An Open Letter to Chancellor Barnhart From a Senior House Resident

Chancellor Barnhart,

I note your concern for Senior House, and I understand it. These are scary statistics. “For the MIT Classes of 2008 to 2015, 83.7% of students graduated within four years, and 7.7% have yet to graduate. For residents of Senior House in those same class years, just 59.7% graduated within four years, and 21.1% have yet to graduate.” That’s a compelling statistic, and one that deserves to be examined.

I wish that you had chosen to examine this statistic with members of our direct community. I understand that you feel you are acting in our best interest, but this is a shift that must be made collaboratively. Change will not come from the top down. Senior House wants to excel. We love our dorm, and our culture. The people I have met within Senior House rank among the most brilliant I have ever met. We want to be healthy and happy and to excel in our educations. If those are your goals for Senior House’s community, we should have a lovely time working together. I want to believe that those are your goals. However, it comes as a direct affront to bring our GRTs into a meeting concerning the proposed instituted changes and to simultaneously email not only the Senior House residents, but also our alumni, our parents, and the broader MIT community. This extremely public way of disseminating information does not feel like the beginning of a conversation, but rather a punitive measure. Especially by emailing our parents, Chancellor. I understand that many parents fund their child’s undergraduate education. But Senior House, especially, seems to have a number of strained parent-child relationships. Certainly there are Senior House residents who have been mentally, emotionally, and physically abused by their parents. To address the parents of MIT’s students is to make assumptions about the parent-child relationships that can oftentimes be much more harmful than intended. Please consider the harm that emailing parents can cause before doing so in the future. We are adults, and we deserve to be treated as such.

The following is pulled from a recent Tech article around the issue:

“Barnhart also wanted to emphasize a collaborative approach to problem-solving. She said abrupt decision-making was ‘not the way we [at MIT] approach problems.’ She discussed her plans for Senior House with the heads of house in every dorm as well as a number of faculty and staff around campus. She wants to ‘engage the community.’”

I understand that these decisions have not been hastily made, but they have in no way engaged the community. From a community standpoint, they feel hastily made. To have decisions instituted upon a group never feels good. To be informed of those decisions during the summer, when few residents are on campus to be actively heard, feels much worse. MIT’s administration has been repeatedly criticized for installing new policies or decisions during the summer when students are not able to be a part of the conversation. If you truly want to not only engage the community but also to make informed decisions, please reconsider the immediate enactment of these new policies.

Now, to address the data.

Two of the most important basic aspects of statistical analysis are to:

  1. Carefully chose samples that will accurately represent the given population
  2. and to recognize that correlation is not necessarily equal to causation. That is to say, just because there is a direct relationship between two things, one cannot be necessarily said to cause the other.

The data you cite is extremely narrow in scope. It not only focuses upon the MIT Class of 2008 to the MIT Class of 2015 (none of which have been residents in Senior House for the past year), it also only considers students’ first-year-first-semester residence. With the frequency of transfers between MIT dorms, it’s extremely difficult to say that the first-semester-first-year residence is representative of the overall residence of students.

But, even accepting that the (questionable) sample truly represents the population, there are a number of confounding factors. Senior House is known to have a disproportionate number of lower income, racial minority, and LGBTQ students. Each of these demographics alone are shown to have lower graduation rates. Lower income students are shown as the mostly likely demographic to drop out. With these confounding issues, how can this single statistic be used as the reason to move towards action?

And finally, we must consider the use of this data as a measurement of success. MIT has long been a community of inspiring creative thinking and that thinking paves the way to tomorrow’s solutions. As this article addresses, the types of people who are likely to live in Senior House are unlikely to fit in a cookie cutter mold. And that’s actually a highly positive thing. To have highly intelligent, highly creative people is to have thinkers that reshape the world. To use graduation rates as a measurement of success is short sighted. Many people who drop out go on to entrepreneurship or other career paths that would likely be lauded as successful by general society. Taking longer than four years to complete an undergraduate education at MIT (which is repeatedly marked as one of, if not the, most challenging institutes in the world) should not be a mark of shame. Especially because a large number of people who do not complete MIT within four years have not done so because of mental health leaves of absence.

To use this single statistic, that has a number of issues, as a measure of Senior House’s health and success is extremely shortsighted. It fails to consider Senior House’s unique demographic makeup, the high proportion of residents with pre-existing mental health issues, and other, perhaps more “alternative,” metrics of success.

While on the subject of statistics, where is the data that Senior House has a drug problem? And how is this data related to students’ pre-MIT drug use? How is Senior House being determined to have a drug problem?

If we assume that Senior House does have some issues (which I’m still not sure that the above data and claims have verified), how do we go about fixing those problems?

Some might point to separating the residents from one another so as to keep their behavior from compounding. Maybe it hasn’t been said publicly, but it has been implied or passed through the grapevine that MIT struggles to provide the resources necessary to students with pre-existing conditions when those students are all grouped in one place. Namely, Senior House (as an alternative and safe space) tends to attract people who have mental health issues. MIT administrators feel that these students would be easier to assist if they were distributed more evenly throughout the dorms. But to distribute our residents does not better ensure our success. The conversations that can be had with residents who understand your own mental health issues because they too have experienced them are priceless. This support system is more valuable than an administrator will ever be to me. If MIT were to distribute these “problem students,” it might help Senior House’s graduation rate and normalize the dorms’ graduation rates, but it’s hard to say that it would actually benefit the students dealing with the mental health issues. A community of peers that understands and supports one another will always be stronger than a top down approach. We are willing to work with the administration to help with our mental health issues. Again, we want to be healthy, happy, and educated. But the current steps being taken are polarizing.

Instead, work with us.

Give us access to the data. Let us look critically at our own community to determine what our issues are. And let us work with you to fix these issues.

For a very long time, Senior House has advocated for more mental health professionals to support our community. We asked that our Area Director have mental health training. We ask that the instated members to our community have not only the professional training to help us, but also HIPAA protections. To truly support a community that is disproportionately afflicted by mental health issues, give us mental health support and security. Help us create a community that leads towards growth and healing, not towards bureaucratic report systems that instill fear and distrust.

In our incoming house team and live in staff, give us mental health support. Please. We need it. Many of us have mental health issues. We’ve been asking for this support for sometime.

Create the turnaround committee. Let us look at ways to make Senior House excel, together.

But what I ask that you don’t do is to restrict our incoming freshmen. By closing access to a community that hugely supports people with mental health issues, LGBTQ-identifying people, and lower income students, you are robbing the freshman of a safe space and a home. I would not still be attending MIT today if I had not lived in Senior House. As much as I needed Senior House, incoming freshmen will too. To not let students who would otherwise live in Senior House do so is to rob them of a community that supports and celebrates aspects of society that many other communities ignore or demean.

To be LGBTQ, lower income, a racial minority, or mentally unwell should not be stigmatized. As these issues are so implicated with lower graduation rates, please do not make such hasty decisions based on this data that will rob the incoming class of “alternative” MIT students of a safe space. Please reconsider your decision to block the incoming freshman from Senior House.

I ask that you give us time with the new house team and turnaround committee, access to data, and agreed upon quantified metrics of success. I ask that you give us the mental health resources we have been asking for. I ask that you look at the broader scope of “success.” I ask that you allow us to have this conversation over the course of the next year, in person, on campus. And, in the meantime, I ask that you give MIT’s incoming class the opportunity to live within the alternative support space that Senior House is.