Senior House Decision Process

The following letter to the editor from the Chancellor was published in The Tech on July 26, 2017.

To the Editors,

Given the high level of interest in facts surrounding the Senior House decision, I thought it might help to lay out the milestone events of the last year and share my thinking.

I've also posted a detailed set of FAQs.

One note: Since last summer, at the request of Senior House residents, we have not been publicly sharing details about issues in the house. This has left many people wondering why our communications seem deliberately vague. While respecting student privacy, I will be as specific as I can.

The milestones:

June 2016 – Our initial decision
Looking at data from the MIT registrar, we discovered that the percentage of Senior House students who were never graduating was much higher than for the student body as a whole (21.1% vs. 7.7%). Among a constellation of concerning issues, this prompted us to close the house to the incoming freshman class, and to launch an effort to promote each resident's well being and personal and intellectual growth. We called this the turnaround.

Through the summer, we worked with Senior House students to design the turnaround process.

Fall 2016 – Launch of the turnaround
I appointed a turnaround team of 47 people, including 28 residents and several Senior House alums. Beginning in the fall, we met frequently, as a group and in subcommittees.

MIT has a distinctive tradition of involving students in many important decisions about how the Institute is run; in designing the turnaround, this spirit of mutual respect and trust is exactly what we had in mind. We wanted student self governance to prevail, and we were hopeful that it could produce a healthy result. In fact, as The Tech reported last December, I told house residents that I believed they were on a positive trajectory to have freshmen in the house in September 2017.

Spring 2017 – Progress derailed
Unfortunately, in the spring we received highly credible reports of unsafe and illegal behavior in Senior House. To understand the situation better, we began a formal review, consisting of interviews with house residents as well as extensive ongoing conversations that Dean Nelson and I had with both residents and house leaders.

April-May 2017 – The review
The review made clear that multiple students had engaged in unsafe, illegal behavior, on multiple occasions. Importantly, it revealed a prevailing environment that enabled and even encouraged such behavior. We also learned that some students who were troubled by the illegal behavior felt silenced by members of the Senior House community. Together these signs told us that Senior House self governance was broken.

We concluded that the turnaround had failed.

We thought it might still be possible to restore self governance and allow members of the Senior House community who were not involved in or accepting of the troubling behavior to create a fresh version of the house: a reset.

June 12, 2017 – The reset
Because a subset of residents was determined to keep Senior House unchanged, the only hope for a reset to succeed was to ask everyone to leave and reapply. So on June 12th, we did.
However, as the process began, prospective new residents reported facing personal pressure from some Senior House residents and alumni about how they should behave, as well as an intensive campaign to reconstitute the Senior House status quo.

Undermined in this way, the reset was bound to fail, too.

July 7, 2017 – Our decision to use the building as graduate housing
Our fundamental obligations to student safety and wellbeing forced us to choose a new path. Judging that a community of graduate students would be better able to withstand outside pressure and create a new culture of their own, we decided to use the building to house graduate students only.

As I explained in a July 11 letter to undergraduates, we had run out of workable and realistic options. We had to close the house and start again.

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Both students and alumni have raised questions about whether a residential community should be disrupted because some of its members behaved badly. But I hope you can see that the issues ran deeper than that. This was not about any single incident, or just a couple of students who broke the rules. And it was certainly not a verdict on east side culture.

More broadly, it was about a house environment that made it impossible for us to move forward constructively, even with those residents willing to work with us in good faith. And it was about a loss of trust, including with individuals we thought were committed to the turnaround.

I know this decision has caused deep distress for many people. And it was not the outcome we spent a year striving to achieve.

One of its painful consequences is the elimination of a space on campus that has been very important to our LBGTQ+ students. We are working actively with all residents to make sure they each find a welcoming living situation and to ensure that the staff in every residence is trained to understand issues they may face. We are also starting work with LBGTQ+ student leaders to find new ways to support their community.

One final note: I have not referred to the 2015 Healthy Minds study. It was not relevant to any of our decisions this year. If you have questions about it, you can read more here.

I am certain some in the MIT community disagree with our conclusions. But I hope it is clear to everyone that we take to heart our responsibility for student well being, pay close attention to all the input we receive, seek and weigh every available option, and make our best judgments – with our students at the center of the process, and at the center of our thoughts.

Respectfully,

Cynthia Barnhart