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A Tragedy of Disputes and Diversity

Column by Raajnish A. Chitaley

It's difficult to find meaningful words to say about the recent controversy between Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals, Transgenders, and their Friends at MIT, and the Interfraternity Council. More often than not, campus dialogue on homosexuality and the Greek system has been polarized around two inspired ideas: First, that Greek organizations systematically discriminate and despise homosexuals, and second, that the homosexual-positive community has systematically organized campaigns to destroy Greek organizations.

From my perspective, neither of these notions have much validity. They are only the harangue of two political organizations, each with legitimate political motives. Unfortunately, foot-stomping and hand-waving only befuddle our ability to understand the true sources of discord: Our failure to value differences and resolve disputes judiciously.

On the latter, MIT has made great progress since fumbling the quarrel over racial slurs allegedly hurled from a fraternity a few years ago. At that time, it took shouting and protests before the administration moved to investigate and address the issue. Before the issue went to the Committee on Discipline, the administration spent time avoiding, denying, and generally hindering the complainants' attempts to find justice. And after all that, the Committee on Discipline expended hours of deliberation to determine that they didn't know what happened. Brilliant.

Since that pickle, we have improved the harassment policy by leaps and bounds, particularly with complaint-handler training and the publication of the harassment guide. However, we have not at all addressed the larger dispute resolution issue - the same rather stodgy systems are being used to handle all sorts of disputes involving everyone from the faculty to the IFC.

In the case of the IFC, the prevalent tendency has been to deal with these sorts of situations within the IFC. And to a large degree, MIT continues to exclude these complaints from a campus-wide dispute process. The Lambda Chi Alpha/Tau Epsilon Pi incident is an instructive example.

When members of LCA painted "To TEP: 33 nerds + 1 queer" on the sidewalk, the incident was originally massaged into a fraternity-fraternity dispute. Thanks to strong pressure, however, the homophobic slur was not glossed-over, and the IFC was forced to respond. The administrative equivocation was even kept to a minimum after the LCA/TEP business: President Charles M. Vest immediately dispatched a stern warning that the behavior was inappropriate and unacceptable.

With the climate seemingly improving, the most obvious question about GAMIT's recent postering binge is "Why now?". After all, with much support from the IFC, Karen Williams was invited to talk to the freshman class. And I understand that Warren Blumenfield will return again to speak about Greek life and homosexuality.

I can only conclude that GAMIT is angry. Angry that discrimination and prejudice continue to be a problem on a campus of intelligent individuals. And angry they have been unable to find justice for their cause. On a campus where quiet resolution of disputes is favored, GAMIT seems to reject that view. Rather, they choose to play a game of brinkmanship, where the issues will come to a head in the open.

The escalation of animosity between these two organizations is a pointed example of how MIT has yet to learn to resolve disputes, and gives rise to a larger danger of more open campus conflict between the two constituencies.

The other central issue here is diversity. It's no wonder that MIT has had a difficult time dealing with diversity over the last few years - we have more diversity than we can handle. I don't mean that there are too many students of one ethnic group or another. Rather, I think there are too many dimensions to the diversity that we face.

In the early twentieth century, MIT was a white, male, four-year, engineering school. The change from "white male" to a diverse student population (with the diversity creeping along to the faculty), is complicated by the revolution in sexual mores that embraces homosexuality as an element of common morality.

If this were the only change at MIT over this century, I don't think we would have any problems in handling diversity on campus. The unifying qualities of an academic community are sufficient to integrate cultural diversity. But the notion "academic community" has changed.

Our diversity in ethnic, gender, and sexual orientation is only confounded by the revolution in academic diversity. MIT's fabulous science departments are really a product of the last 40 years. The new biology building (and new biology requirement) is a clear indication of MIT's decision to heavily allocate resources in the sciences. In addition to the growth of the sciences, we have seen the end of the Cold War, an era of strong homogenizing forces.

In this era of immense diversity, we have not learned to value differences. I should be clear about what I mean by "value." I believe that valuing diversity means accepting our personal and academic differences, and moving beyond our differences to contribute to the community as a whole; and "to value" means not to be too focused on diversity, ignorant of the context in which the diversity takes place.

Instead of the tear-jerking and hand-wringing that dominate diversity discussions today, we need to resolve to bring together the best in a community of individuals in the context of our own personal goals, and the larger goals of the Institute.

In the final analysis, the diversity in our personal and academic composition has left us with little that brings us together. We have become a campus of segregated visitors, staying for a few years in our own fragmented departments, activities, and living groups. In the final analysis, only building a real sense of community across these artificial barriers will prevent the inevitable controversies that diversity creates.

The real tragedy of the GAMIT/IFC mess lies in our failure to resolve disputes properly and value diversity - a fundamental failure to build community. Until we learn these lessons, MIT will continue to be exposed to the dangers of ignorance and anger.