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Dry rush sacrifices honesty

Guest Column/John F. Piotti

My fraternity's Rush Chairman complained to me recently that the ODSA would not allow him to put a certain photograph in this year's Residence Book. The photo, which had been taken at a formal dinner, showed one of our more All-American type brothers, flanked by two attractive young ladies who were obviously enjoying his company. To me it seemed perfect: the photo was a persuasive (albeit misleading) depiction of everyday fun at Sigma Chi. I guessed that the ODSA's objection had something to do with "truth in advertising."

But the Dean's Office was not objecting to the unnatural euphoria of the three students, only that their euphoria might be due to unnatural libations: you see, the photo also revealed a bottle of wine.

Still, I think it's important that incoming students and their parents are not beseiged with photos and text that depict the use of alcohol. Because the Residence Book is necessarily limited in the explanations it can offer, it is often better to leave certain things unseen and unsaid.

The same degree of restraint is not needed during Rush Week. Then, members of living groups have an obligation to be as much like themselves -- and as candid with the freshmen -- as the atmosphere allows. This would be jeopardized by the imposition of a "dry" rush, as currently advocated by the ODSA. Policies regarding alcohol should be no different during rush than during the semester. New alcohol guidelines are needed, but they should be reasonable policies that are applied uniformly over the entire schoolyear.

Trends and Law

The Dean's Office has been quick to point out that a hundred other campuses have recently enacted a dry rush. These actions are not reason enough for MIT to follow suit. The only "trends" the Institute should feel some obligation to follow are those that have been articulated into law.

One form of "law" is the rules of National Fraternities, which local chapters must follow. Contrary to campus rumor, all fraternities have not passed resolutions mandating dry rushes at their chapters. (If indeed they had, there would be little need for the ODSA to consider the issue.) The national regulations that I have seen simply re-affirm an obligation to follow university policy and abide state law.

The recent change in Massachusetts law is more substantive. The increase in the drinking age from 20 to 21 cuts the number of "legal" undergraduates in half. Yet an outside observer might find it difficult to see how this affects rush, since almost all incoming students who will be younger than 21, would also be younger than 20. Of course, the reality of the situation is different; as Dean Sherwood noted in The Tech (April 26): "We've been breaking the law for 20 years." Thus the new law might affect rush if it is accompanied by increased enforcement by local police; not only is this unlikely, but it would affect social life during the semester as much as during rush.

Why make rush different?

Dry rush is being advocated for several reasons, but most of the reasoning can be applied to times outside of rush as well. I have only heard one argument that articulates a benefit to stricter alcohol policies during Rush Week. This argument -- that freshmen who are forced to stay away from alcohol will be able to make better decisions -- has some merit, but not as much as someone who has never worked rush might expect. It's obvious that excess drinking may impede a freshman's decision-making ability; but it's also true that most living groups prefer a rushee with a clear head: how else can a group make a decision to extend a bid? At my house, as at others, rushees are occasionally discouraged (and never encouraged) from drinking. Rush Week is too short not to concentrate on the task at hand -- getting to know the freshmen and their interests. (If a freshman's major interest is drinking, it's important to know that, too.)

Of course, there are a few fraternities that do use alcohol in rush tactics. Their results are their own reward, as their pledges -- as often as not -- contribute less to the chapter than to the house's beer funds. Yet if a fraternity is a "drinking house," it's important for freshmen to have the opportunity to see this during Rush Week.

Need for alcohol guidelines

None of this is to say that there is not a need for alcohol guidelines as long as they are applicable over the entire year. In fact, campus-wide alcohol standards are inevitable, if not overdue. But prohibitive policies should not be so strict as to reduce appropriate options for individual choice. Most students will use their time in college to increase their familiarity with alcohol. MIT's policies should recognized this; they should encourage the proper use of alcoholic beverages. In many instances, I believe that such educational goals may outweigh the desire to reduce legal liability to a bare minimum. Indeed, the ODSA's Alcohol Committee seems to agree: their proposed guidelines for parties -- althought restricting -- stop far short of a dry campus. Why can't the Dean's Office be as reasonable about rush?

Fraternity rush is a major part of Residence/Orientation, which MIT sponsors. I suspect that the ODSA is pushing for a dry rush because it fears liability is greatest during R/O. Dean McBay (or her lawyers) may be too caught up in the trends, to look at the facts.

The risk of alcohol-related incidents should be less during rush than during other times of year. The activities and where-abouts of every freshman (if not upperclassman) is always known, and there are far fewer events that draw people from outside MIT, admittedly the biggest problem. Besides -- unlike most other campuses -- the focus of our rush has never been on drinking, or even on hog-wild partying. MIT's rush is radically different from any other school; why should we look to other schools for our Rush Week alcohol policies?

At the same time, I can't see how MIT's legal responsibility is any greater during R/O than during the school year, when all freshmen are required to live in Institute approved housing. Even if insurance companies see it differently, the extra premiums may be a small price to maintain the unscathed independence and vitality of the fraternity system: MIT currently contributes relatively little to the students and alumni it relies upon to operate over $60 million in fraternity-owned assets.

Process flawed

The ODSA overlooked the fraternities when it formed its plans for dry rush. An issue as important as this should not have appeared overnight, yet InterFraternity Conference (IFC) Chairman Tinley Anderson was "informed" of the necessity of a dry rush only a few weeks ago (on the same day as the last IFC General Meeting of the year). Tinley and his Executive Committee have put forth a yeoman effort to salvage some "process" out of the proposal; but for alcohol restrictions to ever work -- for the policies to be anything more than documents used to reduce insurance premiums or to display in court -- they must be understood and supported by the 1500 men and women of the IFC, on whom the responsibility of enforcement will fall.

We have before us a dry rush proposal of little merit, to which the IFC has had limited input. But with a little extra effort -- and concern for the students -- the Dean's Office could reach many of the same goals with a reasonable year-round policy that wouldn't sacrifice the honesty of rush, or the independence of the fraternity system.

(Editor's note: Piotti is a graduate student in Ocean Engineering. He is past chairman of the IFC, past president and rush chairman of his chapter, and currently serves on the National Board of the Sigma Chi Fraternity.)