Housing should be unique
I predict that within three years, the Institute will tell all freshmen where to live.
But let me step back for a second.
When I was a prefrosh, I heard all the usual warnings about why I shouldn't go to MIT. And, like all of us who are here, I was too stupid to listen to them.
I remember that on my prefrosh visit to campus, I was placed in a fraternity across the river. One of the freshmen in the house agreed to take me with him to class.
My guide was going through the freshman stress; it was mid-October, and every test was giving him fresh underarm stains. After telling me that MIT was hell -- common knowledge to me now, but relatively shocking back then -- he told me how glad he was to live across the river. At least I don't have to live over at MIT, he said. It's nice to be able to go back over to the house and get away.
Now I'm a junior. During Residence/Orientation Week, I made the decision to live on campus. But, as my guide said, I didn't have to.
I looked at a few fraternities. Some I liked, some I didn't, and I ultimately decided to live on campus. I lived in a really cool dorm, with my own bedroom and a kitchen down the hall, and I made the choice to live there.
This helped a lot. Like all freshmen, I had my easy classes and my hard classes, although I hold no grudges against the hard ones, especially not 5.12, which was certainly well worth the forfeiting of my hobbies, social life and sanity for an entire damn term.
What kept me sane was my dorm. And it was, in a sense, my dorm because I had decided to live there.
What we're all afraid to say, because we don't want to sound obnoxious, is that freshman year at MIT is more stressful than freshman year at an average university. There, I've gone and said it. Flog me and call me an elitist.
Why am I willing to bet that we have it tougher than our counterparts at other universities? It's the damn phone calls! How many times have you talked to one of your high school friends, who is now at some other renowned college, and hung up the phone depressed because they aren't doing any work! It goes like this:
You: I'm tired. I haven't gotten any sleep in the last four days.
Clueless Friend: Me either. I was up until two last night and I had to get up at eight this morning.
You: I don't think you understand. I haven't slept. At all.
Clueless Friend: I know, I know. I only got six hours last night, for crying out loud. I was dragging this morning.
You: (fuming) Whatever.
Clueless Friend: Well, it's because I have so much work this week. I have a three page paper due tomorrow and a Freshman English test in a week.
You: (frustrated) I had three problem sets due today and another due tomorrow, along with a 10-page paper.
Clueless Friend: Yeah, I had three problems due today too.
You: Not problems, problem sets, you weeknight-beer-swilling, 56-hours-of-sleep-a-week-getting, television-watching, weekend-ganja-smoking, easy-school-attending loser!
This is why we don't tend to have many friends from outside the Institute.
This is also why I feel safe in saying that the MIT freshman experience is unique. Perhaps it isn't the toughest, or most difficult, but it is certainly unique. Which makes it unsurprising that our housing system for freshmen is also unique.
After suffering through yet another demoralizing test taken in the chipper atmosphere of the Walker Memorial gym, or pulling an all-nighter to do a problem set on Athena, you don't need to go back to your room to learn how to work with those of other backgrounds, or to celebrate diversity. You need to go back to your room to recover from MIT.
The Report of the Freshman Housing Committee, which has triggered the current debate, is long and didactic. It is written in the style of the wise old sages trying to calm the fears of the younger members of the tribe. "You just think you like your current system," it says, "because you don't know any better."
I would have guessed that the Residence and Campus Activities Office was excited about the report, but when I went there to find a copy, nobody in that office had one to lend me. In fact, as far as Eliot Levitt '89, staff assistant for residence programs, and Assistant Dean for Student Affairs Andrew Eisenmann '75 could tell, there were no copies of the report in that office at all. Dean Eisenmann finally suggested I look in "techinfo," a locker on Athena, which is where I finally found it. Look it up yourself. It's a fun read.
President Vest said in an Oct. 18 Tech interview that the report "raises some important issues that MIT has to continue to grapple with, and [I] consider it still to be an open issue." Does anyone else find it strange that such a report cannot be found in the Office of Residence and Campus Activities?
In a pat way, the housing report attempts to answer all of the arguments against itself: a "pre-emptive strike," if you will. Section VI of the report, "Problems and Questions," says that "The major arguments and responses to them follow."
The first argument, "Giving incoming freshmen this major choice means they are treated as responsible adults," is apparently simple enough to be summarily dismissed in one sentence. "The choice," says the report, "is often based on inadequate information and is made under the kind of pressure that does not foster a mature decision." That's it. I've quoted you the entire text of the report's response to the argument.
The obvious answer, since a mature decision is not fostered, is to not allow any decision to be made at all.
Wrong, my fair committee members.
Before 1966, those who wanted to participate in rush arrived a week early, rushed, and then the rest of the frosh arrived for academic orientation. It worked for quite a while before the present system was implemented. Why not change to a week of orientation, followed by ILG rush? (This, as a friend of mine has pointed out, means that we could call it O/R Week, attracting the medically inclined.)
This, of course, assumes that you believe things are bad in their current form. I personally don't. According to the report, I should be living with people just like myself. Of the eight people in my suite, six are non-caucasian. (If you haven't figured it out by now, I myself am so white I put Miracle Whip on my mayonnaise.)
And just how far would one take this plan? What about the frosh female who is randomly assigned to a coed suite, but needs to live in an all-female dorm for religious reasons? Will there be exceptions for minority students who want to live in an environment with other minority students? And if a male needs to live in an all-male house, will the Institute allow that one male to go to an ILG, or will the Institute once again make one dorm all male?
These are all good questions. And although we are by no means the University of Michigan-East, these are all going to come up and a good number of people are going to tell you that random housing assignments work everywhere else and therefore they'll work fine here. They might be right. If
you go to the Undergraduate Association meeting Thursday night, you'll hear this. Maybe not in so many words, but you'll hear it. Before you agree, close your eyes and imagine the dorm on campus you despise the most. Hold that thought and think back about how tough your freshman year was. Now place your freshman year in that dorm you despise. It doesn't thrill me.
But in the happy world of the report, nobody has specific dorms they hate, all dorms are equal and everyone will be equally happy living in any one of them, and they'll be exposed to diversity, even if we have to stick it down their throats during their first exposure to hell.
This is why, as I said in the beginning, I predict that within three years, MIT will tell all freshmen where to live. Because MIT is just like everywhere else.
I say, let's apply this same logic over at the Bursar's office.
Tech Opinion Editor Bill Jackson '93 is available in Regular and new Extra Strength.