In 1933, Avery Allen Ashdown PhD ’24 was named the first housemaster in MIT’s residential system. He took up residence in a complex of buildings dubbed Graduate House (later renamed Senior House), and shaped the burgeoning community by identifying 46 graduate students to live in the dorm. So began the MIT tradition of faculty heads of house.
More than 80 years later, faculty heads of house still live in undergraduate and graduate residence halls. Like Ashdown, they play a big role in shaping their residents’ experiences. Long-serving heads of house in two communities — Ayida Mthembu in the Eastgate Apartments (Building E55), and John Ochsendorf and Anne Carney in the Warehouse (Building NW30) — will step down this year, creating opportunities for faculty to apply for one of the most rewarding leadership positions in the MIT community.
“I’m grateful to Ayida, John, and Anne for their years of leadership in their respective communities,” says Suzy Nelson, vice president and dean for student life. “Thousands of MIT graduate students lived side-by-side with them in Eastgate and the Warehouse over many years, and had a better MIT experience thanks to their support.”
Who are heads of house? And what do they do? Heads of house are faculty members who influence all areas of student development in their communities, acting as advisors and mentors to their residents. They work closely with their house’s student government and staff from the Division of Student Life (DSL) to foster their community’s culture. On a practical level, each head of house lives in an apartment in their respective residence hall and receives a stipend. But the main incentive for becoming a head of house is the intangible, immensely gratifying impact faculty can have on the lives of MIT students.
“And,” Ochsendorf is quick to point out, “you don’t have to shovel snow!”
Ochsendorf, the Class of 1942 Professor of Architecture and Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Carney have been heads of the Warehouse graduate community for seven years. Recently, the couple announced that they were stepping down as heads of house, a decision that he described as bittersweet. “We love the students in the Warehouse,” Ochsendorf says. “As much as we have enjoyed helping to acclimate them to MIT, they have enriched our lives immensely.”
The choice to become a head of house was personal for Ochsendorf and Carney. “It was really about community,” Ochsendorf says. “We don’t have family in the Boston area, and we were excited to enhance what was already a strong community in the Warehouse.”
The Warehouse was built in 1904 and has housed a pipe-organ builder, a library technology company, a U.S. Air Force research facility, and finally, MIT’s Instrumentation Lab. After extensive renovations, it opened as a 120-bed dorm in 2001, and has been home ever since to first-year graduate students, many of whom come to Cambridge from abroad. “Anne and I studied abroad, so working with international students in particular and helping them get acclimated to MIT was especially interesting to us," Ochsendorf says.
Eastgate, on the other hand, is home to as many as 201 graduate students and their families, and is known for its proximity to Kendall Square, “million-dollar” views of Greater Boston, and unique bike-rental program that has fostered a community of cyclists. Residents are also strongly influenced by the presence of spouses and children. Mthembu, a recently retired assistant dean in Student Support Services and head of house in three MIT dorms since 1989, will fully retire from MIT at the end of this academic year. In a December letter announcing her retirement, DSL’s Senior Associate Dean for Student Support and Wellbeing David Randall said, “(Ayida) has helped countless students navigate MIT’s challenging environment, and many have expressed the sentiment that they would not have made it through without her support and guidance.”
Ochsendorf described life in residence as a “two-way street,” in which the heads of house learn invaluable lessons from their residents, and vice versa. In addition to supporting students and working with house government to set the tone for life in their communities, heads of house have a unique vantage point on the lives of students. “After teaching for more than a decade, I thought I had a good handle on the student experience,” he says, “but now I have an even deeper appreciation.” Additionally, the heads of house themselves have a strong connection. “We’ve made a number of close friends among the other heads of house. It’s a great community of people, and we’ll miss that.”
For more information on becoming a head of house, contact Judy Robinson, senior associate dean for residential education. An informational reception will be held on March 8 from 7-9 p.m. in the Warehouse, where interested faculty can meet current heads of house and staff to discuss these singular opportunities. Please email Kaye Gaskins at firstname.lastname@example.org to RSVP. If you cannot attend the dinner but would still like to apply, email a current CV and cover letter explaining why you would like to be a head of house to Dean Robinson.
The search committee for the heads of house will be chaired by Head of Ashdown House Adam Berinsky, a professor of political science. Other committee members include Head of Sidney Pacific Julie Shah, Associate Heads of Ashdown House Yuriy and Katie Roman, Dean Robinson, and residents of Eastgate and the Warehouse. The committee will review candidate qualifications, vet potential finalists with staff and graduate students in those residences, and make recommendations to Nelson and Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart. The final selections will be made by Chancellor Barnhart in time for the appointees to make preparations to relocate into their new homes before the fall term.
Ultimately, the choice to become a head of house is personal, as it was for Ochsendorf and Carney. “But, I would recommend it for every faculty member,” Ochsendorf adds. “I wish all faculty members could live on-campus for even a few years. Students are excited to see faculty outside the lab and classroom, and there's a lot of learning that goes in both directions when that happens.”