"Is MIT a Good Place to Live?" (2003) (a course 11 thesis)

tl;dr - http://web.mit.edu/thejoker/thesis/

"...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..."

"On the campus-wide scale, it is perhaps MIT's greatest failing that it lacks a central place where all residents can gather. It is somewhat shameful that a campus with so much activity going on at all hours should feel so deserted."

I've written before about Ted Jou, the Caltech undergraduate who, in summer 2002, wrote an academic piece on the history and trends of undergraduate student government at Caltech while entering the presidency of the undergraduate body. I gushed about his application of an academic mindset to these sorts of affairs. I've also written before about the Simmons Hall pre-history, written by a guy named Jeffrey Roberts about his experiences with the Simmons Hall Founders' Group.

Well today I learned more about the illustrious Jeffrey Roberts (pictured above), and I found his master's thesis! Class of '02, he was a Course 11, before he went to grad school in course 11. And I'll let him tell you about his own rise through the MIT system (links added by me):

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.

After graduating from MIT the second time, he now works for the City of Cambridge doing zoning things.

So what's in his thesis?

Excerpt 1: from the preface. (emphasis mine)

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.

Excerpt 2: from the "historical overview" section, which does a nice job of exploring the different residential ideas that rose and fell in American college fashion (and the history of the MIT residential system). Also a lot of shoutouts to the discontinued MIT Planning Office (blessed be its name)!

The inclusion of housing as a central element to college campuses continued until the middle of the 19th century. However, with students and faculty living in close proximity and with faculty assuming disciplinary responsibilities over students, conflicts arose which compromised order and even safety within the colleges. As Adelman (p. 31) describes: ``At Princeton in 1802, the students burned down Nassau Hall, the only college building, and in 1814 almost wrecked the hall again by exploding two pounds of gun-powder in a corridor. At Yale in 1828, poor food triggered off the `Bread and Butter Rebellion', and in 1830, riots followed what has come to be known as the `Conic Section Rebellion'. At Harvard, George Bancroft, who became one of America's most famous historians, lost an eye while attempting to quell a riot while another tutor bore a lifelong limp as a memento of his encounter.'' As an example of an even more serious case, ``In one violent scene at the University of Virginia, a professor was killed and armed constables had to be brought in to put down the disorder'' (Dober p. 120).

I have no excerpts from last three sections, not because they're not interesting, but because they're long, and the interestingness is well-distributed. The "I talked to a bunch of students" section, for instance, has a lot of criticism of the shape of dorm row and the isolatingness of Briggs Field, praise for the diversity of food options, criticism for the concrete ascetic of campus, and notes that people felt pretty darn safe even back in 2002 without Allied Barton, among other things.

The conclusion section reveals the biggest point of Roberts' thesis: that he feels there is not enough of an "activity center" of the MIT campus that would bring people together to foster a feeling of campus-wide community. He says that the right place to create this center is at the intersection of Vassar St. and Mass Ave, and spills a lot of words not quite really specifying what he thinks should be there.

No commentary from me this time, because, well, happy Thanksgiving.