Dormcon's 100th birthday

(Preface 0: STS.050 - The History of MIT - is a class next semester! I’m gonna take it! You should take it with me!)

(Preface 1: This semester I’ve been writing a lot about dorms at MIT. I’m no longer an officer of Dormcon, and I’m going to be taking STS.050, so hopefully you can expect me to write about a greater variety of topics next semester.)

(Preface 1.5: But not today.)

When MIT was founded, as Boston Tech, our campus was in Boston. We officially “moved” to the Cambridge campus in June 1916, as soon as all the buildings were done being constructed (MIT is going to be having a whole bunch of events next semester to commemorate the move, and I’m sure you’ll hear about them). But today’s focus is on only one of these buildings: the six dormitory units on Amherst street.

(Left: the old campus. Right: the new campus.)

MIT had never had dorms before, and didn’t really know what to do about them. Planning of the campus was largely being conducted by the faculty and by an Alumni Council, but on the dorms they were flummoxed. A. F. Bemis ‘93, the chair of the Alumni Council, wrote the following to the president of the Institute Committee (the student government) in December 1915:

“...By supervision, we refer to the system of government or discipline and the maintenance of order. In some colleges this is accomplished (a) wholly through a supervisor or proctor in each dormitory, appointed by the college. Such a supervisor is usually an instructor or a postgraduate student. Other institutions leave this supervision (b) entirely to a committee of student dormitory inmates, this committee reporting directly to the Dean or other similar officer of the college. Between these two systems there is a wide range of methods, (c) combinations or modifications of these two forms...The undersigned alumni would consider it a favor if you would put the question as to which of the three general methods of supervision (a, b, or c) described above would bring the mutually best results in the administration of the proposed new dormitories...”

On December 20th, a man named A. A. Cushman wrote to the Tech (page 2), suggesting that each section of the dorm be left to handle its own affairs, and that a Dormitory Council of section representatives and advisors be created to set the rules of behavior in the dorm and to which disputes could rise if not resolved at a lower level.

On December 21st, the Institute Committee put this plan in more careful language, renamed it from a Council to a Committee, made sure it would be advised by alumni but answer to the student Institute Committee, and sent the proposal (page 4) to the Alumni Council.

By January the Tech was fawning over the plan (page 2):

“Whether the Alumni Council decides to carry out the recommendation to the letter, is of minor importance. Of major importance is the underlying principle that the administration shall be left wholly in the hands of the students. This is the principle which has been applied at the summer camp, it is the principle which has been applied at the Institute, it is the principle that has been the chief factor in enabling Technology to turn out responsible men, rather than educated boys. The Alumni Council will not only be serving Technology in applying this principle to the new dormitories, but it will be serving the cause of democracy as taught to American citizens in American colleges.”

Due to a gap in the Tech’s archives, we don’t know how the Alumni Council received the proposal, and we don’t know the time and method with which the Dormitory Committee was officially formed. But we do know that when the dorms opened in November 1916, the Tech was praising “the method of self-government proposed by the Institute Committee and heartily endorsed by the Dean”, so the date of the InsComm proposal - December 21, 1915 - seems as good a day as any to call the birth of dorm government at MIT.

The role of the Dormitory Committee shifted over the years. It began as an organization for keeping order, arguing about parietal rules and whether to hold smokers or dances. As MIT opened more and more dormitories, and section representatives grew into leaders of house governments, DormComm slowly shifted from “a ruling body of the dormitories” to more of “a forum-type organization”, as highlighted by a 1959 constitutional change which redefined its purpose to be “to secure for the individual dormitories' residents through mutual effort those benefits which could not be obtained by the separate house committees”. In 1954, it quietly changed its name from the Dormitory Committee (DormComm) to the Dormitory council (Dormcon) without any apparent reason. And despite twice nearly voting to dissolve itself four years ago, it’s still here today.

Happy 100th, Dormcon.

sadun

P.S. If you’re a dorm resident, you should add yourself to dormcon-announce@mit.edu in order to get a reminders and agendas for the bimonthly Dormcon meetings.

P.P.S. You might have noticed the dorms opened in November 1916, and you might be wondering “...how can a dorm open in November??” Well, they weren’t supposed to open in November, they were supposed to open in September with the rest of campus. But construction wasn’t done. So they converted the first floor of Building 1 into a dorm, by cramming it with bunk beds, and housed the to-be dorm occupants there for a couple of months. It eventually became called “The Morgue”, and the situation produced the following amusing quote in an article about the construction process:

"The Bursar said that of all the work of the Institute in the erecting of the new buildings and the disorder of hurried moving, this dormitory question has been the most disappointing part of the whole affair. Every day he has hundreds of inquiries as to when they will be completed, and to these he can give no definite answer. He is especially concerned over the freshmen who have come here fully expecting to have a room in readiness for them, but instead have been forced to look out for themselves in a strange city."

The six dorm units opened on Monday, November 6, 1916. The two on the end were being used to house ΔΤΔ and ΔΚΕ, but for the four in the middle - then called “B” through “E” sections, now    called Atkinson, Runkle, Holman, and Nichols - had elections for section representatives as soon as possible.

If anyone ever tries to tell you Senior House was MIT’s first dorm, and you feel like being a pedantic asshole, tell them about The Morgue.