Burton-Conner housemasters step down after eight years

Smith advises successor to be advocate for students

Burton-Conner housemasters Merritt Roe Smith and Bronwyn M. Mellquist announced that they will be stepping down as housemasters in an email to the dorm on Feb. 24.

This was a very difficult decision to make as we have relished the opportunity to live and work with so many fantastic residents of Burton-Conner,” read the email, “Indeed, being your housemasters has been our best experience at MIT. But all good things must end.”

Smith has been a professor for the Program in Science, Technology, and Society (STS) and the history faculty for 34 years, and will continue teaching after he and his wife leave Burton-Conner.

“We have a house in Newton that has been sitting there for eight years basically, and it’s time for us to move back,” he said.

The opportunity to resettle will also give Smith more time for other projects, including a book that he says “is going to be sufficiently demanding that I don’t think I can be a housemaster and do this sort of writing.” The book portrays the American Civil War as a technological event, following not battles but innovative technologies and their impact on the postwar period.

The duo started thinking about the difficult decision to leave Burton-Conner about a year ago. “We always have second thoughts, just about every day, we have second thoughts about ‘did we do the right thing?’” Smith said, adding “we want to go out at the top of our game.”

Their eight-year tenure far exceeds their original expectations. “What we initially thought would be a four-year stint has stretched to eight years, and for a number of reasons, it seems that now is the time for us to move on,” they wrote in their email to Burton-Conner.

According to Smith, “The thing that has been the most interesting, enjoyable, and rewarding has been really living and interacting with the students. We leave the housemaster-ship feeling a lot better about MIT.”

The Beginning

The idea to become housemasters began more than 10 years ago at dinner, when the two started talking about their relationship with MIT students. “I didn’t know the student life side of MIT at all,” Smith said.

The biggest factor in their decision came when Smith’s grad student, a GRT for MacGregor, invited him to become a faculty fellow for J-entry. This allowed Smith to interact with students outside of the classroom.

On the night of Sept. 11, 2001, Smith got a call from the GRT that changed the way he viewed student life at MIT. “He called me up and said, ‘Can you come down tonight because people are really tense?’ I came down and that evening was really a bonding experience. I didn’t say anything at all. I just sort of listened.”

The conversation topics weren’t about politics or terrorism, but instead ranged from family life to baseball. “I left that thinking I’d really like to be a housemaster,” Smith said.

After a three-year wait, Burton-Conner’s housemaster position opened up.

According to Smith, “The irony of all this is that initially Bronwyn did not want to become a housemaster.”

“‘Why would I want to leave a perfectly good house in Newton and move into a dorm?’” Mellquist said, “That was my initial thought — ‘What?!’”

After Smith contacted the Division of Student Life about his interest in the position, he took a quick tour of the Burton-Conner housemaster apartment. “I saw the kitchen, and I thought to myself, ‘If I can get Bronwyn in here to see this kitchen.’” After much discussion, she finally changed her mind.

Smith’s faculty colleagues insisted that he was crazy, but in reality he says the role has helped him become a better professor by understanding how MIT students think and prioritize.

“If I go assigning long papers near the end of term, I’m not doing the right thing because students have got to prioritize with the emphasis on their technical subjects.” He’s rearranged the way he assigns projects in his classes, trying to front-load the “heavy lifting and reading” of his classes.

The previous housemaster, Halston W. Taylor, and his wife invited Smith to GRT meetings, which Smith said was a good opportunity to meet the GRTs and get a sense of how the house was run.

“Activist Housemasters”

“We always felt ourselves as being sort of activist housemasters,” he said.

Smith likes to walk around the halls on the weekend evenings, when students are more likely to be in their lounges and suites. They host floor dinners; they hold a “reverse the stress” study break around finals week “because, ‘desserts’ spells ‘stressed’ backwards!” Mellquist said.

According to the housemasters, the worst experience of their tenure came in 2010 when Burton-Conner resident Emily Obert G was paralyzed in fall a few days before classes began. Smith and Mellquist visited her at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center weekly, and said that every time they came, they saw some of her floormates, the Burton Third Bombers, by her bedside. “She is an amazing young woman,” Mellquist said. “She’s a joy to know.”

The two have been impressed with student engagement at BC. When plans for a new RLA apartment were designed to take space away from student rooms, BC students came up with a solution that was easier, simpler, and cost less money. Similarly, when electric work was about to overtake lounge space on one floor, students immediately reacted with their own proposal.

“We have just really enjoyed living and working with [the residents of Burton-Conner],” Mellquist said.

Her husband couldn’t agree more: “That is true. That is definitely the best thing about being a housemaster.”

They joke that while they have no children of their own, they consider themselves to have more than 340 in the residents of Burton-Conner. The only thing they’d like to change about their time at Burton-Conner is that they wish they’d started earlier, as much as 20 years earlier, as housemasters.

Looking to the future

Mellquist is a little worried about getting the contents housemaster apartment to fit back into their house. “My kitchen is incredibly wonderful here,” she said.

She’s certainly made good use of it. Her baking is a tradition for Burton-Conner students. “She makes a mean apple crisp. You’d think after eight years [the students] would get sick of it,” Smith said.

Their advice to the next Burton-Conner housemasters? “Get new furniture!” Mellquist said, referring to the couches that have been in the apartment since the time of the previous housemaster.

More seriously, they offer one piece of advice: “Be an advocate for the students,” Smith suggested. He says housemasters are helping students in their “metamorphosis” from adolescents to adults. “Get to know the students. Try to understand them.”

Smith and Mellquist will not be involved in the selection process for their replacement housemasters, but Smith asserts the importance of undergraduate involvement in the search. During his time on the Institute Review Committee on Orientation, six undergraduate members helped the staff members realize what their ideas would mean to students.

Out of all those involved in the selection process when they were applying to become housemasters, Smith and Mellquist recall the smart, pointed questions that came from the undergraduates on the selection committee the most.

The search committee for the Burton-Conner position is currently being formed, and will be led by a current faculty housemaster. Two GRTs, and two students from the Burton-Conner community will serve on the committee, as well as several other Housemasters and housing staff, Dean for Student Life Chris Colombo said in an email to The Tech. The goal is to appoint a new Burton-Conner housemaster by the end of this semester.

1 Comment
Anonymous over 11 years ago

I would advise BC to ask candidates what other obligations they have.

In my experience, the housemasters have more time to be housemasters if they have fewer other obligations.

In particular, does the non-professor spouse work? Does their work involve a lot of travel?