Since the start of the 2018-19 Academic Year, Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart and Dean for Student Life Suzy Nelson have been working with students, heads of house, house teams, and other community members to identify ways to enhance the first-year undergraduate housing experience. Barnhart and Nelson recently spoke about the concerns that prompted their collaboration with students and the student-generated ideas that will be implemented this fall.
Q: Why did you undertake this effort to work with students on improving the room-assignment and move-in process?
Cindy: As we mentioned in our February email, we have heard from individual students, their parents, and faculty and staff members that the room-assignment and move-in experience can potentially be stressful, confusing, and alienating.
In particular, we’ve been concerned about one aspect of mutual selection – when upper-level students pick or rank incoming students to live on their floor, entryway, or hallway. Students have told us this process makes them feel like they don’t have a lot of say or choice in where they ultimately live. Also, the students who aren’t selected through this process sometimes feel rejected and unwelcomed. We thought we owed it to those students who do have a poor experience to try to make things better. So that’s why we asked all students to think this through with us and to identify different ways to accomplish a goal we all share – improving the experience for all students when they first arrive on campus.
Suzy: We know that the negative effects of these housing practices are not intentional—no upper-level student sets out to hurt someone by choosing one student to live in their community over another. But the system of students selecting students creates “winners” and “losers”; those who are accepted into a community for some personal reasons, and those who are not. Feeling rejected within the first few days of being on campus—a time that’s already pretty nerve-wracking and overwhelming—really concerned us because it was painful for some students, and that isn’t who we are at MIT.
We envisioned the design exercise effort as a way of learning more about each house’s move-in process and having students generate solutions for addressing these challenges. It was important to students and to us that we supported the unique characteristics and norms of each house, which is part of what makes MIT’s housing system special. The tradition of shared governance is also important; it’s a cornerstone of the MIT student experience, and we worked very hard to uphold shared governance, while also addressing practices that are out of step with our values of creating living communities that are welcoming, inclusive, and affirming of all.
Q: Some students were skeptical that changes needed to be made and they were concerned about the administration getting involved in house government. How do you respond?
Cindy: The Institute’s senior leadership and the Corporation have charged Suzy and me with strengthening student life and learning at MIT. Given what we knew about the move-in experience having a negative effect on some students, we had a responsibility to explore alternatives that are more aligned with who we are at MIT. We thought that the best way to do that was in partnership with student leaders and house teams. And that’s exactly what we started doing in the fall and throughout the spring semester.
This approach is very much in keeping with MIT’s definition of shared governance and problem-solving: we’ve been made aware of some challenges, and we’ve teamed up with students to identify solutions. That’s what happened at the March 2 design exercise workshop we held. Student leaders presented proposals—designed for their own houses—for alleviating undue stress, rejection, and a lack of personal agency by suggesting approaches for eliminating forced moves and upper-level students choosing first-years to live on their floor or entryway. Many creative ideas were presented at the workshop. Some new strategies include designating a space in the house where students who feel overwhelmed by exploring the residence hall and finding a place to live can take a breather and seek guidance from upper-level peers or members of the house team. Student leaders recognized that some new students may want to opt-out of the exploration lottery, so each house will have a way for new students to do that. Other good ideas from the workshop include improving communications with incoming students, incentivizing more upper-level students to help first-years move between rooms, developing algorithms to depersonalize the room-assignment process, and streamlining the distribution of IDs and room keys.
Suzy: The workshop helped participants compare and contrast students’ proposals with their current practices. We learned that the exploration and move process is more nuanced than we originally thought. For example, we now know that the second round of moves can help with community building and information-sharing when first-years are incentivized—or required—to meet other first-years and upper-level students.
We appreciate students’ ideas that offered a better balance between encouraging exploration in a supportive way and addressing the stress that can come with forced moves. That’s why we will be supporting students’ decisions about which exploration ideas work best for their house. And we are talking to house leaders now about what resources DSL can offer so they can effectively implement and assess the changes they make next fall.
Q: What is your hope for the outcome of this effort in the fall?
Suzy: First and foremost, I appreciate that students care deeply about their house communities and that we needed to respond to some students’ sense of rejection or stress that resulted simply from trying to find a place to live. By focusing room assignments on new students’ preferences and on community priorities such as balancing gender composition, advancing a community’s diversity goals, or meeting other floor and student needs around available space, sleep schedules, study preferences, cooking responsibilities, or cleanliness, we believe we will continue to create a positive living experience for students. Encouraging exploration of different floors, while also providing ways for any student who is stressed by the process to opt out, is another good way to support first-years when they first arrive on campus. The DSL team is committed to working with all houses on measuring the effectiveness of these strategies and the others we try. We are already working with DormCon to implement updates to the Post-REX and House Life surveys to assess whether the changes we make have the desired impact.
Cindy: Yes, it’s important that we get this right, and we’re committed to continuing into next academic year the dialogue and collaboration that have been a hallmark of this effort. Having room-assignment and move-in practices that are affirming of new students’ choices to come to MIT and that uphold MIT values are worth the effort. And we’re very glad to have students and house teams as partners in this critical work.