Upper-level students can no longer ‘rank or pick’ new students to live in their communities

‘We don’t want to force exploration. We want to champion exploration,’ Suzy Nelson says

Starting this fall, upper-level students cannot “rank or pick” which new students live in their community, according to an email from Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart PhD ’88 and Vice President and Dean for Student Life Suzy Nelson sent to the MIT community May 9 — thus ending the practice of mutual selection in its current form.

The issue of “mutual selection was about a sense of rejection that a minority of students felt,” and it was “out of step” with MIT’s values, Nelson said in an interview with The Tech.

“We feel very strongly” about eliminating mutual selection as it is currently “operationalized” from here onwards, Nelson said.

Upper-level students can still have limited input, but only based on “non-personal factors,” with the email citing examples such as gender balance, sleep schedules, and cooking commitments.

While the design exercise announced January required dorms to allow for first-year squatting, which drew criticism from dorm leaders for the logistical and cultural problems this change might create, Barnhart and Nelson appear to have compromised on this issue.

“First-year students may opt out of exploration and required moves if they are unduly stressed or overwhelmed,” the email said, but this is in alignment with the ad-hoc practices many dorms already have in place, Nelson explained in the interview.

“We don’t want to force exploration. We want to champion exploration,” Nelson said.

Dorms presented their design proposals — some of which met the requirements of eliminating mutual selection and permitting squatting, and some of which didn’t, but improved upon the current system — in a workshop March 2. Dorm leaders also met with Barnhart and Nelson individually.

“We changed our position — we became very flexible after the design exercise and hearing the suggestions that students had for improving the process that might still allow for exploration. And so we said okay, let’s try it,” Nelson said.

The student ideas were centered around improving communication, Nelson said, especially having a centralized way of ensuring that first-year students know what to expect from the room assignment and move-in process.

Burton Conner, which previously allowed each floor to submit a list of students that they think would be a good fit, will be transitioning to a “values based assignment process,” according to a document forwarded to The Tech by Alice Zhang ’21, president of BC.

First-year preferences will be the “highest determining factor,” according to the document, which outlines BC’s fall 2019 rooming procedure. If space permits, students should be assigned to their first choice, “barring extenuating circumstances” such as an intrapersonal conflict.

If there are space constraints, the emphasis will be on making sure the first-year students share values and expectations with the floors they seek to live on, based on a set of principles written by residents and the house team.

The goal is to “maximize happiness” for the first years, the document said.

Zhang said in a phone call with The Tech that while individuals in BC will be less involved in the rooming process than before, she thinks the short-term effects of the change will not be “too dramatic.”

However, Zhang said she is more worried about how the fact that BC will be closed for renovations (from June 2020 to August 2022) will affect the process. “Who knows what they’ll do to rooming once that’s over? There’s nothing we can do to stop them from [establishing] a totally algorithms-based process,” Zhang said.

“I’m worried about how the data will be looked at and taken into account for future years,” Zhang continued. Zhang said that dorm government hopes that after a “serious examination,” if the results of the new system are worse than before, “there is a possibility of going back.”

MacGregor House’s current system takes into account both first years’ preferences and upper-level students’ ratings, with the former being weighted much more heavily. Because the process is already algorithm-based, president Anthony Cheng ’20 said in a phone call with The Tech that he does not think moving away from mutual selection will change things significantly for MacGregor.

The new algorithm will produce, based on the first years’ rankings, 10 or more outcomes of “equal happiness,” according to a document forwarded to The Tech by Cheng.

Entries will be given the different sets of possible first years assigned to them, and the most popular result will be determined by instant runoff voting. If the algorithm generates more than 10 options, entries may also veto one set.

The resulting process is a “fair compromise,” Cheng said.

Cheng also questioned the choice to put so much emphasis on these particular aspects of the rooming process. “If we spent this much time on a five to six hour period on a Wednesday night in August — if we took that time and spent it on ‘bigger problems’ like the housing shortage, food insecurity, or the cost of tuition, I’m sure we could have made … an even more readily apparent change,” Cheng said.

On a smaller scale, things like better lighting, working with the fire department to allow for induction burners, and more murals could also directly improve dorm life, Cheng said.

The presidents of New House and East Campus, the other two dorms that currently have mutual selection, did not respond to The Tech’s request for comment.