As classes got underway this week, something was missing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Something weird.
The sidewalks of Cambridge were jammed with students and their boxes, as they always are during the first week of September. There was nowhere to park. Moving vans blocked traffic on every street. Freshmen walked the “infinite corridor” of the main building as their parents took photos and consulted maps, mortifying their children. Tanned professors returning from vacation unlocked their labs. Tour guides pointed out the nuclear reactor in the center of campus. (It’s easier to miss than it sounds.)
But about the weirdness: Across the street from the Media Lab, a grand neoclassical building rises at 70 Amherst Street, an L-shaped stone structure with a courtyard at its crook, over which look two ornate balconies held up by Doric columns. A large oak tree grows in the courtyard, a tire swing that for decades was tied to a sturdy branch is gone. All is quiet. You can hear the plink on stone each time an acorn drops.
This was Senior House, the oldest dormitory on campus, built in 1916 by the architect William Welles Bosworth. For 101 years it welcomed freshman and returning students. Since the ’60s it was a proudly anarchic community of creative misfits and self-described outcasts—the special kind of brilliant oddballs who couldn’t or didn’t want to fit in with the mainstream eggheads at MIT. Some did drugs and dropped out. Some did drugs and graduated. Others were proudly “straight edge,” eschewing drugs and regarding their bodies and minds as pristine temples. Many went on to create startups, join huge tech firms, and change the technological world as we know it.
Senior House was the gravitational center of alternative culture at MIT, characterized by extremes. For example, since 1963 its courtyard was the site for an annual Dionysian festival that began with a whole steer being hauled atop a pit and roasted on an open flame. The bacchanal ended three days later when there was no more mud left to wrestle in or drinks to gulp. By the time the third dawn came, friendships had been forged, tire swings had been swung, meat had been devoured, some drugs had probably been snorted or smoked, jobs had been offered, and lives had been changed.
On campus, the reputation of Senior House preceded it. “When I became housemaster, the dormitory was functioning as a storm drain for the other MIT living groups,” wrote professor Jay Keyser of his time living in the house in the 1980s. “All the difficult students were funneled there.”
Its motto was “Sport death, only life can kill you,” which sounds … scary. (The house symbol is a human skull.) Campus lore has it that Senior House residents used to burn kittens in the house furnace. There’s a rumor the first Steer Roast happened because a cow was brought upstairs, and when the students couldn’t get it back down they slaughtered it, threw the meat into the courtyard, and roasted it. “Or there’s the one that students in Senior House carry towels with them because at any point in time if they want to have an orgy they can just throw it down and have sex on the towel,” says class of 1996 alumnus Mark Feldmeier, who was a graduate adviser living in Senior House in the early 2000s and now teaches at MIT’s Media Lab, embodying the punk rock ethos of Senior House in his floppy mohawk. In the early 2000s residents embraced that ridiculous legend, printing up Senior House towels. “That’s the double-edged sword of Senior House,” Feldmeier says. “Rather than suffer these rumors as an indignity, they play it up.”
But Steer Roast is no more. And neither is Senior House, which this year, for the first time in its history, is closed to undergraduates and is being referred to by the administration simply as 70 Amherst Street. Those students who called it home last year, and the year before that, and the year before that, are now spread out among the returning students, moving into unfamiliar rooms, separated from each other by happenstance and lottery.
New freshman and parents on tours might not notice the change. But for returning students, professors, staff, alumni, and neighbors of the university, the sudden calm feels like a party after the music has been turned off. Which raises a question: Why did the school close down Senior House? The void left in its wake will be felt not just across campus but throughout the technology industry that has for so long depended on the minds in this dorm for inspiration.
The demise of Senior House is emblematic of a larger shift on campuses across the US. Last year my own alma mater, Wesleyan University, closed down its countercultural house Eclectic, which had existed for a century. A few years ago Caltech kicked students out of its countercultural dorm Ricketts. “If it were just Senior House I would be upset and sad,” says alumna Christine Corbett Moran, an astrophysicist and engineer who, after graduation, helped write the code for the encrypted chat app Signal. “But I really see it as a harbinger of MIT and other colleges homogenizing and corporatizing.”
Senior House is quiet. Here’s what happened.
No one feels Senior House’s closure more acutely than Skirmante Survilaite, an MIT senior majoring in biotechnology. She came to Cambridge not for the famous professors but to live in Senior House. After a lifetime of not fitting in, of paying the bills and cooking the family meals because her single mother worked three jobs, of missing out on the normal parts of adolescence because she had to be responsible for her younger sister and “be the spouse of the family,” as she says, the people at Senior House made her feel like she was home.
A superb student who emigrated from Lithuania with her family when she was 5, Survilaite was offered full rides to Harvard, MIT, Case Western Reserve University, and the University of Chicago. With a special traveling scholarship, she visited Cambridge to check out MIT and Harvard. Unlike most universities, MIT asks incoming freshman to pick a dormitory in which they will live for all four years of study.
No wonder visiting dorms on campus is the single most important thing prospective students do. And the dorms lay it on thick, with parties and fliers and videos. Though Survilaite says she was a “goodie-two-shoes” in high school, she found herself drawn to the free-thinking dorms on MIT’s east side: East Campus and Senior House. At both dorms, murals adorned the walls. Students working on difficult theoretical math problems sat beside students strumming banjos. She loved the mix of people, the way they seemed driven by passion rather than pressure. At first the two dorms appeared to be pretty much indistinguishable to Survilaite, but East Campus had one problem: cockroaches.
She’s thankful for those bugs now. They helped her find a family on campus—family like her friend and classmate Cory Johnson, who found in the dorm a refuge he’d never known he needed. But after leaving his strict religious home in Texas and living in a different MIT dorm his freshman year where he was nervous to come out as gay, he transferred to Senior House and found a community that celebrated him for who he was. Unlike the fancier dorms on campus, at Senior House students said it was OK to be smart and driven and also unsure about exactly what you wanted out of life. More than OK; it was great. It was great to come from a working-class family. It was great to be gay or trans or a race other than white or to be into art and theater. It was great to be anything and everything you wanted to be.
In that first visit to Senior House, students told Survilaite how the privacy browser Tor had been invented by an undergrad named Roger Dingledine right here. Nirvana had played in this room on their first US tour in 1990. They showed her where Corbett had lived and where a student had once dumped hundreds of bags of sand in her room and made a beach for people to relax on when they were stressed. Survilaite could soon meet all of them, and more, when house alumni returned for Steer Roast to offer advice about life and career. In this way, the residents explained to her, Senior House was more than just a place she could live for four years; it would be a permanent home she could return to forever, a network of people who would always be connected by their shared values and love of this place.
She wanted in.
It wasn’t an upsell. When Steer Roast rolled around that spring, Survilaite found herself chatting with Dingledine, the creator of Tor. “Steer Roast is the way I stay connected to the MIT community,” he says. He goes to meet people like Survilaite. “I hang out at the fire pit at 6 am and tell them stories,” he says. He tells them how all good ideas start in a counterculture. He tells them how he and his Senior House friends stayed up night after night in the late ’90s trying to make a way for people to communicate anonymously to protect dissent.
Survilaite was a convert. “It was the first time in my life that I felt like I could actually belong anywhere,” she says.
In June 2016—just as the school year was coming to a close—Survilaite, along with her friend Johnson and the other residents of Senior House, began to understand that their dorm was in the university’s crosshairs. On June 10, MIT Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart sent them an email explaining that there was troubling evidence that the residents of Senior House were struggling on several fronts. Registrar data showed that the hall’s graduation rate was lower than any dorm on campus—21.1 percent of Senior House students were failing to graduate, versus the campus average of 7.7 percent. In addition, the email cited data that suggested higher-than-average drug use in the house.
The email to students was part of what appeared to be a coordinated public relations attack on the century-old dorm. “They sent the students who lived in Senior House the email at, let’s say, 11 am, and simultaneously they posted a news article on the MIT news site and then five minutes later they started emailing our parents—and then all undergraduate parents,” Johnson says. For many Senior House students, this was the first email their parents had ever received from the school, and it was alarming. “Imagine, a lot of these kids live in fear of their parents. They don’t fit in with their families, and now this letter is the only piece of correspondence they ever receive from the university?” Feldmeier says.
The reaction among parents was predictable: Many told their kids to move out of Senior House. Chancellor Barnhart says that parents, who were in many cases paying the bills, deserved to know what was going on with their children.
At this point, Barnhart says, the intention was not to shut down the dorm. Instead, over that summer, Senior House student leaders, faculty advisers, alumni, and the administration began working together on what Barnhart called a turnaround project. The administration was committed to a long-term effort. “This is not even just a one-year effort,” Barnhart remembers believing and expressing at the time. “It’s a multiyear effort because it’s about changing culture and dynamics.”
The chancellor created a committee of 47 people—faculty, staff, and students, including some who lived at Senior House—to run the turnaround. Looking toward the start of the 2016–17 academic year, Barnhart said that the house would be closed to incoming freshman, but that those already slated to live in the dorm could return. Throughout the fall, working groups of the committee made progress, writing a report in January 2017 about positive changes they had made, including placing a mental health professional within Senior House for students in need of counseling. This was especially helpful for Survilaite, who was having a hard time during this period. She’d been in an abusive relationship, and her partner had moved into her room at Senior House. With the help of her friends and this mental health professional, she was able to end the relationship and kick him out. The committee also focused on improving tutoring, addiction services, campus outreach, and making the house a safer place for residents and visitors.
But then something happened. Turnaround meetings, which had consumed the student leadership the previous semester, stopped. Citing privacy concerns, the administration refused to disclose what precisely had happened, but Barnhart told the student newspaper The Tech that “we received highly credible reports of unsafe and illegal behavior in Senior House.”
In an interview with WIRED, she says “because of what happened in the spring we just felt that we didn’t have that [turnaround] option anymore. We felt that we needed to do what we needed to do.”
At that point the administration began what it called a formal review, including one-on-one interviews with all house residents. Barnhart announced this process at 10 pm in a hastily called meeting with all house residents. In that meeting, the students asked Barnhart if they could have a lawyer present in the one-on-one interviews and were told they could not. Students in the house say these mandatory interviews felt like interrogations, with questions centering on whether drugs were sold or used in the house. “This was Lord of the Flies,” Johnson says. “They wanted us to turn on each other.”
After the review, the turnaround was deemed a failure and five sophomore Senior House students were referred to the disciplinary committee. The unconfirmed story around the house was that these students had, using a group chat application, arranged to buy cocaine for a party.
When asked if this was the incident that halted the turnaround and prompted the review, Barnhart declined to comment on the specifics and said no single event would have led to her decision to halt the turnaround or kick the undergraduates out of the house. Then she added, “This happening—especially as we were working so hard to address exactly these issues—led us to the idea that this was unworkable.”
That spring Steer Roast was cancelled and Senior House students and alumni went on red alert. Thousands of alumni signed open letters to the administration, which they published in The Tech, urging Steer Roast to be reinstated and the house to be protected. The whole Senior House network had a feeling that, after years of the house and the administration being increasingly at odds, its days might now be numbered. As the school year drew to a close, students staged sit-ins. Senior House supporters started websites as part of the campaign to save the dorm. Meanwhile, professors who thought the house should be closed wrote op-eds in The Tech arguing that the house was a negatively self-reinforcing environment that was putting its residents at risk.
In July 2017, Barnhart announced that the dorm known as Senior House would effectively cease to exist. She’d decided that, starting this fall, the building would be used as graduate student housing. Over the summer, former Senior House residents were put in a housing lottery to find new accommodations. The administration painted over murals and covered others up with whiteboards. Feldmeier watched from his office as the story of Senior House written onto its walls was whitewashed. One way to kill a culture, he says: “With lots of white paint.”
MIT’s dismantling of Senior House is part of a nationwide trend on college campuses, a shift that places a premium on safety, orderliness, and minimal bad publicity above all. Experts trace the roots of this shift to the 1980s. Since then, college tuition has skyrocketed and with it the competition for students who can afford it. Parents footing the bill are paying a lot more attention. The world has become more litigious and more corporate. All of this has led to an atmosphere in which university administrations have little margin for error when it comes to student safety or even bad publicity. And in this risk-averse atmosphere, places like Senior House, Eclectic, and Ricketts are increasingly viewed as unacceptable liabilities. “I first noticed this paternalistic ethos when I was doing some lectures at Vanderbilt University,” says sociologist Frank Furedi of the University of Kent and author of the book What’s Happened to the University? “There were all these campaigns being organized across America against drinking beer,” he says. “And I remembered that when I was in college the whole point was to get drunk.”
The shift on campus parallels larger cultural changes. “The horizon of adulthood is getting extended,” says Princeton sociologist Dalton Conley, who contends that the knowledge economy means people need more and more schooling, which in turn extends the length of adolescence. This has led to a trend of administrations attempting to control every aspect of students’ lives. They employ risk officers to assess liability; they increasingly punish students for things that happen off campus or even over the summer. Take Harvard, for instance, which this year rescinded offers of admission to students based on comments they made on Facebook.
At MIT, since students live on campus all four years, this overreach is especially robust. “Your social life, your meals, almost every aspect of your life operates within that campus,” Conley says. “It becomes more and more of a total institution. Like a prison.” This sets up a naturally combative relationship, especially in an environment as academically difficult as MIT. “It’s you, the student, against the institute,” Dingledine says. “It’s, How do we all get through this?”
One way they get through it is by depending on their dorm families. “I can’t tell you how many times I heard that Senior House saved a student’s life,” Feldmeier says. He points out that despite MIT’s high suicide rates—12.6 per 100,000 students in the years between 2010 and 2015 (the national collegiate average is 7.5)—Senior House hasn’t had a suicide in more than 20 years.
This isn’t surprising. People from marginalized groups do better when they find each other, according to psychological research. “Belonging to groups has really positive consequences, especially for mental and physical health,” says Dominic Packer, associate professor of psychology at Lehigh University, who studies group dynamics and the effects of ostracism.
But groups like Senior House, which define themselves by being different, also run the risk of becoming highly conformist, Packer says. The punk rock movement is a particularly vivid example of this phenomenon. “They self-describe as being different, but from the outside they all look the same,” he says.
Barnhart and the administration allege that those norms were exactly the problem in Senior House—that the strong culture in the dorm, far from being welcoming and supportive as the students contend, had become toxic, a negatively reinforcing environment. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
Undergraduates and graduates who lived in the house in the past 15 years say drug use there was no more prevalent than in other dorms or colleges. That’s in sharp contrast to the experience of current MIT professor Mike Short, who lived in the house one summer and wrote to the student newspaper in defense of the administration’s decision. “In my brief three months living at Haus back in 2002, I was simultaneously drawn in by the culture, and strongly repelled by the rampant use of hard drugs and their effects on the people around me,” he wrote.
Others say that if that was ever the case in the past, it no longer is today. “In my experience, there were fewer drugs at Senior House in the last three years than other places,” says a graduate student resident adviser who asked to be quoted anonymously for fear of administrative retribution. “Plus you have to remember they may have artists and different kinds of people, but we’re still talking about MIT kids here. These are nerds who mostly play video games and study and watch live streams of Alpha Go,” the resident adviser says.
Holding Out Hope
These nerds did not go quietly. Beyond the letter-writing campaigns, the calls, and the sit-ins, students and alumni held out hope throughout the summer that the administration would reverse its decision. One reason they thought they had a chance was that some of the data purportedly showing that drugs were a problem in the house had been obtained by ethically questionable means—even according to Barnhart.
In her original correspondence with the Senior House community, and in subsequent in-person meetings with the house, Barnhart emphasized that the conclusion that Senior House needed a turnaround was based on rigorous data—both the graduation rate data from the registrar’s office and a campus-wide survey students had taken in 2015.
The questionnaire, the Healthy Minds Survey, was administered by the University of Michigan. Many schools around the country give it to students as a way to pinpoint problems on campus and decide how best to allocate resources. When MIT administered it in 2015, they told students that it was a confidential survey intended to help them. One of the chancellor’s assistants who had lived in Senior House when she was an undergraduate went to Senior House and specifically requested that the residents take it. They did, in large numbers.
What they didn’t know—and what they couldn’t have known from reading the consent form that accompanied it—was that MIT had embedded metadata that allowed the administration to pinpoint the location of those filling out the questionnaire, enabling them to segment the results by dorm. The only question about dorm type in the survey was vague—“What kind of dorm do you live in? Small, large, off campus?”—but by tracking the metadata, Barnhart and the administration were able to see exactly where respondents lived.
It was this data that enabled Barnhart to see what she called a troubling hot spot of drug use. “If it wasn’t a direct violation, it was at least a violation of the spirit of informed consent,” Johnson says.
Senior House defenders tried to use this issue to attack the administration’s closure of the dorm. “I am extremely angry that MIT used data obtained in a questionable manner to inform their policies with regards to any of their students, regardless of their residence,” wrote MIT parent Elizabeth Glaser in an op-ed in The Tech. Though her son was not part of Senior House, he took the survey and was upset about how it had been used. Glaser, herself an expert in research ethics, took it upon herself to contact the creators of the survey and review its methodology. It was she who discovered the metadata.
Critics of the administration also took issue with the data purportedly showing Senior House had a relatively low graduation rate. Some worry it was based only on where students lived their freshman year, not taking into account that some people do switch dorms. Barnhart says the data accounted for this. When WIRED asked for access to the data to analyze the methods, the administration declined. More troubling to critics is that, based on the way the data was presented to the student body, it doesn’t appear to take into account that the students in Senior House tended to be marginalized in one way or another—and that those students tend to have a lower graduation rate. Barnhart says that the school took that into account as well, looking at marginalized groups in other houses. Again, it’s hard to judge who is correct without access to the raw data or detailed information about who and how it was analyzed.
As school began again last week, Senior House was gone. It’s just 70 Amherst Street now. Was Senior House a toxic environment full of drug dealers and drunks? A respite in an intellectual gauntlet? An artistic outlet? A nihilistic void? It depends on whom you ask.
Alumni and current students describe a community that helped each other, that made people feel safe enough to talk about their real problems. Over and over again people say Senior House was the first place they’d ever not felt judged. What they are describing is, in many ways, a safe place. And yet it was the claim that the dorm was dangerous that led the administration to shut it down.
Johnson got lucky. He’s moving into the student residence next door, East Campus, with a few other Senior House expats. Survilaite had hoped to live there too—cockroaches and all—but there was no room. She’s moving into a co-ed fraternity off campus instead. As Senior House students spread out across campus this year, former advisers worry that they’ll be at even greater risk. They can reach out to MIT’s mental health services if they need it, the chancellor says. Survilaite plans to. Others won’t be so easy to track, like the former president of the house, who has opted to take a year off after the struggles of the past year.
That’s not an option for Survilaite or Johnson. They are going to get their degrees, and even without a courtyard to roast a steer, they are going to hold on to each other. “I’m never going to let go of these people. They are my family. We belong together,” Johnson says. When school ends, they’ll head out into the big wide world, where building a nurturing community sometimes feels hard. Maybe the invisible threads of the internet will help bind them. Maybe Senior House alums will meet up in different cities to drink beer and trade stories of Steer Roasts past or find themselves across from each other at tech company boardroom tables, the memory of that shared place a secret tie between them. Maybe, just maybe, their weird community will persist, away from the place that once rooted it. But it’ll be something else. Something different.