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Change Marks 1991, at MIT and Around the World: 2: 2

By Brian Rosenberg
editor in chief

Another year has passed, taking with it a multitude of images, sounds, and memories. Things have changed in that year, both right here at MIT and around the world. Change in 1991 wasn't a gradual thing: Before many of us could switch to CNN, the Persian Gulf war began with the shriek of fighters and the eerie glow of tracer rounds, and ended with a 100-hour armored drive across the desert. The Soviet Union disintegrated quietly, like an old book that has turned to dust without anyone noticing. Former Soviet citizens standing in lines for bread and milk made more noise than the men who plotted to seize control of the world's largest nation.

Though the U.S. economy was crumbling, news in the world at large was good. With a few notable exceptions in the Middle East (as usual) and Yugoslavia, the world looked as though it might be ready to sit down and talk about peace for a while.

On campus, things were not so rosy. Despite her illness, Margaret MacVicar's death left many people wondering why they had never considered what MIT would be like without her. Or that it could be without her.

Students killed themselves, and tried to kill each other. Others stole computers or the efforts of their peers. The record of convictions, probations, and expulsions is staggering: 78 students went before the Committee on Discipline because a computer program flagged them as having turned in an assignment remarkably similar to someone else's. In some cases, the resemblance was coincidental. In most, however, the COD found enough evidence of cheating to recommend some sort of punishment.

Two students were expelled for the theft of $70,000 in computer equipment, and a third is linked to the crimes but not penalized. The three are expelled from their fraternity.

A student sets his suite on fire after an argument with a suite-mate and is sentenced to 10 years in prison. (For many of you, that's half as long as you've lived.)

And who can blame them? The adults around them, teachers and administrators, are themselves being put under a whole series of microscopes which reveal behavior that is far from exemplary: A Nobel Laureate and president of a prestigious university admits he was wrong to defend a colleague's work, work which is almost universally believed to have been falsified. To add insult to injury, the laboratory that he once worked at is forced to return the money it took from the federal government to lobby on his behalf.

The financial funny business only begins there. At MIT and a score of other high-caliber universities across the country, government investigators are finding that the taxpayers' money has been used to pay for weekend cruises, champagne dinners, and yachts. These revelations have called the entire process by which science is done into question. Public confidence in the ivory towers is gone.

MIT also finds itself wrestling with the Justice Department over meetings at which many of those same universities discussed financial aid for incoming students. The match will move to the courts later this year. Relations between the government and universities have not eroded -- there's been a mudslide, and half the house is at the bottom of the hill.

There are glimmers of sunshine peeking through these gathering clouds, however. A Committee on Values has been formed to examine and deal with many of the issues and dilemmas raised by the situation. More locally, a booklet aimed at preventing harassment was distributed, and discussion about often uncomfortable topics such as safe sex and rape flourished. A shuttle service that can prevent untold crimes and keep people warm in the process began. Project Athena survived the loss of its corporate sponsorship with little more than a change on the nameplate.

Speaking of nameplates, you may have noticed that this newspaper doesn't look like the one you picked up nine days ago. Change has come to The Tech as well. Look it over for a while. Put it right up in front of your nose and ask a friend to hold it up across the room. Drape it across the sofa. And decide what you think of it -- the whole thing, not just the new look. We'll be asking you soon enough.

Welcome to 1992 and the 112th volume of The Tech.