The Whitewash of Burton Third (Video Update)

Had it been a mural of happy unicorns, it would have still been there when the students returned from their summer of excellent experiments. But then, it was painted at a time when the Institute was more concerned with giving students the freedom to express themselves rather than never hurting anyone’s feelings.

When the residents of third floor of MIT’s Burton-Conner dorm left at the end of the spring semester, there was an old mural of a bar scene on the wall, and a real bar in front of it.  This was the personality of the floor, an aspect of dorm life that characterizes MIT.  Unlike other schools, each dorm has developed a persona, and attracts like-minded students who prefer the lifestyle it reflects. But that’s history, and this is a school of science.

When the students of Burton Third returned for the fall, there was no mural. There was no bar. It was gone.   The “penny arcade” mural on Burton 1 was spared complete obliteration, merely censored to remove offending words.

The Penny Arcade mural on the first floor of Burton-Conner has recently been censored. The last two sentences originally read, “This floor will eviscerate you with pleasure. You will bleed to death.”

The Penny Arcade mural on the first floor of Burton-Conner has recently been censored. The last two sentences originally read, “This floor will eviscerate you with pleasure. You will bleed to death.”

According to Housemaster, Anne McCants, she had no choice.

This controversy began when we raised a concern to the Division of Student Life about a potentially harassing environment on one floor of Burton-Conner as evidenced by the totality of the wall art and permanent graffiti in its public spaces. (Once again, I will forbear from making public what was found on those walls, with the exception of two examples below, because it had not been my intention or role to publicly humiliate any residents of my dorm. Certain residents, not I, saw fit to take this matter beyond our dorm, and repeatedly so.) They agreed that the material on the walls and the décor of the lounge were inconsistent with the values espoused in the MIT Mind and Hand Book and likely to run afoul of Federal and State civil rights and anti-harassment legislation, which among other things highlight the well-established nexus between intoxication and sexual harassment/violence. The material at issue was removed, “immediately” as Federal Title IX guidance explicitly requires, and some students have been angry ever since.

There were, apparently, two complaints about the mural that adorned Burton Third, causing the feeling of discomfort, because of this:

Barbara Baker, Senior Associate Dean for Students and MIT Title IX Co-Coordinator, was unavailable for comment on the specific process DSL used to come to this decision. But in a later email to the Burton-Conner community (following the appearance of posters on campus) Baker said that “Displays of sexual objects, pictures, or other images, if severe and pervasive can lead to a sexually hostile environment.”

As it coincidentally happens, McCants’ husband is a Senior Civil Rights Attorney for the Office for Civil Rights within the U.S. Department of Education.

It may well be that the content of the murals was relatively offensive.  I’m unable to find an image of the Burton Third mural to offer for consideration, but from the comments by the Burton-Conner dorm president, it wasn’t exactly a shrine.

Akhil Raju ’14, Burton-Conner president, said in an email to The Tech, “About half the students I talked to didn’t like [the murals] and the other half thought they were slightly amusing. Actually, a lot of people didn’t see them… Many students felt that most of the murals were not offensive, and the manner in which they were taken down concerned them more.”

It may be that had the Housemaster met with the students, they would have been good with getting rid of the mural.  Or at least, wouldn’t have raised too big a fuss about it. After all, times change and, if Raju is right, it wasn’t all that great anyway. But they never got the opportunity to agree to kill the mural.

There are two big issues raised here, the more concrete one being that the mural disappeared without the students’ knowledge or input.  While McCants contends that the duty under Title IX was to eradicate it immediately, it somehow managed not to be painted over until after the students left for the summer, but had to be completed before their return. There isn’t much to argue about after something is gone forever.

The harder issue is the elevation of delicate sensibilities over all else:

MIT’s Policy on Harassment in the Mind and Hand Book defines harassment as “any conduct, verbal or physical, on or off campus, that has the intent or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual or group’s educational or work performance at MIT or that creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive educational, work, or living environment.”

“There have been a few students who … are pleased, actually, to see that someone’s taking these questions seriously. I’m hopeful,” said McCants. “I think that it certainly makes for a better environment for people who work in Burton-Conner … Those people have identical rights, actually, on this campus as the students. And I think that’s something that’s really easy for students and faculty to forget. Whatever these provisions are, they aren’t just to protect us — the people who are here in the education part of it — they’re here to protect everyone on this campus.”

And, McCants adds, it wasn’t just about her duty to “shield” anyone whose feelings might be hurt, but her own experiences as well:

What I do want to do in this letter is to tell a story; a story which informs every aspect of the decision making I have engaged in since first discovering the harassing material on the walls of the residence hall that has been entrusted to my care by MIT.

In the twilight hours of Labor Day in 1979, my family, while driving home from a weekend backpacking trip, was struck by a drunk driver. Our car was hit broadside at considerable speed, rolled over twice, and crushed my brother who, as the driver had taken the brunt of the impact.


That would be experience enough to make me wince at expectations that in my role as Housemaster I “shield” students from the consequences of their behavior, as so many in the MIT community have suggested to me over the last two months. But there is more to this story of mine that further informs my actions this summer and fall. My brother had been born with only one kidney, and that one in near failure.


But let me say a bit more about my brother. His problems had not just been medical. As I suspect many of the readers of this story know all too well, there is something much worse than surgery: bullies.

Now that the place has been sanitized, no one’s feelings will be hurt by mural on the walls of Burton Third or Burton 1, and the perfect world will finally consume MIT, a place that once held independent thought in high esteem. All it cost was freedom of expression,  a tradition of snarky independence and the soul of nonconformity.  But no one’s feeling will ever be hurt again by anything, ever. And isn’t that more important?

Update:  To get a feel for the whole concept of dorm life at MIT, here’s the 2006 REX video for the Burton Third Bombers, used to show incoming frosh their, ahem, culture.


19 thoughts on “The Whitewash of Burton Third (Video Update)

  1. jtf

    They pulled this bullshit before in Senior Haus, including destroying totally innocuous murals like the Curious George stairwell mural. They will probably try it in Bexley (I mean, come on, if you think the Bombers have things that are offensive…) and there have been several close calls in Random.

      1. jtf

        I took the whole cultural heritage business very seriously when I went there, and to the extent that it’s possible to continue to care I still do. I and my wife are responsible for a mural of The Doors of Durin on room 321 in Random Hall, and if that’s ever painted over I’ll be pretty pissed off.

        The source is probably not malice. Although the theme of destroying murals ties in to a large amount of administrative efforts to curb the ways in which MIT’s living system is unusual and revert them to some ill-defined “peer institution” mean, it’s not all that either. From my observations in four years of administrative actions, student politics, and the like, it seemed to have been one of three factors, one of which has since gone.

        The first factor is an incredible amount of liability avoidance on the part of the MIT administration. Despite the fact that it’s a celebrated MIT tradition, there have been regular crackdowns on hackers, for example, even though the pranks are almost always completely harmless. They’ve also demonstrated a distinct lack of spine at the first whiff of bad publicity (e.g., the Star Simpson debacle). It’s not a huge inductive leap to think that housing being told to destroy murals that might be offensive to some people (and believe me, there are quite a few) is a part of this.

        The second aspect, probably stronger, is that housing in general is run by professional administrators brought in from outside of the institute who want to do things their way, the way that makes their job easiest, not the MIT way. They’ve consistently tried to cut down and abolish REX, which allows dorms to advertise to the freshmen and freshmen to select their living group (hence, strong cultures) and impose randomized housing; they oppose giving students their own kitchens and allowing them to cook, preferring dining halls; they dislike people being allowed to modify their rooms or build things in their living spaces; they dislike allowing people to move between dorms if they want to. For a while, there were even a few dorms that weren’t allowed to participate in the housing lottery for new freshmen – part of a plan to eventually phase out REX. That last was only relented after a few years, when it became increasingly obvious that the dorms where people were forced to stay in assigned housing were culturally dead and emptying of residents while other dorms had forced quads in rooms designed as doubles.

        While I was there, a third aspect was that Susan Hockfield (the ex-president) was a Yalie and wanted MIT to be more like Yale. There were a variety of administrative decisions taken in this vein to try and make MIT more like “peer institutions” which the student body didn’t like. Thankfully, she’s gone.

        1. SHG Post author

          Is there any indication that Rafael Reif, the current president, will be different? Is there any expectation that the admin will respect the cultural heritage that distinguishes MIT from its “peer institutions”?

          1. jtf

            I don’t know for certain. A friend of mine who is a sitting student member of the MIT Corporation said that Reif is worlds better than Hockfield, and predicts that he will have far more respect for the academic and social traditions of the institute than Hockfield did. That’s all the information I have.

      2. jtf

        Also worth noting that the job of the Housemaster is supposed to be the advocate of the students, not the messenger for the administration. Scuttlebutt from some of my alumni friends told me just yesterday that the Burton-Conner Housemaster is universally disliked among the students, and from this it’s pretty obvious she’s not doing her job.

    1. Mike

      So should “Reg Day Porn” make an institute-sponsored comeback as well?

      Obviously the censorship concerns are legitimate, but where do you draw the line? When do “hurt feelings” become harassment? If a happy unicorn mural included happy unicorns boning each other, would that be OK? And what’s the precedence – should censorship concerns trump Title 9 requirements?

      In the commons area of a dorm, it’s a little naive to think that anyone should be able to paint whatever they want and fall back on free speech claims if someone else finds it offensive. And like it or not, the Institute has a responsibility to take a proactive approach to dealing with potentially hostile or offensive situations instead of waiting for a student or visitor to complain. Sure, “eviscerate” and “bleed to death” are pretty tame, but “offensive” lies in the eye of the beholder. (As a side note, I think that most people need to be less outraged and offended and more tolerant, but that’s neither here nor there…)

      According to the dorm president, “about half’ of the residents didn’t like the murals. Correct me if I’m wrong, but these murals weren’t painted by current students, they’ve been there for years, right? So what standing do the original painters have to demand that the murals remain intact forever, and what standing do the current residents have to complain about censorship? Would it have been different if a resident of that floor decided on their own to paint over the murals, or do the rights of some dude who left MIT 25 years ago take precedence over the right of the current students to express themselves and improve their living group?

      MIT’s culture is still important to me, and I assume it is important to the residents who are pissed off about the murals. But every time I visit my fraternity house I’m reminded that “tradition” lasts four years. The days of Tank competitions and unlocked rooftop doors and freshmen living in ILG’s are gone, and although I personally look at those changes as an affront to the “culture of MIT” that I remember, I also understand that this is 2013, not 1989.

      1. SHG Post author

        Your analogy is somewhat flawed. Yes, the mural was painted before any of the current students on Burton Third lived there. But you then head in the wrong direction. The complaint isn’t limited to the original painter, anymore than no one could complain about censorship of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn now that Sam Clements is dead. But even worse, the current residents all chose (a key detail) to live there knowing the mural was there as part of Burton Third’s culture. And if the mural didn’t suit their sensibilities, REX is there to allow them to find a place that does. No harassment anywhere.

        And if the current residents of Burton Third found it offensive, then they, as the current residents and stewards of the tradition, can replace it with whatever they want. That they did not suggests it either wasn’t very offensive or the people who were offended (and were they even Burton Third residents?) were fragile little flowers. Does the most delicate and sensitive person rule the world, with everyone else constrained to do nothing that person might find offensive? That’s the world you’re heading toward.

        Now, back to your question, “When do “hurt feelings” become harassment?” They don’t. Hurt feelings are never harassment. Harassment is something that a person does to another person. It is not the way a person feels about what someone else did. The conduct is either wrong because it’s wrong, but never because it’s fine unless it hurts another person’s feelings. This seems to be recurring theme in the gross misunderstanding of free speech (and yes, MIT is subject to the First Amendment which trumps Title IX, whether the DoE acknowledges it or not), that free speech ends where hurt feelings begin. So the answer is, toughen up, teacup, and if someone paints a mural that offends your eyes, look the other way. You are not being harassed, but rather subject to the ordinary differences in human sensibilities. And if MIT shields you from this tiny, rather banal slice of real life, then it does you a terrible disservice and you should demand your money back.

        Edit: And what’s wrong with reg day porn, if that’s your thing? Don’t like it? Don’t watch it. But don’t kill it so nobody else can watch it because you don’t like it. As for unlocked rooftop doors, that’s for slackers. Real hackers don’t care if doors are locked.

        1. jtf

          Random’s bad hentai night still keeps the reg day porn tradition alive, by the way. Although another group of students in the dorm started the racist movie night because they liked that better then a porn night… probably a better response to speech they didn’t approve of.

  2. BL1Y

    The students on that floor should file a complaint. Surely sneaking in during the break and destroying pieces of art is “hostile,” and the threat to free speech could be argued as quite intimidating.

    1. SHG Post author

      The students might be more inclined to do something a bit more imaginative and memorable than just complain.

  3. Fubar

    First the crucifixion of Aaron Swarz for a clever hack, now this.

    Sounds like the days of IHTFP at the William Barton Rogers Tool or Die Works are not dead, but the administration is trying to bury them anyway. Will they burn all old copies of VooDoo next?

    Would that Freddie Fassett, the long late laughing Dean of Students, rise up and smite them.

      1. Fubar

        I dashed off my earlier missive before sprinting to catch a bus. I’ve since read the sources you cited. Found an anonymous comment in one of The Tech articles you cited that comes close to my view from this distance (Burton 4th 50 years ago).

        Here ’tis:

        Anonymous at 4:29 PM on October 1, 2013:
        The tl;dr I’m getting from this, beyond that Anne McCants doesn’t believe students deserve to have opinions, is that Anne McCants has no idea what Title IX is or means. Only 2 of the many murals she had taken down were even vaguely construable as Title IX violations, and the rest were of no national interest and instead were violations of the Mind Hand book.

        The rationalizations in her letter you cited strike me as words of the hypersensitive walking wounded — wounded not by students’ behavior, but by long ago tragic events entirely unrelated to present campus life. How anyone can construe the mural’s words “This floor will eviscerate you with pleasure. You will bleed to death” as harassment is beyond my comprehension. How those words, impersonal on a mural, create a “sexually hostile environment” is incomprehensible as well.

        That she acted upon only two “complaints” speaks volumes. Out of more than 3000 students she found two who even remotely objected to the mural, and it’s unclear whether their objection was based on a perception of being harassed, or merely opinions about good taste.

        The incident strikes me as the result of someone with extraordinary personal agendas holding a position of authority, and perceiving the consensual interactions of others as personal insults to herself, or to others she imagines to be as sensitive as herself. It is profoundly disappointing that the ‘tute’s adult management would let this happen. It insults actual victims of sexual harassment, or any other kind.

        But reading more about the incident did underline my earlier question about what might happen to old issues of VooDoo, a true den of iniquity.

        Or worse, would Ms McCants remove the Smoot marks from the Harvard Bridge because of their possible drunken origin?

        1. SHG Post author

          Words like “harassment” and “sexual hostile environment” have no independent meaning anymore. They become whatever the “victim” of these words feels they are. If the “victim” (who is self-proclaimed, by definition) says it’s harassment, then it is for no better reason than the “victim” says it is. As McCants explains, it’s her job to shield students from sights and sounds to which they prefer not to be exposed.

          As for McCants’ position, she uses her own suffering as an appeal to pity, that her suffering immunizes her from question and empowers her to judge because she too has suffered. It’s like victims sentencing defendants to achieve “justice.” In so doing, she forfeits her authority on behalf of the Institute to act as neutral, and instead vindicates her own sensibilities at the expense of others.

          As someone else mentioned in the comments at The Tech, no one has a right not to have their feelings hurt, and especially not at the expense of other people’s right to freedom of speech and expression. Unfortunately, that’s not the prevailing view in many places, apparently Burton-Conner among them.

  4. Fubar

    SHG wrote:

    Unfortunately, that’s not the prevailing view in many places, apparently Burton-Conner among them.

    Prevailing only insofar as the Housemaster’s view prevails until overturned by the corporation or its higher ranking authorized agents. As jtf points out above, the housemaster appears to have little support among students. But that may be only a distant hope. At this point it is unclear whether a strong response is brewing among students or others.

    In the long run a strong anti-authoritarian strain always graced the place. Pearl clutching political correctness didn’t get by scot-free. In particular, I wouldn’t be surprised if even an overwhelming majority of Tech women were less than happy with the housemaster’s present grasping her strings of spherical nacreous calcareous concretions. If so, they could be a formidable force.

    But, in the long run we’re all dead. In the meantime, I’d suggest joining hands to a rousing chorus of The Institute Screw aka “Screwed Right to the Wall”. It always beat “Kum ba yah”.

    1. SHG Post author

      I hope you’re right. It would be a terrible shame if the Institute goes the way of “peer institutions.”

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