CREATING LIFE FROM A SPONGE: THE PRE-HISTORY OF SIMMONS HALL
1. INTRODUCTION TO THE FOUNDERS GROUP
This is the story of the Founders Group for Simmons Hall. The Founders Group was a special committee of faculty and staff appointed by the Chancellor of MIT in 1999 to oversee the development of the new residence that would one day become Simmons Hall-- but was still unnamed at the time. The main responsibility of the Founders Group was to be the "client team" for the new dorm, the group that would work with and advise the design and development team for the building itself. But our responsibilities went further than that as well. We all know that a dorm is more than just a building. Living in a dorm means being part of a community, sharing a common identity and participating in an unique culture. It was our job to oversee the creation of the Simmons Hall community as well as the creation of the physical structure itself. We were the guardians of a culture that was yet to be formed, and the representatives of a community that did not yet exist.
The original Founders Group was formed in the winter of 1999. It was chaired by Rosalind Williams, who at the time was the Dean of Students and Undergraduate Education, and has since returned to the faculty as a professor of writing. A little later on, Roz left the group and Anne McCants, a professor of history who was then housemaster of Green Hall, took over as chair. Other faculty members of the group included: Candace Royer, who is now the head of the athletics department; Linn Hobbs, materials science professor and well-known wine connoiseur; Alan Brody, the associate provost for the arts; and Leon Glicksman, a mechanical engineering and architecture professor specializing in building technology. From the administration there was Andy Eisenmann, who was then the Dean of Residential Life and Student Life Programs and now is in the Office of Academic Services. On the student side, from the class of 2000 there was Annie McLoed, from the class of 2001 there were Josh Randall and Jonathan White, and from the class of 2002 there were Tina Lin, Rima Arnaout, and myself.
In many respects, the Founders Group was the child of the Presidential Task Force on Student Life and Learning. The Task Force was a group of very high-ranking faculty and students who in 1998 published a report that effectively re-articulated MIT's educational mission for the first time in almost fifty years. The key finding of this report was a recognition that a student's overall life at MIT, including residential life, social life, extracurricular activities, et cetera, is as important a part of the educational experience as classwork and lab work. Students learn from interacting with one another informally, from having conversations and sharing ideas, from taking on projects that they are passionate about. Basically, the Task Force articulated a principle that to many MIT students seemed pretty obvious already-- the more people you interact with, and the more diverse that set of people is, the more you will learn.
In its recommendations, the Task Force said that MIT should focus more of its resources towards supporting "community"-- housing, student life activities, social events, athletics, recreation-- the types of things that allow people to interact and help make students and faculty feel that they are part of a larger community of scholars. It is within these informal settings that some of the best learning occurs at MIT. The Task Force also said that MIT needs to do a better job of integrating disparate parts of its community-- bringing together people from different living groups, and most importantly, bringing together faculty, students, and staff. Thus, a Founders Group was formed that included faculty as well as students.
"Residence 2001," as the project was officially called at the time, was to be the poster child for this new approach to MIT's educational mission. This new dorm was supposed to provide opportunities for informal, social interaction among a diverse set of people, including faculty as well as students, and would make specific, positive contributions to students' educational experience. According to MIT's leadership, this new residence would mark the start of a new era, a dorm like no other dorm MIT had created to date. It was the responsibility of the Founders Group to support and defend this ideal.
While we, the students on the Founders Group, largely agreed with the principles of supporting community and learning through informal interaction, we didn't necessarily like the sound of the rhetoric the MIT administration was using to hype the project. First, we understood that every dorm is a dorm like no other dorm. At MIT, every dorm has its own distinctive character, and no two dorms are exactly alike. So while we wanted this to be a dorm like no other dorm, it was only in such a way that we wanted it to be like all other dorms. The rhetoric seemed to imply that this dorm would somehow be better than the rest, and we didn't see that as our goal. We just wanted it to make sure it was different, and that over time it would develop its own unique character.
Another thing we didn't like about the rhetoric was that it implied that the MIT administration, and the Founders Group, by extension, would be closely overseeing and controlling the dorm's community so that it fit the administration's ideals. Many of us appreciated MIT's hands-off approach towards its dorms. Residential life activities are mostly controlled by the students and Housemasters who live in the dorm, using house taxes and elected governments to control their own programs. We felt it was important that this trend continue for a few reasons. First, we wanted this to be a fun and exciting place, and we thought that if administrators were too controlling, it would flat out suck. Second, we understood that students' ability to work together as a group, to make decisions for themselves, and to take leadership is a key element of the "community education" that was touted in the Task Force report. And third, in order to make this place a home, we really wanted to make sure that students-- more broadly speaking, the residents of the building, which included housemasters and visiting scholars as well-- really owned the dorm.
So this was the Founders Group and its basic mission in 1999. Granted, we never were able to articulate our mission very clearly, but at least we had a good enough sense of what our goals were that we could get started.
copyright Jeffrey C. Roberts, 2004