For more than 50 years, MIT housemasters have been making students feel at home on campus.
Kathy Hess wheels her bicycle out of her apartment in McCormick Hall shortly before her husband, political-science professor Charles Stewart, departs on his seven-minute commute to class. Hess, an environmental scientist with the EPA, chats with the front-desk staff and the grounds crew before heading off to work. Helmet on, she cycles past the Kresge lawn, where her teenage son often plays catch. She waves to Thomas Byrne, President Susan Hockfield’s husband, who’s out walking their dog, Casey. This evening, a dozen or so undergraduates will gather in Hess and Stewart’s kitchen for a cooking class. They’ll try out recipes the students have brought from home and then settle down for dinner and conversation. If the McCormick residents need them tonight, Hess and Stewart will be there–as they have been for the last 18 years. It’s just another day in the MIT neighborhood, and in the life of an MIT housemaster.
Hess and Stewart are two of the 42 housemasters, most of them tenured faculty and their spouses, who serve as a bridge between academic and student life at MIT. Faculty members have lived in student housing since 1933, when chemistry professor Avery Ashdown, PhD ‘24, took up residence in Graduate House. (“Doc” Ashdown, famous for his wise counsel and tact, would arrive for dinner promptly at 6:59 p.m.–one minute before the end of dinner service–to ensure that no students would miss dinner if the dining hall workers were tempted to close early.) In 1951, Frederick Fassett Jr., the dean of residence, established an official faculty residency program in Baker, East Campus, and Burton House. Eventually, he hoped, the residents would oversee dorm “morale and climate” as housemasters. The first of these, Professor Howard Bartlett, was installed at Burton House in 1958. Bartlett’s goal was to make the house “not just a place to sleep, by fostering a pleasant social and intellectual life away from home.”
Now, more than 50 years later, housemasters are ensconced in every residence hall on campus, working to create an environment in which students can learn, study, relax, and feel at home. “They are accessible and always there when you need them, even if just as a friend,” says Zachary Bjornson-Hooper ‘10, who lived in Simmons Hall for four years.
That everyday presence makes faculty seem more approachable to students, who are often in awe of their professors. “Having faculty living in the residences makes you realize that they’re just people too,” says Jane Wang, a graduate resident tutor (GRT) in McCormick. The professors, too, find the job an invaluable way to connect. “In the dorm, I was never ‘Professor’–I was always ‘Bora,’ ” says Borivoje Mikic, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, who along with his wife, Liba, served as a housemaster for 30 years; they lived with their two daughters in Senior House and then in Next House. “I know certain things they don’t know; I can help them when they are in trouble,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t learn anything from those young men and women, including what stereo I should buy.”
Donna Denoncourt, associate dean for residential life, says she hasn’t seen anything else like the system at MIT. “Faculty-in-residence programs do exist at other schools, but not in the numbers we have here or with the level of commitment by the faculty to life outside the classroom,” she says.
Merritt Roe Smith, for example, who shares housemaster duties at Burton-Conner with his wife, Bronwyn Mellquist, walks the dorm floors at 1 a.m. on the weekends, hoping to strike up conversations with students. On one of these late-night strolls, he comforted a student concerned about a loud roommate by saying, “Call me anytime if the problem comes up again and I’ll come over.” The student proceeded to call every two hours throughout the night–not to report that anything had happened, but to ask if it was okay to call if something did. “He just needed the reassurance that I was there to help if he needed me,” says Smith.
Students appreciate these open-door policies, especially when they feel vulnerable. Dawn Colquitt Anderson and her husband, Larry Anderson, an associate professor of physical education and head coach of men’s basketball, have been housemasters at Tang Hall since 1999. During last year’s flu season, a student came to Dawn feeling sick, worried about H1N1; she took his temperature and felt his head. “I just felt so good being able to do it for him, and he felt so good, too, because he was missing his parents and he needed that,” she says. “They all need someone, even if they don’t know it.”
Being a shoulder to cry on, too, is part of the job. Mellquist remembers when an upperclassman came to the apartment to discuss a first-year student whose friend back home had died suddenly. Smith and Mellquist offered to help connect the student with a counselor. The upperclassman shook his head, looked at Mellquist, and said, “I think she just needs a mother.”
Professors who become housemasters add more work to an already demanding professional life. Smith says some of his colleagues think he is “totally nuts.” But he delights in witnessing the students’ transformation during their four years at MIT. “It lets you see a different side of students,” he says. “I’ve become a better teacher because of it. I know how the students prioritize their time and how they think about things.”
Robert Randolph, chaplain to the Institute and housemaster of Bexley Hall, gets a similar reaction when he tells people where he and his wife, Jan, live. “The average person on the street regards adolescents as a necessary evil,” he says. “Anyone who would choose to give up their ‘freedom’ to interact with [college students] is viewed as mentally deficient. But frankly, I think it is a wonderful way to stay younger.” Larry Anderson agrees. “The people we live with are mature, they’re talented, they’re going places,” he says. “And I get energy from that.”
“Friending” residents on Facebook, exchanging music through iTunes, and hosting a barbecue complete with a cotton candy machine are just a few of the ways housemasters stay young. Smith and Mellquist take Burton-Conner students on a dinner-dance cruise every year–and each year, the students beg them to join in the dancing. Smith challenges the students to a dance-off, trading the latest club music for his generation’s rock. “I automatically declare myself the winner–even though last year one student was a member of the MIT Ballroom Dance Team,” he says, laughing.
Many housemasters silently smile when they think back on some of the student exploits they’ve witnessed during their time in the dorm. “There are things I know a lot about that I wish I didn’t,” Randolph admits, “but I wouldn’t trade the relationships we’ve made with students for any other experience.”
In the summer, most housemasters get a break and some time to themselves. This year Stewart and his son, Cameron, were on a mission to visit every Major League baseball park in North America; Smith and Mellquist head to Maine each year to exchange the sounds of construction and loud music for birdsong and the lull of the Atlantic. They all come back in the fall, refreshed and ready for the energy of the students. “It’s always good to get away,” says Larry Anderson. “And it’s always good to get back.”
Become an Insider to get the story behind the story — and before anyone else.