FHC says all freshmen should live in dormities
By Niraj S. Desai
The Freshman Housing Committee has recommended that all freshmen be housed on campus in dormitories.
Incoming freshmen, under the FHC plan, would be preassigned to specific dormitories and rooms, and would be able to pledge independent living groups or make a choice among dormitories only at the end of the first year. They would be able to move into their new living groups with the start of the sophomore year.
Some fraternities may be forced to close if the proposal, which would be the first major change in MIT's housing policy since 1966, is implemented. The FHC also urged that the Institute acquire additional undergraduate dormitory space -- between 350 and 500 beds -- to accommodate freshmen who would otherwise be housed in ILGs and to address other problems in the current housing system.
Provost John M. Deutch '61, who appointed the committee
last fall, said that after a period of community discussion he would appoint two working groups to examine whether and how to implement the FHC recommendations.
Deutch and President Paul E. Gray '54 have agreed that no timetable should be set for the process at this stage, Deutch said.
The FHC proposal, which was released last week, also calls for Residence/Orientation Week to become simply Orientation, and for changes in the present residential system, especially in dormitories, to "enhance quality of life and to increase support, particularly for freshmen."
The faculty is set to discuss the proposal at its meeting tomorrow, and an open forum for the MIT community is scheduled for Nov. 28.
FHC asked to study impact
of residential pattern
There is a universal understanding that the character of residential life is an integral part of a university education, Deutch said in an interview last week. The FHC study was conducted in order to determine if the present pattern of residence, especially among freshmen, "leads to the most successful academic experience."
In September 1988, Deutch charged the FHC, chaired by Professor Mary C. Potter, with studying "the impact that R/O [Residence/Orientation] has on the quality of life and character of the MIT community, with special reference to the freshman class" and to "consider whether alternative policies are called for in light of their findings, and, if so, to assess the pros and cons of those policies; including a policy that would require essentially all freshmen to live in Institute dormitories."
In particular, Deutch's charge asked the committee to consider whether the present method of residence selection constituted an appropriate introduction to the Institute, and what effect demographic changes in the student body -- increased numbers of women and minority students -- would have on the housing system.
The housing committee said in its report that it also sought to determine: how well the present system accommodated all undergraduates; how diverse a group of people students encountered in their living groups; whether the residence selection process was equitable and rational; and how well R/O Week and the residential experience furthered the university's intellectual goals.
Beginning work in November 1988, the 15-member Potter Committee -- which included three undergraduate students -- met formally with 22 individuals from the administration, student government, and other universities, as well as about 20 members of the InterFraternity Alumni Council, according to the committee report. Also, committee members interviewed students and several housemasters, and reviewed internal MIT reports and other documents.
At its May 24 meeting, the FHC settled on its major recommendations. A draft copy of its report was written over the summer, and the final copy was publicly released last week.
Committee indicts present system
The FHC returned a strong indictment of MIT's current housing system.
While it has been able to accommodate almost all undergraduates in the past, the system may not be able to do so in future, the committee suggested. It noted that some dormitories are presently crowded, there is insufficient housing for transfer students, and the increasing costs of private apartments may discourage students from living off campus.
Moreover, the FHC cited concerns raised by a 1988 committee chaired by Professor Robert S. Kennedy SM '59. The Kennedy Committee, noting that fraternities have traditionally relied on white male students for most of their membership, suggested that the increased numbers of women and minority students on campus might make it difficult for all-male ILGs to fill their houses. The FHC noted that in recent years many houses have aggressively recruited minority students, but concluded that questions about the future of MIT's 27 fraternities remain. (The ILG residential system -- which also includes five coed houses and one all-female house -- presently houses about 30 percent of undergraduates.)
FHC sees residential
experience as narrow
While the Institute has prided itself on the growing diversity of its student body, the current housing system encourages students to segregate themselves to an extent, according to the FHC report. Freshmen are asked to select a living group within their first few days at MIT. As a result their selection reflects "preexisting tastes and values rather than a direct experience of MIT life and an exposure to its ideals and values." Freshmen choose to live among, and build friendships with, people like themselves rather than seeking out other elements in the MIT community, according to the committee. This narrowness of experience is reinforced because the norm is for students to remain in the same living group for all four of their undergraduate years, the committee said.
One of the main points advanced by proponents of the present residential system is that it allows freshmen to choose where they wish to live. The Potter Committee rejected this argument, saying that the anxiety of starting college and the pressure of R/O Week inhibits the ability of freshmen to make informed choices. The FHC also asserted that not all students are given equivalent choices. Women in particular, the report said, have a limited number of options because residential ILG rush is predominantly aimed at men.
R/O Week in its present form does an inadequate job of introducing students to the intellectual environment of MIT, the FHC concluded. "Orientation at MIT is dominated by residence selection . . . There is little intellectual excitement, little sense of joining a community of scholars."
Having residence selection, especially ILG rush, as the first part of R/O Week means that "students begin MIT with an inherently inegalitarian experience," the committee asserted. "Freshmen are the target of lobbying and interviewing by upperclass students that is partly informational and partly a sales pitch, a mixture of disinterested concern and self-serving selection of desirable future colleagues." ILG rush (and to an extent dormitory rush) forces freshmen to compete with one another for the approval of upperclass students, according to the committee. And since many freshmen fail to receive a bid from fraternities or sororities in which they were interested, the experience can be painful, the committee said.
The FHC concluded its criticism of the present residential system by saying:
"At a university, the relevant basis of evaluation and achievement is intellectual, not social; the ideals are democratic, not exclusionary. Without denying the value of free association of like-minded individuals in independent residential groups such as ILGs, it is nonetheless undesirable to have the selection into such groups be the first significant event of an MIT education. Nor is it desirable that upperclass students should play a role in determining which freshmen are placed in a given dormitory. Having been admitted to MIT, freshmen should begin college as equals."
Preassign freshmen to
dormitories, FHC urges
The Potter Committee's major recommendation was that all freshmen should be distributed throughout the dormitory system and preassigned to a specific dormitory, room and (where applicable) roommate. The committee claimed the change would provide an "initial year in which students live with a cross section of their classmates and others rather than a self-selected group, thus giving students a chance at the outset of their college experience to meet and form a community with a more diverse group of people than at present."
Removing residence selection from undergraduate students' first week at MIT would also eliminate the anxiety and uncertainty associated with the present R/O, according to the committee.
ILG and sorority rush would be deferred to spring term of the freshman year under the FHC proposal, with students able to move into ILGs at the beginning of the second year. This would give students more of a chance to learn about the ILG system and about MIT before making a decision to join a particular fraternity or sorority, the FHC report said. It would also postpone the experience of selection or rejection associated with seeking membership in an ILG or sorority until a point when the student "is likely to be more secure and less vulnerable."
The report acknowledged that some fraternities might be unable to survive because of the financial strain of losing their freshman membership. But it said that "although painful, a reduction in the number of undergraduates in (male) fraternities would be consistent with the decrease in the number of male students in the last decade and the increase in student interest in coed living."
Potter said, in an interview last week, that about a third of the committee's membership dissented on its main recommendation because of concern about its impact on the ILG system.
Open housing choice
at end of first year
At the end of the first year, the FHC proposal would allow students who choose to remain in the dormitory system an open choice of housing, with a lottery to resolve competing choices. The committee argued that by giving all freshmen equal access to open places (students would not have priority for placement in their freshman year dormitory), they would be encouraged to move to another dormitory, lowering barriers between dormitories and reducing the tendency of students to "stay put" for four years -- a tendency which could further undermine ILGs.
By eliminating the residence selection part of Orientation Week, the focus of orientation would be on an introduction to academic and extracurricular opportunities, and to MIT and the city, the FHC report said.
The FHC said that substantial improvements can be made in the quality of life in some living groups, particularly dormitories. It urged that -- regardless of whether its main recommendation on freshman housing is adopted -- freshmen be provided with a stronger support system, consistent standards of conduct be established, and the poor physical quality of some residences be improved. One of the two working groups Deutch plans to appoint would concern itself with this question; the other would deal with the main recommendation on residential policy.
Need for more dorm space cited
Implementation of the plan to house all freshmen in dormitories would, in the long-term, require that the Institute add between 350 to 500 spaces to its dormitory system, the committee concluded. Even without the policy change, other problems confronting the ability of the housing system to accommodate all undergraduates would indicate MIT should expand its dormitory space.
In the short-term, the committee suggested dormitory space for freshmen could be increased by the establishment of residential sororities, an increase in the percentage of students joining ILGs (as compared to the present percentage joining in the freshman year), the upgrading of underutilized dormitory space, and (during a translational period) the provision of rent subsidies to upperclass students willing to move to private housing.
The FHC also recommended that, if its plan is adopted, a transition period to minimize the adverse effects on ILGs, and to smooth out the shift from freshman-year to sophomore-year pledging be instituted. Such a transition could include a year or two with both freshman and sophomore pledging.