Opinion guest column

Rejection, boycotts: moving forward with mutual selection

Compromise and better communication should be sought between the student body and administration about the changing dorm policies

Amidst the growing number of housing controversies that seem to jeopardize student culture without regard for student opinion, some students have been trying to take matters into their own hands to get the administration’s attention. Among these plans was a boycott of CPW to protest the new “design exercise,” which imposes restrictions on mutual selection and allows squatting for freshmen during the rooming process. While it is frustrating that the administration seems to hold little regard for student input, the CPW boycott and the narrative around housing changes have been binary and ineffective for all parties. To shed some light on the issue, I’ll share some of my experiences with REX, thoughts on the process, and suggestions for the administration and ourselves to sow a better conversation around housing changes.

When I stepped foot on campus in August, I was anxious: for the next week or two, many decisions I made could come to affect a large portion of the next four years of my experience at MIT. Understandably, I wanted to make the “right” decisions — that is, set myself up to find great friends; meet new, interesting people; and help myself become the person I strive to be. Never before had I possessed the opportunity to explore so much, so quickly. This put a lot of pressure on me, and, as I can imagine, many others coming here to a new world.

It was not until I arrived and started meeting people in my temporary dorm, Burton Conner, that I found out about mutual selection. It bothered me that I wouldn’t have as much control over what my living situation could look like as I had anticipated, and it seemed arbitrary that others would have so much say in where I would be spending my first year. I spoke with many other freshmen who expressed the same concern. Despite consolation that upperclassmen would have “less of a say” in the rooming process than in previous years, there was very little information given to us about the process or our influence in it. It also created the dilemma between exploring many new communities and getting to know a few communities very well so I’d have a better chance at being accepted to the places where I may want to live. The process is only a week, after all.

These are a few reasons indicating that mutual selection as it exists now is neither an ideal system nor a very refined one: the mutual selection process doesn’t consider many variables that the initial housing placement process does.

This puts undue stress on parents as well, as Chancellor Barnhart has mentioned briefly. The uncertainty surrounding where their children will be, the cost of housing, or the environment they’re in are more than considerable. While MIT — and college in general — is a chance to push your boundaries, explore outside the jurisdiction of your parents, and grow as an adult, parents still have a horse in this race. For example, the difference between a triple and a single in BC is around $1,000. While my family always finds a way to make ends meet, this is not a trivial difference and not something that should be left up to other students. Many mutual selection implementations don’t account for these concerns, and students should not be forced to share financial information with other students to find an affordable living situation. For my and other students’ families, the option to squat would be imperative in situations like these: it would allow our financial concerns to have a stronger voice carried over from the initial rooming placement process.

Despite its imperfections, mutual selection is still paramount in cultivating a floor culture. The fact that regret, upperclassman complacency, and community dissolution could result from removing mutual selection is a no-brainer. However, significant imperfections in the current process do exist, and it’s hard to argue that it’s morally wrong for the administration to try to decrease negativity surrounding the selection process. That’s why we should advocate for compromise, not control.

The boycott, however, did not look to find compromise. The nature behind the CPW boycott seemed to contradict many of the community values it attempted to defend. I know if I had seen this during my CPW, it would have impacted my desire to attend MIT. Perhaps that was part of the goal, but should it have been? To see students with such tunnel vision to preserve their impact and theirs alone on the school shows disregard that MIT is other people’s school, too. In just four years, almost the entire undergraduate population will be replaced with other students, holding different ideals and having a different definition of what “culture” means to them. These are the people we are going to live with, the people who are going to become a part of our lives for the rest of our time at MIT and beyond. In just a few short months, a new portion of this bubble will become the people we live, eat, and study with. Do we really want to show them a chauvinistic mentality or impose on them our idea of community?

We should utilize and amplify existing avenues for making our voice heard. As with government representatives, direct contact can be an effective way to communicate our passion about an issue. The DSL has set up many modes of discussion in the past, including faculty panels and Suzy Nelson’s “office hours.” The DSL has also been willing to accept invitations to discuss the design exercise with students. Attending these events helps give us a larger voice and provide more perspective on what we value about the housing selection process. Hearing the other side fosters healthier communication and demonstrates that we are willing to work with administration to find a solution that works for both parties. An email or a phone call can also be effective. Attend the discussions. Send those emails. Call those phones. Let them know your thoughts and why they matter.

Additionally, the administration must show what they are doing to consider student concern such that students feel less need to take drastic measures to make a point. The administration needs to improve on implementing student input. Listening alone is not enough. If one thing is certain, more transparency about when and what input they take in is needed. If they are truly considering student input, little is being done to show what is being implemented and why other things are not. Reaching out to dorm executives, Adriana Jacobsen, president of East Campus, reported in an email conversation with me that one of students’ main frustrations with the existing avenues of communication is being “heard, but not listened to.” As an example, she described this about a meeting coordinated between the DSL and East Campus:

“One recurring frustration voiced after the meeting was from residents who felt that every concern they raised about negative implications resulting from single-sided selection and squatting, whether they were regarding logistics, diversity, or student comfort, was met with a response along the lines of ‘that's an issue you'll have to consider when writing your proposal.’”

Clear implementation of student input is key in resolving these frustrations, and necessary for an effective conversation moving forward.

Along the same lines, administrators must justify their reasoning behind these changes in a timely manner. In an email to students, Barnhart and Nelson detailed their reasoning and provided data on why they believe the design exercise is important for improving student life. Releasing the data and their analysis on how students felt about REX drastically improves credibility and demonstrates that there truly is a need for new policies. Nonetheless, this email should have come much earlier. Without the DSL’s rationale, the design exercise seemed arbitrary, and the delay made the justification seem more like pretext. Students are justified in feeling that their communities are under attack when the imposition of these policies feels so autocratic. Releasing the data and reasoning is a major step forward in showing that this really is a positive change for MIT and student life. However, moving forward, justification should come before action is taken.

Housing at MIT is a many-sided issue. Compromise should be the goal, not the enemy. The binary “us-or-the-administration” narrative around this issue is unhelpful and champions hard feelings on both sides. We have an opportunity to show not only the vibrant and active cultures mutual selection can foster, but also what could be improved about the process. This is a complicated problem; shouting “no” at it doesn’t help us find the nuanced solution it deserves.

Christian Scarlett is a member of the MIT Class of 2022 studying Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. He is a resident of Burton Conner House.