. They seem to boil down to three themes: The place of housing in MIT priorities; land availability; and financial resources. In the face of these difficulties, is it possible to resolve or overcome impediments so that we can move the community building agenda forward?

We can start by rethinking the mechanisms and assumptions we have used in the past. We can explore other models and evaluate their relevance to our situation. We can review our present policies and, where appropriate, shape new strategies and programs. In all of this, we need to return to a tradition of engaging our faculty in shaping the enterprise and committing to nurturing it to maturity. We need to recruit passionate leadership who will have the authority and responsibility to keep the program on course. While this may mean more demands on our time, it has the makings of a richer and more satisfying life at MIT.

For example, our graduate students, a community that continues to ask for creative solutions to their housing and community needs, provide an ideal opportunity for fresh thinking and new approaches to community building.

Looking back over 50 years of involvement with MIT's planning for housing graduate students and faculty, I realize that we only made progress when two thing were in synchronous orbit: The leadership of the Institute felt it was desirable for the well-being of the community, or they believed there was a crisis, either generated by local political concerns or by competitive challenges.

The constraints on progress have always been the availability of financial and physical resources. With the exception of the original graduate housing at Senior House championed by President MacLaurin and Ashdown House established by President Compton, all graduate housing has been debt financed. In the aftermath of the Second World War, we housed veterans and their families on the West Campus by using the federal public housing program. In the 60s and 70s we used the low interest, College Housing Loan Program. When that was closed out during the Reagan Administration in the 1980s, we developed the Graduate Housing Fund, which would be used exclusively to build and/or rehabilitate housing for graduate students. The source of the fund was a subvention from student rents: a decision that graduate student leaders supported because they saw that it was in the long-term interests of graduate students.

With the exception of the Tang family gift for a portion of the cost of Tang Residence Hall, we have not sought nor received significant gift funds for graduate housing. Furthermore, there was a view on the part of some in the administration that raising funds for graduate housing would be in direct competition for funds needed for academic and research purposes. As a result, recent graduate housing has been financed either by the Graduate Housing Fund or through debt financing. The expectation is that rents will cover the cost of operations, amortization, and interest. Based on a study prepared by the Graduate Student Council last year, the cost of housing in Cambridge now represents 54% of a graduate student’s pre-tax income.

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A New Plan for Graduate Student Housing

As we think about our hopes for a vibrant research program attracting the best students from around the world, the special relations we have established with various countries, from Singapore to Russia, and our desire to build a community of diversity and hospitality here in Cambridge, we need to confront the challenge that our housing and financial policies have not kept up with our aspirations. It is a problem that calls for fresh solutions.

One example of a creative response to student housing that may be instructive exists just a few metro stops from the center of Paris.

In the aftermath of the First World War, there was a great concern for improving international understanding through cultural exchange as one way to reduce international misunderstandings. At that time in Paris, there was a great surge of young people from all over the world, seeking higher education at the city's institutions – students who hoped to build a new world of understanding and peace. However, Paris then faced a housing shortage as a result of these new pressures, but a small group of government officials and private businessmen came up with a creative response to the challenge.

The principal author of the new student-housing plan was Andre Honnorat, French Minister of Public Education. Honnorat proposed the creation of a foundation to establish a residential quarter for students: A University City "Cité internationale universitaire de Paris" where students would live and study with other students from all nations and persuasions, establishing relationships that could make for lifelong personal connections and contribute to international peace and understanding.

A public foundation to undertake the enterprise was established. Land close to the city center was purchased with funds from philanthropists and building sites were offered on leasehold to national governments and private donors who would sponsor both the building of residential pavilions and an endowment to ensure their long-term financial viability. Sixteen pavilions were opened within seven years. There are now 37 such residences at the site, financed by countries all over the world. From time to time, the foundation offers opportunities for the development of additional pavilions. China and Russia are among the recent candidates.

The buildings are fully funded by the donor countries and or other sponsors. The donor countries are also required to establish endowments to support the administration, cultural programs, and rental subsidies where needed. The residences are required to limit their own nationals to 30 percent of the occupants to ensure that the original aspiration of integration and diversity is met. The national residences offer programs and dining options representing their culture to all members of the University City. The buildings include designs by famous national architects. Best known is the Swiss pavilion, designed by Le Corbusier; but many others are elegant representatives of national architectural traditions.

The overarching foundation provides coordination and services to all the individual units. It also provides some central facilities. Funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, they include cafés, athletic facilities, a library, childcare, etc. A member of the Conseil d'Etat, France's supreme civil court, is the chair of the foundation. Each residence has a board that is responsible for ensuring the continuing financial support of the residence.

To put this example in an MIT context, there are 7-10 opportunities or sites designated for graduate and staff housing that MIT controls both on and adjacent to the campus that could be put to use in our version of such a program. The sites provide for different scales of development, so that there can be variety in the size of these buildings and their capital and operating costs. The development of these sites, set out in the campus plan published in 1998, could go far in meeting the long-term housing needs of the graduate and, in part, the faculty community. At an average size of 200 beds, the capital investment would require about $25 to $30 million, plus an endowment of ~$5-10 million. At this scale, many countries and individuals could afford to participate in this program. A country would gain a presence on the MIT campus, some guaranteed housing for their students, and an opportunity to mount programs that could celebrate their cultural gifts with the entire MIT community, thereby contributing to the kind of cultural offerings that would bring new strength and meaning to our goals for diversity.

MIT has over 2400 graduate students from abroad this year. China, India, and Korea top the list. But there are also 10 other countries with more than 50 graduate students at MIT today. If one were to look at the countries that have profited over the years from having their students enjoy an MIT education, one could easily see that there are a number of countries that might welcome the opportunity to participate in this program.

One could envision establishing a campaign that would recruit prominent MIT graduates from abroad to assist in the fundraising effort and to perhaps serve on the board of the foundation. Graduates like Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the UN, and other prominent MIT alumni would give this effort the visibility and prominence it deserves.

In this brief review, I have tried to suggest that there are different ways of looking at the financing and development of housing for graduate students at MIT.

I hope that the next administration will engage the faculty and alumni in pursuing this or other initiatives so that we may expand the ways in which we can build a more vibrant, diverse, and self-supporting community at the Institute.

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