Senior House was an MIT dormitory that used to exist at 70 Amherst Street, on the East side of the MIT campus. On April 20, 2017, Kristen Covino, the Associate Head of House for Senior House, sent out an email to all of its residents, announcing a mandatory meeting about an unspecified "serious situation." This was the beginning of the end of the dorm: over the next few months, despite incredible efforts of the community members, the decision was made to shut down the dorm and prevent any undergraduate students from returning to their home. Former residents like myself were left drifting — sure, some were resettled in other dorms, but for the most part the community felt a great sense of loss. A year later, there are still many unanswered questions. What has it meant for these students, and the larger Senior House community, to lose their home? What has it meant for the alumni who have kept an incredibly close relationship to their community largely through the dorm and its events? What has it meant for the administrators who worked with these students? And, perhaps the biggest question of all: what happens next?
Although there were initially plans to re-settle some students into the house — those who had not been involved in still-not-public "unsafe and unhealthy activites" that the administration found to have occurred — this program was cancelled. Senior House was in some sense just a dorm, but it has long been a safe haven for the misfits, the queer, the subaltern, the weird, the iconoclastic. As Samuel Jay Keyser, a long-time MIT administrator and former Senior House housemaster in the 1980's wrote about the dorm:
When I became housemaster, the dormitory was functioning as a storm drain for the other MIT living group. All the difficult students were funneled there. These were the students who were incapable of living harmoniously in the more normal dorms. They were the students who snatched fire extinguishers off the walls and ran down the corridors spraying their housemates’ doors.
More than just the weird, the inharmonious, Senior House was home to a disproportionate number of queer and LGBTQ-identifying students. As three presidents of MIT's LGBTQ organizations wrote in the Tech,
Senior House has historically been home to many LGBTQ students, and over 40% of current Senior House residents identify as LGBTQ, according to the Chancellor’s office. Eradicating such a living community is not only a tragic loss to current Senior House residents. It is harmful to LGBTQ-identifying students across campus for whom the existence of such spaces indicates safety.
Many students felt like they had been betrayed by their institution. Some opted for on-campus housing in other dormitories; some moved to independent fraternities and living groups; others moved off campus entirely. Sienna Ramos, a former resident of Senior House, has spent her senior year living in "SigEp" — Sigma Epsilon, a fraternity on the other side of the river.
Although she had lived in Senior House for 3 years and become a part of that community, she had also been an unofficial member of SigEp since her sophomore year. When the administration offered her a chance to live elsewhere on campus, she turned it down: she felt that having to move onto a new hall and make new friends and embed with a new culture would be too much effort for her to make, especially while going into her senior year. She chose SigEp because she already had friends there, and felt that it would be an easier transition. But she does not feel that SigEp is her home in the same way that Senior House was:
Even though I love the guys here, I've come to realize I don't like being one of few women in a group. I also feel like i have to censor myself more here, and I feel way too uncomfortable to walk around pantsless or anything. It's also frustrating sometimes because I'm not a full member of the frat and so I don't have a lot of power here and don't feel a lot of ownership — like sometimes they'll close off the main staircase because of some frat ritual and it makes me very aware that this is not my space.
Before it was announced that the dorm would be permanently closed to undergraduates, the administration had decided that it would be open to freshman, and a few upperclassmen who could apply to live there. Sienna applied like many others, and was subsequently informed, like every other applicant, that she could not return because the dorm would become graduate housing, after all.
Sienna sums up her experiences as having been split into "two different eras, pre and post shutdown" — a sentiment shared by many former Senior House residents, but particularly the seniors. Joe Bergeron, a current senior, also opted not to live in the dormitories; instead, he lives with 7 other former Senior House residents in what they affectionally call "Wholesome Haus."
For Joe, like for Sienna, this has been a year in limbo. Despite living off campus, he still spends a fair amount of time at East Campus, a dorm where many other former Senior House residents, including his girlfriend, Ingrid Zhang, have taken up housing. The commute is a pain, especially with the early gym classes he's had to take this year in order to graduate.
It's nice to go back to campus and hang out, but for the most part, I don't feel like I have a home in the same way I used to. Senior House was my home. Now, I have a bedroom where I sleep, and I spend time at EC, but I feel caught in between.
He plans to stay in the area beyond graduation and work as a software engineer in a local office of GoDaddy, a large technology company. Although he had considered applying for the Masters of Engineering program, he decided it would be best to finish his bachelor's degree and take some time away — "I'm upset about the way they handled things. Pulling us into rooms and interrogating us individually, blaming the community as a whole for the actions of a few, kicking me out of my home... it's all fucked up."
Wholesome Haus is comprised of two units: a 6-bedroom unit in the upper part of a townhouse, and a 4-bedroom in the basement. Sarah Melvin, current senior and former president of Senior House and current UA president, lives downstairs. She's had a lot of experience representing Senior House to the administration: even before the shutdown, she was closely involved in the "turnaround committee", a mix of students, professors, and administrators who had, in the year before Senior House was shut down, been tasked with working to make more resources available to residents in need of additional help, advice, or even food. Despite the positive impact of their work, when the administration became aware of the afore-mentioned "unsafe and unhealthy activites," it was all thrown to the side. As UA president, Sarah has tried to help bring some of those programs to the school as a whole: for one, she helped launch the SwipeShare program that donates dining hall meals to students facing insecurity.
Next year, Sarah will live in Cambridge with a large group of other ex-Senior House residents, and will be working with Accenture, a consulting firm. She's certain that that none of that work "will be as hard as what I've had to do while Senior House or UA president." For her, and other students, the shutdown experience has meant over a year of long hours meeting with administrators and negotiating community needs and demands, all while balancing a full MIT courseload.
Gretchen Eggers, a former Senior House resident who now lives in East Campus, describes the feeling of helplessness and imbalance that comes with working with administrators, who are full-time employees. She had to work closely with many of these "career administrators" to help plan EC day, a community festival for the "East side" community" that is comprised of alumni, students, friends, and parents from Senior House, East Campus, Bexley, and Random Hall.
[...] the amount and level of detail to which [the administrators] criticized the event was absurd. numerous meetings (that I HAD to be at) were planned last minute and during times that I couldn't attend (i.e. 4 hours notice during mandatory lab) so missing a bunch of class for that sucked. really felt like they had forgotten I was actually a student, not just a rep for the East side.
Of course, this has been business as usual for those representing the Senior House community. From the turnaround committee meetings, to the initial mandatory 10PM house meeting, to strong recommendations that every resident in Senior House take a half hour out of their day for "optional" meetings with Title IX officers as part of a fact-finding process that same spring, Senior House students are used to giving up their own time to defend their home. Planning for the East Side Fest was a shared effort, of course; the East side community is particularly close knit, and plenty of alumni have shared the burden over the past year.
Paula Countoris, has spent much of the last year preserving the murals that used to grace the walls of Senior House. Leading up to the East Side Fest, a combination of the events formerly known as Steer Roast (Senior House) and East Campus Day (East Campus), these murals were exhibited at the Weisner Gallery at MIT.
The exhibition was the result of a year-long effort by a mix of alumni, students, and other community members to preserve the murals that once graced the walls, doors, and hallways of Senior House. Paula describes the murals as "one of the most tangible aspects of Senior House, that even outsiders who don't know MIT culture can appreciate." When the dorm was first shut down, there were no plans to save the murals — thanks to the community's efforts, most of the murals have since been photographed or covered up rather than painted over in a stark, institute white, as the administration had originally intended. Paula says that the way the community was able to rally together to save these murals, if not the dorm, is indicative of the spirit of Senior House:
Each person in the community has the ability to pull Senior House out of the shit its stuck in. I know a lot of people feel powerless, but each one of us is a strong, smart, and capable human. This is what I hope that's what people see when they look at this project: that I'm just one person, but that the community came together to support my vision and help make it possible. There were so many points this past year when I felt so small and alone. This process has been really hard and hurts so much. The reality is that we are never alone and that we have each other. With enough tenacity and passion, each person can make a huge difference to the community.
The villain in the whole affair has been, of course, the administration. Students and alumni alike feel that they have been mistreated since before the dorm was closed. The complaints are many: opaque, shifting demands of students; decisions made based on loose impressions and rumors rather than facts; impossibly shifting goalposts; fundamentally, a disrespect for the members of the Senior House community. During an impromptu speech at her Lavender graduation (a graduation ceremony held by and for LGBTQ-identifying students), Holly Haney, had strong words for Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart, who was sitting in the audience.
Since senior house closed, I’ve met so many young queer people who come to me. They say, “I wanted to live in senior house. And now I’m struggling with my sexuality and I don’t know what to do or who to turn to.” I try to embrace them, to show and tell them that gay is okay. But it’s different to have one person tell you that than to have a community of a hundred queer people around you. Now that senior house is gone, our community is dissipated and we are left homeless. To the queer folk staying on, reach out. Show others we are not alone. To the administration, you need to do more. Because this place is deadly and we Need a home.
Barnhart had given a speech to help open the ceremony, proclaiming the administrations interest in supporting LGBTQ students and making campus feel safe for them. But as Holly pointed out, this is at total odds with their actions. According to the latest available data, Senior House had been one of the places students felt safest to be themselves — 40% of residents identified as LGBTQ, the highest proportion of any dorm on campus.
Of course, the administration is still making efforts to help students. I talked with Joe Zimakas, who worked within Senior House as an Area Director, and then as a Staff Associate with Student Services during the turnaround process. Today, Joe has been promoted, and is now the Assistant Director of Alcohol and Other Drug Services, working within MIT's Student Support and Wellbeing organization. Day-to-day, his role is similar to when he worked in Senior House: he meets with students and tries to help them improve their mental and physical health. When asked whether or not he sees the administration's efforts as having an effect, he says
I've been at MIT for about three years now. I'm thoroughly impressed by the efforts of the people I work with. We're trying to refine our approach towards students service; I can't give you exact numbers, but I can say that we are still performing a huge number of assessments. People use our services.
It can be hard to square Joe's well-meaning earnestness with the actions of the administration. During the turnaround, when Joe started working within the house, the administration was both helping and hurting. At the same time that they were giving Senior House additional resources to help improve the lives of its residents, students were suspicious of moves that seemed only to increase administrator oversight of the dorm. The creation of the Area Director role, for one, was seen by many (including former housemasters) as reducing the power of the existing support staff to help the students.
Although Joe helped many Senior House students negotiate extensions on assignments when they needed them, and was there to listen when students needed counseling, he was at the same time a replacement for existing forms of support. And unlike the traditional support systems found in the dorm — the Grad Resident Tutors (GRTs), the housemasters — Joe, and then Kristen, were outsiders, who were ultimately there to further their professional careers in administration. Henry Jenkins, a former housemaster, described working with administrators as one of the reasons that he and his wife left the job:
[...] what wore us down were our encounters with generation after generation of new campus life administrators. Each time we would build a relationship, overcome the stigmas, earn mutual respect and trust, they were transfered away and we would have to begin that process from scratch. I have plenty of harsh words here about the administrative perceptions of this dorm: we formed many strong bonds with administrators through the years, but few of them lasted, because of the tendency to transfer to other schools after a few years.
Unlike housemasters and GRTs, administrators are there in an enforcement role, and are required by their job description to follow the rules, even when that doesn't result in the best outcome for students. On top of that, they do not come from the MIT community, let alone the Senior House community, which resulted in culture clashes. Paula Countoris recounts the problems working with administrators:
At first, I was treated like a spoiled child making petty and unreasonable demands. That type of gas lighting was pretty destructive to my perception of the situation, and I spent a a good deal of time talking to my friends in the Boston art community, and critically thinking over what we were asking for and why. I am not a child, and to be treated as such was both inappropriate and insulting. Even now, some of the people I work with on this project interact with me in ways my peers or senior coworkers in industry never have.
These relationships were strained even before the dorm shut down; now, depending on who you ask, they're either irreparable or irrelevant. More than one former resident who had formerly used MIT's mental health services has told me that they have found counseling and therapy through providers and doctors not affiliated with the school. Most of the former residents I've talked to have expressed a deep disgust for the administration, and see few figures of power with whom they feel any sense of rapport. Sarah Schwettman, a former GRT and current MIT PhD student in the Brain and Cognitive Sciences program, told me that after she had been fired and removed from the dorm her biggest worry was still what would happen going forward.
Senior House was home to so many students in need of help, and who had been receiving it through our support systems and through the extra attention we received as part of the "turnaround" process. What I've been most worried about is who's slipping through the cracks? Now that there is no oversight, no central support system that they feel they can trust, who will be there for them when things go wrong?
This story is still being written. For now, the Senior House community still exists — despite the loss of a physical space of their own. Without a home of their own, it is unclear for how much longer Senior House will remain a part of MIT. No home means no freshmen; no freshmen means the beliefs that once self-propagated through the generations of MIT students like bacteria in a petri dish have no where to go, just like the students who used to live in the building now known as E-2. The administration doesn't even like to mention the existence of Senior House — in recent emails, it has been referred to as a "touchy subject."
But rather than atrophy, the community has grown, although this growth has taken different forms than members might have previously expected. Senior House is now an incorporated entity, and is working to regain control over its finances, which have been held in limbo by the MIT administrators since the dorm was disbanded. Steer Roast, the annual gathering of alumni and students and community members, took place yet again; still orchestrated by students, but now as part of a larger East Side Fest. There will still be at least one more year when former residents will once again attend MIT as undergraduates; the 2019 class was the last to live in the dorms, officially. A few former residents, now graduate students, have returned to E-2. The mailing lists are still alive with the usual flames and party invitations and weird youtube links. The seniors I talked to have all told me that while tired, so tired, of the whole ordeal and of the MIT administration in particular, they plan to return and continue to be there for younger students in the same way that alumni were there for them when they needed someone with a little more life experience to help them make the right decisions.
So what next? Every former resident I talked to told me: Senior House is not dead. How could the administration have killed it? Sport death; only life can kill you.