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Changes to foster community on campus

Sophomore Lydia Helliwell (left) and junior Monica Morrison arrive early last  week at Simmons Hall to get a head start on soccer practice.
Sophomore Lydia Helliwell (left) and junior Monica Morrison arrive early last week at Simmons Hall to get a head start on soccer practice.
Photo / Donna Coveney

The 981 members of the Class of 2006 undergoing orientation this week are the first wave of MIT undergraduates who will benefit from a campus-wide philosophy and environment created to develop a greater sense of community.

"We're trying to achieve the community goals as well as the education and research goals of the Task Force for Student Life and Learning," said Phillip L. Clay, chancellor and professor of city planning, referring to the two-year study of campus life that was published in 1998. "In the buildings, we're providing space for more social gatherings, and we have involved students in the redesign of these spaces."

In other words, "form follows function." That thought was expressed by Louis H. Sullivan, the father of modern American architecture, who got his training at MIT 128 years ago.

The new residence for undergraduates, Simmons Hall, features many spaces to foster a sense of community and belonging--fitness centers; common rooms; multipurpose rooms that can be used for theatrical performances, lectures or other gatherings; a large kitchen; group study rooms; seminar rooms; a music practice room; and an Athena computer cluster.

Starting with the Class of 2006, all freshmen will be required to live on campus. About 100 freshmen will live in Simmons Hall.

"At 70 Pacific St., there's a lot of space for grad students to socialize, hold large events and create venues for activities that are not bound by departments or centers," Clay said. "It's close to the function of a graduate center. There's a professional kitchen so they can cook for large groups. There's a fitness center that's probably as large as half the fitness centers in Boston. There's a game room, cable TV, an Athena cluster--all of these things are to promote and support graduate life."

The two residences will provide campus housing for about 1,050 more students than MIT could house in campus residence halls last year. For graduate students, that means 700 fewer people looking for apartments in Cambridge, thereby lowering the pressures on that crowded market.

In past years, FSILG rush occurred during orientation. This year, fraternities and independent living groups will hold rush Sept. 20 through October 4. Sororities' rush will be held during IAP in January. "We're working with the fraternities, sororities and independent living groups [FSILGs], putting $1.25 million into them over a three-year period to help upgrade them and make them sustainable and attractive. As we update the residence halls, we want to make sure the FSILGs are updated also," Clay noted.

"We're also committing $600,000 in additional community programs for undergraduates and graduate students--for such things as major events, concerts and leadership development. We're talking about fraternities and residence halls sponsoring events jointly.

"On the academic side, we're constructing study rooms in a large area in the library that will be open 24/7. That's expected to be ready in October. The academic renovations tend to emphasize hands-on education or study venues that support group learning, like the TEAL classroom that has clusters of round tables," Clay said.

"The students seem happy. Of course, everyone's happy on the first week, so I'm not ready to declare victory yet. But there's no crowding, and that's good news," said Clay.

The philosophy of the changes now going into effect is based on basic principles of MIT, particularly the educational triad of academics, research and community articulated by the Student Advisory Committee to the Task Force on Student Life and Learning, and incorporated as a core principle in the task force recommendations.

The task force was appointed in July 1996 by President Charles Vest to undertake a comprehensive review of the Institute's educational mission and its implementation. Its September 1998 report noted that "students who come to MIT will participate in an increasingly global economy, whatever their career choices, and more leadership will be expected of them."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on August 28, 2002.

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