MIT Needs the Weirdos: What’s Really Going On In Senior House

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, there’s a place called Senior House.

It’s a dormitory; the oldest, in fact. It’s one of twelve at the Institute, the second smallest. But Senior House is special. Its residents… aren’t exactly what you imagine when you think of MIT students. In fact, they’re kinda weird.

Some of them are gay — 40% in fact. They come from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. Some are Latino, some are African Americans; others, white or asian. Before coming to Cambridge, they worked part-time jobs to support their single mothers. They moved away from home to go to better schools. They looked around them and decided they wanted to do better. They wanted to make the world better; they wanted to study at the best, most innovative university in the world. They wanted to go to MIT.

So they worked hard. They withstood the pressures of precarious circumstances. And then, one day in March, after years of long nights and busy days, they got the email. They got in.

But when they got on board the plane to Boston, some took a piece or two of home with them. You know what they say: you can take the gay Mormon out of Arizona, but you can’t take the Detroit out of the genderqueer anarchopunk.

Some struggle to fit in with most of their classmates; some fall down. While their classmates buy energy drinks at the campus grocery to cram for finals, they cook themselves scrambled eggs and pasta every day of the semester. Some take a year or two off when things get rough at home. Some figure out their own path to happiness and never come back at all.

You see, they’re all smart, hardworking folks; I mean, they did get in, right? But sometimes, life gives you challenges even bigger than Thermodynamics or Advanced Algorithms. Sometimes, you make bad decisions; sometimes you shave your head. But at Senior House, you know always that someone will understand. They won’t judge; they might tease. But there’ll always be a weirdo neighbor, ready to stitch sweaters together and kibbitz about the direction of artificial intelligence research.

In fact, most of us weirdos wouldn’t still be at MIT without the advice of our GRTs or upperclassmen. Some of us don’t make it, but most of us do. Sometimes, we put our shoulders to our own wheels. But always, we do it together.

Now, some folks at MIT don’t much care for Senior House. Professors hear rumors; imagine their shock when they overhear students in their seminar on literary methods, or, advanced topics in modern physics, or the geometry of manifolds talking about a punk show in their dorm’s basement. Of course, it’s been that way for a few decades now: the times might change, but the weirdos stay smart. But now, things are different for Senior House.

Some administrators just need to change something — whether to add a bullet point to a resume, or because they genuinely see a crisis in need of bureaucratic intervention. They come from other schools; they had great times in college, and they just want the same for the “kids” under their care. But their privilege blinds them: the weirdos are… well… weird.

You see, they found a statistic, a very scary number. Why, only 57% of Senior House residents graduate in four years! But this isn’t cause for concern… it’s reason to celebrate. But if Chancellor Barnhart has her way, that number will be closer to zero: the weirdos just won’t come to MIT.

Now, I won’t say that MIT isn’t kind to the weirdos; in fact, the Institute tries to bring them here. It’s the reason why MIT asks about sexuality on its application; it’s admissions accepts maker portfolios in lieu of test scores. Weirdos bring weird perspectives, weird voices, to the classroom. And if anything’s gonna solve the problems of the future, whether it’s making artificial intelligence work for all or delivering on the promise of renewable energy, it’s gonna be weird ideas.

We — everybody — need the weirdos. And so does MIT.

Now, we weirdos know we make mistakes. Sometimes, we slip up. MIT is rough, especially for a weirdo. The weirdos would love more support from the Institute. But that’s not what’s happening.

Instead, we’re targeted by a PR putsch to purge the weirdos from the first place many of them can call home. We have emails sent without notice, announcing mid-meeting to an entire community, alumni, and parents the punitive measures to be enacted against the weirdos. Unsubstantiated insinuations of illegal drug use, half-hearted promises of support, and faulty statistics, all to mask a stark reality: depopulation.

You see, they tacitly entice students to voluntarily leave with promises of waived cancellation fees. They deny the next class of freshmen the opportunity to embrace their inner weirdness, while blocking new weirdos from moving in. They play to the fear of parents, nerves wracked by headlines about the opioid epidemic, in email-blasts speaking vaguely of their suspicions — after all, the weirdos must be on drugs, right? They offer a simple explanation to faculty members for why some of their students just seem… a bit off. They refuse to control for the confounders of intersectional identity: their statistical analysis neglected to examine the correlation between sexual identity and longer graduation times, despite their knowledge that a disproportionate number of Senior House residents identify as such. They reduce students to data points, undergirding “significant concerns” with suspect analyses; they decry difference.

MIT needs the weirdos. But right now, the weirdos need MIT. If we, members of the community at large, do not stand together in this moment of grave conflict, there will be no end to the administrators’ quest to quell nonconformity. This year, we’ve heard a lot of talk about the future of MIT. Is this — propaganda tactics and the peddling of shoddy numbers by those bureaucrats who take their salary from our tuition and consent from our indifference — the future we envision for the Institute?

If it is, I can say that at least I am proud to have seen that spirit of independence, intellectual curiosity, and sheer grit so embodied by the Senior House community before the spectre of corporatized higher education extinguished it.

And if it isn’t, I beg you, speak up; write an email to the Chancellor (cbarnhar@mit.edu); share this piece.

Because, after all, we all lose when the weirdos lose.