On the value of Senior House.
MIT can often feel like an intimidating and oppressive place. It’s not very legible to the outside world. Part of it is the architecture — the heavy concrete brutalism that dominates the campus, the glass and steel, the buildings with numbers instead of names. Over time, as a student, one got used to it, but it never felt quite right. I grew up near Princeton, and spent a good deal of time on the lush, verdant campus, dotted with buildings that looked like castles. Princeton was my archetype of what a proper college campus should look like: graceful neo-Gothic architecture, green quadrangles, a place perfumed with rich history and a sense of place.
The classes at MIT could feel oppressive, too. My freshman year was dominated by math and physics classes with as many as 500 students. My professors didn’t know who I was. Classes weren’t graded on a curve. People with straight A’s in high school were getting C’s and D’s in multivariable calculus and differential equations, gasping at their graded tests in horror.
I was 17 years old when I started at MIT. I thought I was a rock star. High school science was boring. I took organic chemistry classes at Columbia when I was 15, and was doing challenging research at a lab at Princeton when I was 16. But MIT was different. During my first week at MIT, I met a math genius from Russia who was also a physics genius. He was nationally ranked in chess, too; he could blow me away at chess in five moves. I won state awards for science; he was on the national physics team. I thought I was good at math, but he was a gold medalist in the International Math Olympiad. He probably had his own theorem named after him, but I never asked.
An MIT education, the old saying goes, is like drinking from a firehose. A completely overwhelming experience. During my four years at MIT, eight students committed suicide — an astonishing number. I remember walking by the Green Building right after someone had jumped off the 15th floor, and seeing a mass of flesh and blood and bone on the ground. Someone told me that the jumper had drawn a free-body physics diagram on the chalkboard before his fall. I saw students gamely walking by with tears in their eyes. I walked as fast as I could. I was grateful that I had a warm and welcoming home to go to — I could go to Senior House, and talk to my friends.
So now I am going to tell you a story about a special place — a place called Senior House. Senior House was home, on a campus that didn’t feel like one. Senior House was old —around a century old. It was the oldest student residence at MIT. It had a crumbling history and a beating heart and spirit. It had weird period details, and grandiose overdesigned balconies with decorative carvings that didn’t serve any structural purpose. It had vibrant murals on the walls, adding much-needed color and personality. It was a place where you could walk in, and instantly feel at home.
Senior House wasn’t one culture, as MIT administrators mistakenly seem to believe. Senior House was 100 different cultures, spread among around 150 fiercely independent people. The only thing that bound Senior House students together was an independent spirit and an open mind to other people’s differences. It wasn’t a cult — nor was it some kind of weird drug den that administrators seem to think it is in their fevered imagination. There was no homogeneity at Senior House, and thus there could be no homogeneous culture. It was hard to get more than a few people to agree at Senior House — about anything.
If anything, you could say that Senior House was the art and music dorm. We all liked music — but none of us liked the same music. You could hear punk rock at Senior House, or hip-hop, or classical music, or Tuvan throat singing. It was all okay, because this was Senior House, where there was no pressure — unlike the rest of the Institute, where there was pressure in spades.
At Senior House, my friend Blake and I made nearly 20 short films. We worked on big art projects there. We wallpapered our bathroom in aluminum foil to make it look like Andy Warhol’s Factory. I was the editor-in-chief of a magazine; I recruited a few of my artist friends at Senior House to draw comics and write funny articles. I organized a lot of events on campus, and booked the bands for a big band party we did every year called Steer Roast. (Steer Roast is a barbecue, and the most popular unofficial alumni reunion, which has happened every year since 1963. The administration shut it down this year, and it may never happen again, much to everyone’s dismay.)
Steer Roast is like Christmas — many people on campus, not just at Senior House, looked forward to it for months every year. We worked hard to plan what we thought was one of the best-ever parties at MIT. Nine or ten bands play over two nights. I booked bands like the Mooney Suzuki from New York and Sightings from Providence and Neptune from Boston. We raised money to fly in a videogame cover band called the Minibosses from Arizona. None of this was at all the kind of dark, dystopian stuff the administration would like to have you believe. Unless you think a bunch of nerds rocking out to the Metroid theme song while drinking beer is weird and scary.
Like MIT, Senior House really isn’t legible to the outside world. That’s why articles about Senior House don’t seem to make much sense. What’s up with the scary-looking banner with the “Sport Death” skull on it? Well, it’s about as scary as someone dressed in Halloween pirate costume saying “Arr matey” to you is scary — that is, it’s not very scary. It’s been the emblem of the dorm since the 1970s, and it just looks kind of cool.
Senior House has an enviable location in Cambridge; it’s right on the Charles River facing Boston. It pains me that undergraduates in the future won’t be able to see that fabulous view of the river from that overdesigned fifth-floor balcony, to see the city lights glittering through a grand old tree. It saddens me that these students may not meet the friends who will become the best friends and allies of their lives. (The friends I made at Senior House are still my best friends, 20 years later.) Culture isn’t static, and Senior House never was. Senior House culture isn’t one thing, but many things — it was whatever you wanted it to be.
A few weeks ago, nearly 1,400 MIT alumni, from every living group on campus, going back to 1958, signed an open letter to the MIT administration because they were alarmed about what the administration was doing to Senior House. Looking at the letter, and all the signatures and job titles, I was amazed at how successful all the Senior House alumni were now. Those punk kids who had lived at Senior House went on to start some of the most successful and interesting companies. They were making important scientific discoveries and changing the world. Even the ones who had gone into the arts were working at the very highest levels of their field. I just had to laugh. They were all so unbelievably successful, and Senior House helped make them into better, more tolerant people.
Now Senior House has been abolished, in a misguided decision by the administration, and MIT is poorer for it.
You can sign a letter in support of Senior House by clicking here.