Resilience Amidst Adversity: MIT’s Struggle with East Side Culture

Publisher’s note: This piece was originally released on May 24 in an email to the MIT undergraduate community (“[EASTSIDE] Paper on Admin Past + Present Actions”).

The history of MIT is littered with struggle and change, and nowhere is this more true than the East Side. Once a collection of MIT’s oldest undergraduate residence halls, the East Side has notably attracted low-income students due to low room and boarding costs and artistic folk for the historic muraling policies. From the park where Bexley once stood to the currently empty East Campus courtyard, and from the now quiet and white-washed halls of ‘70 Amherst St’ to the still vibrant but partially covered murals of Random Hall, the humans who reside within these residence halls pride themselves on being part of communities starkly against the grain of society. 

These residential communities nestled deep in MIT's main campus have served as centers of queer culture since the opening of Senior House in 1916. They have functioned as so much more than dorms, continuously providing sanctuary and solidarity to LGBTQ+ and similarly marginalized students in an otherwise hostile campus environment. From their earliest days welcoming residents to the present day, these communities have been at the forefront of many advocacy efforts, challenging the status quo and demanding recognition and respect. However, their very existence is threatened by institutional policies that have sought to "reduce liability" and sanitize the campus environment at the expense of diversity and inclusivity. Even now, institutional authorities seek to repress dissent and maintain a veneer of conformity, as evidenced by the administrative response to recent protests. 

East Side history is not a tale of triumph; rather, it is one of a constant struggle against institutional policies that have sought to suppress the voices of marginalized individuals. Unfortunately, since the early 2000s, students have been fighting a losing battle as East Side dorms have been targeted and systematically dismantled one by one. From the demolition of Bexley to the controversial decision to "reform" and then close Senior House and the ongoing struggles over East Campus policies, MIT's administration has consistently prioritized the interests of its institutional reputation over the well-being of its students.  Drawing upon archived websites, news articles, oral histories, and a personal analysis of contemporary events, I seek to reveal the resilience demonstrated by this vibrant community in navigating and resisting institutional oppression.

Bexley Hall was the first victim to fall at the hands of the Institute, demolished back in 2013. According to an anonymous blog post hosted on the EC website, it was “a gateway to the East Side, conveniently situated on the West'' [2]. The official Bexley website, still actively hosted on MIT’s servers years later, states that “We at Bexley feel that dormitory residents have the right to live in an environment that suits their own tastes, and in that spirit we demand of our prospective housemates nothing at all except consideration for the rights of others'' [1].  Bexley served as a sanctuary for LGBTQ+ students, students from low-income backgrounds, and other oddballs for whom its culture of absolute personal freedom offered a refuge from the heteronormative and restrictive statutes that permeated many college campuses in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. At Bexley, residents found not only a place to live but also a space to express themselves freely, whether through art, music, gender, sexuality, or activism. The culture of Bexley was shaped by its decentralized government structure and anti-authoritarian attitude. Bexley developed a reputation of doing the exact opposite of what was expected: instead of a rush, Bexley held an “anti-rush” where they would attempt to scare freshmen away from living in the dorm. A Bexley alumnae whom I spoke with said the purpose of anti-rush was to ensure that “...only people who would join would be those who couldn't be scared, rather than people who just wanted to be close to campus.”  The social culture is accounted as very tight-knit within the dorm but antisocial to outsiders. Residents fostered a collective spirit of defiance against perceived injustices perpetrated by MIT's administration and the broader legal system. 

The culture of anti-admin and anti-governance at Bexley was not merely about defiance for defiance's sake, but rather a conscious effort to reclaim agency and autonomy in the face of oppression. A famous (and purposefully hilarious) example of organized defiance is Bexley’s response to an FBI raid, spurred by rumors of a drug distribution network run out of the basement. Beginning with a “Welcome FBI” sign and ending with an overly padlocked chest containing none of the evidence the agents were searching for, the raid is a story of creating hilarity in the face of authority and serves as a now classic example of Eastside ethos [4].

By 2013, the building was separating from the foundation, so there was a defined reason for the building’s demolition. The decision to put a park over the remains of the foundation instead of building a new undergrad dorm is harder to attribute to anything structural, especially in the face of a past and current housing crisis. Current community members are under the impression that administration saw a way to ‘be rid’ of a problematic sect of campus culture and ran with it. However, Bexley is the least accessible in regards to information: my account of their culture and downfall is hurt by the fact that it was so far in the past for those on campus now, that we’ve lost connection with the part of the community that was distinctly Bexley. 

After its closure and demolition, its current residents were absorbed into other East Side communities. As time has passed, alumni have become harder to identify and contact. Thus, I doubt I’ll be able to track down a conclusive answer on the true reasoning for the demolition. Despite its loss, the ethos of defiance present in Bexley's culture lives on throughout the East Side, and it especially took hold in Senior House. 

The internal organization of Bexley and Senior House were very different, and the cultures of each community were very distinct. Bexley had a pseudo-anarchist government, whereas Senior House had a more typical dorm government. Bexley only took in those that lived without fear, while Senior House was a haven for misfits with an official motto of “A home for Wayward Beavers.” Alumni accounts of the culture describe it as a place where those who had struggled to find acceptance prior to MIT could be understood without question and loved for their differences instead of in spite of them. From the biker bar mysteriously present in the basement to the cozy customized lounges, there was a space for everyone who wished to be there, no matter where they came from. However, a welcoming culture draws in more than just people, and it was this culture that put a target on the backs of the Senior House community. 

The origin of the Senior House–admin conflict stems from the greater problems that come with institutional memory. MIT is administered, or at least administratively influenced by the MIT corporation. The further up the organizational chain you go, the higher potential there is for the administrator in question to be under-informed about the current culture and community of any given dorm. This is the result of an inherent disconnect between high-level administrators and the student body, aided by the fact that students cycle through the institute and graduate with some regularity, while administrators can remain embedded through lengthy careers.

When the culture of Senior House was called into question, it was the result of a survey administered under false pretenses. As far as residents were informed, the survey was centered around student mental health, which was anonymized and administered by another college [7]. Advisory alumni such as Mark Feldmeier encouraged the residents to be truthful in their responses to the misrepresented survey in the hopes that MIT would increase and improve the resources available to a community struggling with mental health concerns. Unfortunately, the description they were given was false in every sense. MIT administration gave the survey themselves, then took the non-anonymized survey results and turned them on Senior House specifically, attempting to use drug use statistics to crack down on the community. Looking back, Feldmeier states that the downfall of Senior House was “Set up like a chess game…[and] it’s easier to see how residents were played as pawns of the administration.” 

This ‘smoking gun’ was unusable based on the falsehoods under which the survey was conducted, so then-Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart cited comparatively low graduation rates as evidence for her moralistic viewpoint of ‘doing the difficult yet correct thing and saving MIT from the scourge of Senior House’ [7]. Interviewing residents like Megan Levin and alumni like Feldmeier quickly puts this viewpoint on blast. First and foremost, the draw of this community to queer, low-income, and otherwise marginalized/minority students means that the individuals within start out a rung lower than the ‘average’ MIT student [7]. Additionally, drug use was not only much lower at the time that admin attacked Senior House than in prior years [7] but also a community focus on safety had been adopted and implemented to limit harm to residents and community members [8].  As a student many years later, I’m unsure of what pushed admin to act when they did, seeing as the culture didn’t significantly change and actually was on a path to betterment, but I also wasn’t there to see this sequence of events out.

The original administrative response to the survey results was publicly marketed as a ‘rehabilitation’ or reform. Freshmen, the life and energy that revitalize the community each year and pull upperclassmen out of the hell of classes, were banned from living in the dorm. A new house team under a ‘Senior House specific’ contract was brought in, and mandatory reporters were installed to ensure that residents were following the strict rules set upon them. The administration made it clear that if a single rule was broken, the 101 years of history placed on students’ shoulders would be gone forever, and deemed it a reasonable expectation for students to bear.

The resident perspective on the 2016-2017 academic year is bleak. Sarah Melvin, Senior House president, stated in an email sent in the Summer of 2016 that she was “...deeply troubled by how this policy was decided without any student input... While I think some of these proposals could’ve been beneficial…. many will be very harmful to the Senior Haus community and to the wider MIT community” [9].  By limiting student autonomy and setting surveillance on them like hawks, the administration robbed them of the freedom to take the responsibility that was simultaneously demanded of them.

Over the course of the ‘rehabilitation,’ students fought hard. Near continuous meetings with Chancellor Barnhart, President Reif, and committees of other top administrators left students quite literally in tears. In Feldmeier’s account, Reif and Barnhart called students liars to their faces and offered only cruelty and coldness when students sought negotiation and kindness. This first-hand account lends itself to wondering if rehabilitation was ever really on the table, as the concept implies support. Unsurprisingly, the building pressure on Senior House led the scared, exhausted residents to turn to coping mechanisms to survive the trauma, some of which proved unhealthy. 

Once administrators had definitive proof of a singular broken rule, they dropped the pretense and sent a dorm-wide email announcing the closing of Senior House in the Summer of 2017. In addition to the profound devastation of residents and alumni, the East Side community as a whole felt a butterfly effect. Amongst the class year of freshmen banned from living in the dorm, the effects were particularly dire. Administrators insisted that once the dorm was dissolved, the community was gone, and the effects could not be felt, but the resulting depression affected hundreds of students. A particularly devastating example involves a freshman on 41W in EC, who was a first-generation college student who had been drawn to live in Senior House during his CPW. The feeling of losing the home he never got to have tragically resulted in his death on 41W. While this is an extreme and particularly upsetting example of the consequences, it is a devastating demonstration of the passion and love that humans of the East Side have for our communities forged in spite of administrative actions.

Though the threat of closing permanently has never been leveled at East Campus, there has been no shortage of battles with administration over policy and culture. In 2020, faculty and administration became aware of clothing optionality practiced in some of the halls in EC. Publicly advertised on the website and explicitly publicized to incoming freshmen at Rush each year, East Campus ensured residents' comfort and enforced policies created to limit encounters with facilities and other staff in the building on their own for years. 

However, without the option of plausible deniability, HRS and the general MIT administration pushed for East Campus to implement an official policy. Their initial goal was to ban clothing optionality entirely, but spirited resident pushback and the careful actions of EC exec under President Tesla Wells allowed for an agreement to be made [14]. After over a year of meetings, presentations, and negotiations, the current policy of toptionality was put into place, marking another defined loss of Eastside autonomy, if not a complete one. This policy served as law until renovations, during which every aspect of our culture is to be put on trial yet again: murals, cats, and toptionality are all under fire as the administration attempts to scrub at the ‘stain’ of Eastside culture until there is no sanctuary left for us.

I joined East Campus after arriving on campus for my FPOP, and as a student entering as both queer and low-income, I initially struggled to find friends and a place I felt at home. I came out years ago in my hometown, but I faced social backlash and town-wide homophobia from the moment I did to the moment I left. Arriving on the EC build site and unquestioningly being handed a power tool was the beginning of something new. Though it’s only been a year, the community I’ve found is the first place I’ve truly felt able to be myself without fear. There may be inter and intra-hall drama and petty arguments, but when it comes to the things that matter, like identity, expression, and acceptance, EC stands behind community members unwaveringly and without question. 

The biggest current example is the pushback against the renovation-related change. While each hall prides itself on individual culture, and historic rivalries between halls dictate day-to-day interactions, every active hall has representatives on the renovation committee. The admin team working with us stalls on policy issues of toptionality, customization, and cats, but we speak as a united front. As students, recognizing that EC will be the last East Side dorm is something that we’ve had to accept, and we’ve gone so far as to hold student-only meetings to nail down talking points and make our concerns more easily heard. At this point in the fight and facing so much pushback, it feels like we’re holding onto the shreds of something that was once so much bigger. We currently have two out of the original four eastside dorms remaining, and MIT has expressed plans to eventually demolish Random Hall as early as 2016. As Feldmeier shared about his experience with Senior House, this is a fight that it feels like we are meant to lose. Though the world has become more welcoming to queer individuals and there is more cross-campus representation, the demographic data doesn’t lie. The East Side still holds the majority of queer and marginalized students on this campus [13]. 

As these communities are systematically disassembled by a cruel and uncaring administrative body, that leaves the question: where will we go if MIT succeeds in dismantling this vibrant community that we’ve built? As much as mainstream culture lends itself to “wishing away” counterculture and alternative sects of people, we can and will continue to take up our place in society. In very recent history, queer existence was and can still be a contentious subject, yet we continued to love and exist in spite of the opposition. I can only hope that the East Side as a whole will be able to do the same. Feldmeier had a particularly inspiring statement on why the East Side exists in the first place: “The East Side is like the sewer drain of MIT, where all the refugees and students starting a rung below the ‘normal admits’ end up for their betterment because it understands where they come from and can help them in a way that no one else can.”



[1] www.mit.edu/~stevenj/mitmap/bexley.html 

[2] https://ec.mit.edu/culture/category/bexley/ 

[3] https://www.wired.com/story/a-weird-mit-dorm-dies-and-a-crisis-blooms-at-colleges/ 

[4] web.mit.edu/florey/www/ 


[6] https://mitadmissions.org/blogs/entry/sport-cpw/ 

[7] Mather, Elle, and Mark Feldmeier. “An Alumni Perspective on Administrative Handling of the East Side.” 12 May 2024.

[8] Mather, Elle, and Piper Lim. “EC President During the Closing of Senior House.” 12 May 2024.

[9] Melvin, Sarah. Received by Dorm-prez@mit.edu, and Piper Lim, Senior House Info-Dump and Dorms@ Draft (Thread), July 2016.

[10] saveseniorhouse.mit.edu/  

[11] SeniorHouse.Org 

[12] www.youtube.com/watch?v=e6m8se96yyM  

[13] facts.mit.edu/undergraduate-students  

[14] Mather, Elle, and Tesla Wells. 8 May 2024.