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Commercial Intrusion into Academic Space

What are a university's priorities?
By Jonathan Alan King, Ruth Perry, and Frederick P. Salvucci

Many US colleges and universities are experiencing increasing privatization of educational functions and activities on their campuses, including health services, food service, housing, building maintenance, and benefits administration. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, privatization has taken a somewhat different form: the use of the campus itself as a site for commercial real estate development.

MIT’s distinctive residential campus on the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has been a protected enclave bounded on the south by the river and on the north by an increasingly bustling and commercial Main Street. Across Main Street is the high-rise Kendall Square office area. Cambridge is undergoing a period of intense real estate development because of both a growing high-tech industry and corresponding pressure on the housing market. The most valuable land is the Kendall Square neighborhood, and of course the MIT campus itself, along the Charles. Almost ten million square feet of primarily commercial office space is planned or already under construction in Kendall Square, adjoining the campus.

In this environment, the real estate executives of the MIT Investment Management Corporation (MITIMCo), working with a small group of administration officials, developed a proposal, called MIT2030, to build two or three large commercial buildings in the heart of MIT’s east campus. Although the campus is already surrounded by commercial office buildings, MITIMCo plans to use irreplaceable campus land for a commercial real estate venture, while ignoring the pressing need of more than four thousand MIT graduate students for affordable housing on or near campus. The planned long-term commercial leases on these buildings will be extremely profitable and increase income to the MIT endowment, which is the basis for the MIT administration’s support. They will also return large bonuses to the MITIMCo real estate executives. Yet the planned construction of commercial buildings, rather than university facilities within the campus, is a radical departure from MIT’s history and tradition as a research and educational institution. Real estate investments can be made anywhere, whereas educational, residential, and research capacity depends on campus space.

Some years back, under former president Susan Hockfield, the real estate arm of MITIMCo, which handles endowment investments, was given the portfolio for further campus development. Prior to that, an office of campus planning had been responsible for allocating space on campus and interacted regularly with faculty and staff. MITIMCo reports directly to the Executive Committee of the MIT Corporation and operates outside the governance structure of elected faculty officers and standing committees concerned with MIT’s educational and research missions. This investment company exercised the core campus planning functions normally reserved for faculty, students, and internal administration.

The plan to lease out campus space for commercial buildings required changing zoning, and is a dramatic break from the commitments made by MIT as part of the original Kendall Square redevelopment plan to designate this land as exclusively for academic use. When initially submitted in 2011, the zoning petition was rejected by the City of Cambridge primarily because it failed to provide for the housing needs of both students and the surrounding community. Subsequently MITIMCo and the MIT administration launched an intensive and unprecedented lobbying campaign and, in the fall of 2012, received approval for “up-zoning” the area to allow construction of taller commercial buildings.

Graduate Student Housing Dilemma 

Notably absent from the zoning petition were plans to build additional graduate student housing, despite a well-documented need. For the past decade, graduate students have reported the housing shortage as their greatest difficulty in their careers at MIT. In one of the hottest rental real estate markets in the country, MIT graduate students are rapidly being priced out, in part because of the growth in the number of graduate students, and more recently, by new employees of the rapidly growing high-tech and biotech sectors. With limited on-campus graduate housing, more than 60 percent of MIT’s roughly six thousand graduate students have to secure housing off campus. Vacancy rates in Cambridge are around 1 percent, among the lowest in the nation. Given the commercial development in Cambridge, housing costs are increasing significantly faster than stipends.

Currently MIT first-year and some second-year graduate students are housed on campus, but most are required to vacate after their second year to make room for incoming students. Many of the graduate students, by teaming up with one or two others, have been able to find more affordable housing off campus. Of course, this solution is not available for graduate students with children. Over the past several years, as the supply of housing in Cambridge has become tighter, graduate students are moving farther and farther away to find housing they can afford, commuting from communities like Somerville, Brighton, and Allston. The round trip by public transit to Brighton requires at least an hour-and-a-half per day, time graduate students can ill afford. Moreover, with the rapid increase in rental prices spreading to Boston and Somerville, even inconvenient and distant housing is becoming unaffordable.

The problem is made more acute by the inflow of recent graduates drawn to Cambridge to work in the high-tech economy. These recent graduates are accustomed to living near their worksites and now have income to bid up the price of the limited available housing even higher. Graduate students cannot compete financially with employees of Novartis, Shire, Pfizer, Microsoft, or Google. The proposed office buildings on the MIT campus will bring in thousands more additional employees, with their higher incomes, further exacerbating the housing shortage. This will force graduate students to move even farther from the campus, with even longer commutes.

The housing shortage affects not only MIT’s own students but also the adjacent residents in Cambridge. Graduate students and low- and middle-income residents of Cambridge and new tech employees all compete for the same housing, and rents have increased 30 percent just in the last three years. Neighborhood organizations have opposed the MITIMCo position and called on MIT to build graduate student housing to relieve local housing pressure.

The Need to Live near Laboratories 

Graduate students who live on or near their campuses, who continuously interact with each other, with postdoctoral fellows, and with faculty, create an enriched research environment. Particularly for those graduate students whose theses require hands-on work, the interaction of students with each other, with postdoctoral fellows, and with research technicians is critical for optimal research productivity.

Pushing students farther from campus has the unfortunate consequence of significantly decreasing productive time on campus. In practice, most students are limited to housing near public transportation, with attendant higher rents. Commuting roads into and out of Cambridge are already congested. When the proposed developments in Cambridge are built—of  the order of 18 million square feet—since roads and transit are already saturated, the time and discomfort of commuting will escalate drastically.

Campus Tradition of Open Communication

The insertion of several thousand corporate employees into the heart of the MIT campus will change its character. One effect will be to retard the free exchange of information. Within the campus community almost all students, postdocs, and faculty are eager to communicate to anyone who will listen their latest experiments, findings, and results. In contrast, a significant number of corporate employees will have signed nondisclosure agreements or be otherwise bound not to reveal what they are working on.

Most of these employees will have little or no personal or historical connection to the MIT academic community and generally will not share its history, interests, beliefs, ethics, or concerns. Commercial buildings on campus will push MIT further in the direction of commercial corporate culture rather than maintaining its character as a university held together by intellectual curiosity and common goals and beliefs, such as sharing knowledge. The spectacle of these employees under corporate deadlines and pressures may narrow the vision and render more instrumental and materialistic the spirit our students bring to their learning.

High-tech industries, offices, and laboratories already surround MIT to the west, north, and east. There is little danger at MIT of faculty, students, or staff losing contact with the commercial need for relevance, translation, and application. At the Cambridge Planning Board meeting in December 2012, the board chair cheerfully envisioned faculty members who had business with the high-tech companies who rented space on campus going back and forth from their offices to the companies hiring their services. But, of course, this is not true of professors of English literature, history, anthropology, or many other areas of inquiry that make MIT a great university. And while it is true that the line between the commercial and the academic has gotten perilously thin in this era of start-up companies, there is much to be said for preserving some separation between the broad intellectual inquiry characteristic of university life and the profit-driven focus of commerce.

Opposition to MITIMCo Proposal

As faculty and graduate students became aware of the initial proposal to use invaluable campus land for commercial purposes, opposition intensified. The Graduate Student Council called attention to the intense housing shortage faced by graduate students, which could be solved by building graduate student housing on the east campus. (The then president of the Graduate Student Council was among those testifying in opposition to MITIMCo at the 2011 planning board hearings.) Editorials in the MIT Faculty Newsletter called on the MIT Corporation to withdraw the MITIMCo up-zoning proposal.

When President Hockfield resigned in 2012, incoming president Rafael Reif and provost Chris Kaiser responded to the faculty and graduate student critique by constituting a provost’s task force, chaired by professor Thomas Kochan, to review the MIT 2030 plan and the MITIMCo proposal. This committee, after taking testimony from many stakeholders, issued a report in October 2012, including a series of criticisms of the MIT2030 plan. The task force called for rejecting return on investment as the leading criterion for planning the future of the campus. It called for reexamining and significantly revising the plans and petition, for attending explicitly to the graduate housing needs, and for making land available for research, educational, and cultural needs. Many faculty and graduate students assumed that the MIT administration would follow the recommendations.

Unfortunately, the task force report was never brought before a regular faculty meeting for debate, assessment, or approval. The MIT administration decided to sidestep the task force report and filed a slightly modified form of the earlier zoning petition. As we have noted, this 2012 zoning petition still failed to address the urgent need for graduate student, postdoc, and faculty housing, or for recreational facilities, classrooms, and research space.

Campus Land for Academic Needs

The extraordinary commercial and technology expansion surrounding the MIT campus means that housing prices in and near Cambridge will continue to rise. MIT has an obligation to provide on- or near-campus affordable housing for MIT graduate students and postdocs. This obligation follows from the reality that MIT is uniquely reliant on talented and hardworking graduate student and postdoc researchers, who are the motor for its research productivity.

The solution to the acute housing shortage for graduate students in Cambridge is to build sufficient housing on the campus. Many of our nation’s leading research universities have followed this path. By taking responsibility to provide a substantial percentage of the units required, MIT can secure a housing resource for this essential and growing component of the MIT education and research community and simultaneously reduce one of the factors causing the housing shortage in the wider community of Cambridge. MIT has land on and near campus, and the money in its endowment has grown 21 percent—in part because of the increased value of its Cambridge real estate enhanced by the city council’s approval for a major increase in zoning density in and near the MIT campus.

Inadequate Faculty Inclusion in Governance

Though MIT is technically a private university, it was originally a land-grant institution, established for the public good; a very large part of its operating budget—over $600 million—comes from federal research grants. Almost all of the research workforce—graduate students and postdoctoral fellows—are working on scientific and technical aspects of national problems and priorities. Complicating graduate student life is not in the nation’s interest, not in MIT’s interest, and not in the interest of the surrounding community. Why, then, is this happening?

MIT has no faculty senate and no faculty union or AAUP chapter. Faculty meetings are chaired by the president, and often lack a quorum of 3 percent of the faculty. Important faculty business is handled through a set of standing committees, in essence joint faculty/administration committees that do periodically report back to the full faculty. Missing from the group of standing committees has been a campus planning committee reporting to the faculty.

By fall 2013, in response to the vocal concerns of graduate students and faculty about the lack of housing in the development proposal, the administration established a Working Group on Graduate Student Housing. This committee, chaired by former chancellor Philip Clay, proposed six hundred new units of graduate housing, together with four hundred “swing” units to offset elimination of some older units of housing and to allow renovation of other units. This was a step forward, but far from meeting the need for several thousand units to alleviate pressure on both graduate students and the surrounding Cambridge community.

At about the same time the administration formed an East Campus Planning Committee led by its real estate executives, though including members of the architecture faculty. Meanwhile, faculty efforts led to a motion to establish a campus planning committee as a standing committee of the faculty. This passed unanimously at the May 2014 meeting of the faculty, and at the time of this writing the administration is taking nominations for the new planning committee. We have been promised that the committee will be constituted by the October faculty meeting. Nonetheless, the administration has already proceeded to select architectural firms to design the proposed on-campus commercial development. As of this writing, these designs include demolishing married-student housing and building an unspecified number of new units of graduate housing.

The MIT2030 plan focuses on the income generated from the commercial leases. But a significant fraction of MIT income—research grants and contracts on the associated overhead—depends on graduate student productivity. Reducing the quality of life for a significant fraction of MIT’s graduate students will damage this productivity. Even more significant are the hazards to MIT’s primary mission of providing quality education and research training. The consequences of putting commercial buildings on campus rather than living spaces for graduate students are far broader than the price of housing in Cambridge. The use or misuse of MIT campus land may well have long-term implications for our national scientific and technical needs and priorities. It also makes visible the growing corporatization at the heart of American higher education that perverts its meaning and must be resisted.

Jonathan Alan King is professor of molecular biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Ruth Perry is the Ann Fetter Friedlaender Professor of Humanities on the MIT literature faculty, and Frederick P. Salvucci is senior lecturer in MIT’s Center for Transportation and Logistics, and former Massachusetts secretary of transportation.

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