Goodbye, Senior Haus!
Recently, my alma mater, MIT, is back in the news. For reasons I’ll describe below, after I left MIT and my dorm, Senior Haus, I tried not to look back. Almost fifteen years later, my friends remaining from MIT I can count on one hand, and besides a useful alum.mit.edu email address and a few canned lines about MIT that I tell people on dates when they’re intimidated by how smart I must be, I have well and truly moved on from what was a formative but also traumatic stage in my life. But suddenly there has been lots of alum activity from my former community, because the administration of MIT has finally, after many years of threatening, done a “hard reset” on my former dorm. And in the dispute about this, Haus alums have succeeded in shaping the media narrative, with headlines coming out about “the low-income, LGBT-friendly dorm” that has “a culture of care and free expression [that] attracted some of the campuses’ largest LGBT and minority populations (as a proportion), as well as lots of students who might not normally thrive at MIT” and that is “a sanctuary on a hyper-competitive campus that can be unforgiving to misfits and hard on mental health.”
All of the descriptors of Senior Haus I’ve been reading in these articles were around when I rushed dorms in the early 00s. They attracted me immediately — I was the rare freshman who put Senior Haus on top of my list for housing preferences and I stayed there for all my years at MIT. I spent some very formative years there — developing myself socially, figuring out my gender and sexuality, having my first adult friendships and relationships, and coming into my own politically and intellectually. For many years, I credited much of that to Senior Haus and its unique environment — by the end of my time there, I was a dedicated partisan of the dorm culture. I organized two student rushes and in my last year I ran with a friend of mine the annual weekend-long wild party that defines it, Steer Roast, which the MIT administration canceled this year. When a dorm favorite restaurant was remodeled from being a punk diner to a bourgie wine bar, I started a tradition of resurrecting it in the basement once a semester. These were my first experiences creating culture and building community, an activity that remains deeply important to me.
I say all this to make it clear, that although I’m going to deeply criticize the dorm culture and alums who are overly concerned with its future, this is a critique from an insider. I should also add that even if, almost fifteen years later, I can both look back fondly to the fun and wild times I had there and, at the same time, not feel bad that the dorm is coming to an end, I’m no fan of the MIT administration. The Pilot 2021 program that is being rolled out to replace the dorm is nothing less than another signpost of the neoliberalization of the university and should be opposed on principle as part of the administration’s general antagonistic attitude to student culture and self-organization. The MIT administration has always wanted to simultaneously capitalize on the unique student culture to attract new students while homogenizing it to death. They have consistently wanted students to identify with their graduating class, which suits their bottom line in getting alum donations. This is an administration that openly talks about its students as “products” and throughout my entire time there, only seemed to care about the wellbeing of its students to the extent it felt the inevitable bad news of student suicides damaged its PR. In my first year at MIT, Elizabeth Shin, a student who was being stalked, killed herself by self-immolation in her dorm room at Random Hall, and that set the tone for my four years at perhaps the world’s best technical university that the students nicknamed for decades as simply “Hell.” I fully agree with protesting students and alums that MIT truly does not have the best interests of its students at heart. Where I disagree with many people is that I believe simultaneously that the dorm culture is not worth saving.
If Senior Haus was a refuge for lgbtq and poc and other students against the destructive hyper-competitive academic culture of MIT, as it has been described in articles going around, I would add my voice to the struggle to save it. But with the hindsight of almost fifteen years, I can now clearly see that it wasn’t. Senior Haus, like MIT student culture in general, is really an example of right-wing libertarian ideals (it wasn’t for nothing that the deeply fucked up if perceptive and gifted writer Hunter S. Thompson, who was notoriously attached to his guns and drugs, was a dorm lifestyle icon). The mottos of Senior Haus that you see on t-shirts to this day, are “Sport Death” and “Only Life Can Kill You”, and they are more about the freedom to do drugs, have sex, and go wild (really, to “live life to the max”) away from any interference and the watchful eye of the MIT administration than creating a culture that actually nurtures students and fights against the destructive and reactionary nerd meritocracy that rules MIT. Simply because you can, for example, do 100 shots of beer in 100 minutes and that the administration couldn’t prevent that without trespassing unacceptably on student freedom, doesn’t mean you should. But like clockwork, we had that party every year, and there were always plentiful puke stains afterwards.
(Now that I take a minute to consider it, how wildly privileged and essentially libertarian that motto “Only Life Can Kill You” was! What a ridiculous overreaction to a patronizing and restrictive administration to blithely ignore the many things that aren’t inherent in life like war, poverty, disease, racism, drugs, etc. that can and do kill thousands of people every day! I can understand why right-wing libertarian ideals appeal to nerds, who think of themselves as more intelligent and thus better than other people, who only need to be let loose from rules to prosper, but it still seems so infantile in retrospect.)
Of course, sex, drugs, and a certain amount of hopefully creative self-destruction are part of many young people’s lives, and I indulged heavily in them and would have no matter if I had gone to MIT or lived in Senior Haus or not. There is a way to practice harm reduction and allow people to make their own mistakes that I agree with. Unfortunately, at Senior Haus, there much more time spent pushing and idealizing the “work hard, play hard” culture (and being more “hardcore” than everyone else: fucking more people, doing more drugs, taking more and harder classes, getting less sleep, and balancing it all on a razor’s edge) than thinking seriously about how to integrate sex and drugs and angst and everything else in a way that would help students not just survive the MIT experience but actually thrive.
So, against the absurdly rosy portraits of Senior Haus, I’d like to recount the real grisly and horrible shit I saw, participated in and experienced as a part of the dorm culture. First of all, the racism, which was decidedly of the color-blind white liberal/progressive variety, that refused to look at structural factors and didn’t blink an eye when the few black and brown people in the dorm were widely feared or hated or when a native student who came to MIT from the rez was widely mocked and disdained for his manner of speaking and writing english. Back then, the idea of POC only safe spaces wasn’t really around but the low graduation rate of poc students and the prevalent bigotry against black and brown students who, in the imagination of the nerd meritocracy hadn’t *really* earned their place, never really was challenged in the dorm, as in the university at large. I haven’t mentioned microaggressions at all because that was the least of it.
There was also incredibly prevalent misogyny, which manifested both in the university-wide line about “MIT chicks are ugly” but also a really toxic dating and sex culture, centered again around libertarian ideals and misogynist hedonism disguised as sex positivity. I literally can’t even count the amount of times I saw drunk or high men with their dicks out without anyone’s consent. Add to that the hypersexualization of bisexual/lesbian women, impossible and deeply fucked up standards for women’s beauty that didn’t apply to men (to everyone who’s dealt with misogynist nerd men, is this sounding familiar?), a prevalent attitude that polyamory and kink and promiscuity were not just an option but cool and laudatory, a drug culture that didn’t even really consider the issue of consent under the influence, and the usual double standards and rape culture and slut-shaming and many Senior Haus women left MIT deeply sickened at what they had experienced (and quite a few afterwards expressed their hate for nerd men afterwards). As someone who spent my first few years as a woman there, I can say that the supposed queer-positivity of Senior Haus didn’t mean much against the daily sexism and transmisogyny I experienced there.
All of this was bad enough but honestly wasn’t that unique to Senior Haus. For example, in the dorm right next to ours lived a popular and well-respected student who liked to share the anecdote of how they lost their virginity to a kitten as if that was an appropriate or cute little ditty to shock some squares with. What really stands out in the painful anecdotes that have stayed with me until this day, that I’m about to share, is the “hardcore” libertarian ideals that were behind the rampant and destructive drug culture and the frankly predatory way some alums interacted with the undergraduate students. I think most Senior Haus alums, if they’re being honest, knew at least a couple of dorm students who drugged themselves to the hospital or the psych ward for a spell at best or straight out of MIT at worst. We had drug dealers who were selling not just pot but drugs you could find in the books of Alexander Shulgin on every floor, and most big parties had at least a few people drinking or tripping their nuts off to the degree that it wasn’t fun anymore and they needed their friends to take care of them. I remember one occasion that I, very blatantly and explicitly out of a desire to self-harm, did so much and many hard drugs to the point that I was out of my mind and tried to exit a window on the fourth floor. My community kept me from killing myself, but crucially they didn’t intervene while I was taking drugs from every dealer I could find — they were mostly indifferent and some were even encouraging, as if this was some personally meaningful trial I had to go through! There was some talk about teaching first year students to handle their drug use responsibly, but it was mostly talk, and when a charismatic student took a two-digit number of tabs of acids as some bogus transcendent “trial by fire” experience and painted a giant “23” (or whatever number of tabs he took, I honestly forget) on a wall it became immediately the stuff of legend. That that student was a rapist curiously wasn’t talked about except in whispers.
A lot of the personal difficulties of MIT undergrads came down to them having previously been highly valued for their intelligence, sometimes being the smartest person in their former life, and then being thrown into an environment where they were now average or even mediocre. Many undergrads were searching for a new way to distinguish themselves, and being “hardcore” with drug use was some people’s explicit choice. The general ethos of Senior Haus was non-interference and I saw this lead some extremely brilliant and talented people to waste their brains and also their lives with their community’s blessing.
The saddest example was a woman I knew personally, who was something of a mentor and idol for me in my freshman year, a brilliant lesbian foreign student, with a sharp and creative scientific mind. When she was going through a breakdown due to an impossible work and life load, she took it upon herself to do acid daily for I think at least six months straight. I remember seeing her near the tail end of that, and this scientifically rigorous woman told me in all seriousness that soon she would be able to produce fireballs out of her hand using her mind. She was never the same. During all those months, we left her alone to “make her own mistakes”, and said that her closest friends should deal with it. They didn’t, and a better community would have done something, anything, to intervene in her slow self-destruction.
If all that wasn’t toxic enough, there were predatory alums. Even during my days as a booster of the dorm culture, I swore to myself I would never be like one of “those” alums. You’d see them at parties at the dorm or in houses in Cambridge, having graduated five or ten or fifteen or more years ago, still hanging out with undergrads, inviting them to party at their apartments, in some cases having sexual relationships with them (almost always older men with younger women, quelle surprise). Some of these alums, as with MIT students in general, were really socially maladapted nerds who never successfully integrated into another social scene besides the rarefied nerd culture of MIT. Some of them were more pathetic than anything else, but that is still no excuse. During my time at MIT, I also knew of two GRTs (Graduate Resident Tutor, a grad student who lived in undergrad housing to provide care and guidance) who had sexual relationships with undergrads, clearly abusing their status and power in doing so. And of course, I knew of older undergrads who abused their maturity and status with younger undergrads, including one time where a junior cooked and smoked crack with a pre-frosh.
Now, this was my experience, for four years over a decade ago, though I should say that the few random Senior Haus people I have bumped into in my life (which I have kept far far away from those circles) do not report significant change to the dorm culture. And definitely, there were good times, and many Senior Haus alums moved quickly on with good friends, warm memories and minimal personal damage to live productive and happy lives. I met great people at Senior Haus who were important parts of my life and sustained me through very difficult times. But, honestly, you can meet worthwhile people in many places, even in prison, and that many students formed close friend circles in Senior Haus that helped them grow and make it through MIT isn’t a reason to preserve the dorm culture as a whole.
As the MIT administration has gone forward with its plans to end Senior Haus as we know it, many alums have come out of the woodwork to laud Senior Haus, to share anecdotes of how it personally benefited them, and to do whatever they can to save the dorm, even organizing over and against the current students. On FB, I have even seen an alum float the idea of a hunger strike. After MIT, I have gotten deeply involved in the Palestinian solidarity movement, and I can’t but judge that it’s another show of the same deeply sad and narrow libertarianism that alums older than me are more worked up about the future of an undergrad dorm than the actual millions of other much more important issues out there in the world.
I feel the need to make it clear that I’m not a moralistic prude with these critiques. I still, in my mid 30s now, live a very gay and pretty slutty life, and though I don’t do drugs generally, recently at the wedding of one of my remaining friends from MIT, I did some hard drugs and had a lovely time. Not that any of that should matter, but given that opposition to dorm culture is often painted as puritanism or stifling personal freedom, I think it needs to be said. For me, Senior Haus was an important first attempt at building community, with many lessons learned, but so very very far from what is needed. It’s tragic that many of my former dormmates apparently have never had better.
Overall, MIT taught me many hard lessons. I met at MIT many brilliant, creative and capable people I knew for certain would have their lives and talents wasted because of the way our society is set up (and yes, I’m talking about capitalism here in the background). I learned that intelligence is no virtue and some of the smartest people lack the crucial skills of putting their lives together and not going off the deep end, which doesn’t imply that they deserve whatever happens to them. I learned that nerd culture is mostly reactionary and toxic. I learned that hedonism, while fun, doesn’t mean much by itself. Did I have hella fun with interesting, smart and deeply weird people at Senior Haus? Definitely. Was it worth the harm of even one of these anecdotes I shared? Absolutely not. So, for my part, I’ll let Senior Haus have a swift and dignified death and hope something better, for all of MIT’s students, rises from the ashes. Sport Death for real this time, Senior Haus. Bye!