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Action Committee Dealt with Larger Issues than Senior House

Column by Anders Hove
Opinion Editor

On Tuesday night I attended the "student participation" portion of the Corporation Visiting Committee meeting. First on the agenda, we were told, was "the Senior House group." The introduction immediately piqued my interest. It's no secret that "the Senior House group" is actually the Senior House-East Campus Action Committee, a committee formed of, by, and for residents of both dormitories. But what of it?

As we all know by now, the Strategic Housing Planning Committee was formed in order to address "the problem of Senior House." Naturally, its report came out as something of a solution to that "problem." Students were asked to contribute their own input regarding Senior House. No doubt, administrators expected any student report to confine its scope to that issue alone.

Fortunately, east side residents chose to bypass those tame expectations. After all, a systemic problem demands a systemic answer. The true mission of the oft-mislabeled "Senior House group" was not merely to stave off the ruination of the east side's undergraduate community. Its real purpose was to educate and empower the entire MIT community to seize back the tools of consensus-building - to enable all of us to control our destiny. Suddenly, the words "Senior House group" fall short of a full description of the real work of the committee.

True to its new mission, the Action Committee offered in its report a full critique of the current policy process. The report notes that decades ago, MIT presidents conceived of the planning process as a means of community empowerment. The logic of the times dictated that planning could build consensus only by involving student groups from the get-go.

Once students began to explore the complicated array of facts and options, they would begin to understand how their own self-governance fit into the larger system of which they were a part. By basing planning on this process - rather than the workings of exclusive, secret committees - the community would forge its own solutions, marshaling the input and resources of all groups equally.

In the last few years things have worked differently. The administration has come to view itself not as one group among many, but as the unitary policy-planner on campus. Time and time again, different administrators have watched as their machinations and recommendations create discord and conflict among the community at large. As the Action Committee's report notes, the pitch of conflict tends to reinforces administrators' original assumption that community input is not worthy of equal consideration, let alone inclusion in the actual policy-making process.

As President Julius A. Stratton '23 said 30 years ago, "Unified central action has many advantages. Yet as the Institute increases in size and complexity, these procedures may become an impediment rather than an aid to rapid and wise decisions."

The most startling change between policy-making in the '50s and now relates to the abnegation of MIT's century-old commitment to civic education. According to the Senior Survey, seniors rated their achievement in "knowledge of social and political awareness" just above 20 percent. That was the lowest category of achievement.

Decades ago, MIT presidents frequently asserted the importance of civic responsibility and education as one of the Institute's top goals. Perhaps the most ardent advocate of a commitment to civic education was President Stratton. He believed firmly that in designing and planning its residence halls, MIT should seek also to involve students in the process in order to provide for growth in leadership.

"Perhaps in no other age of history," remarked President Stratton in 1964, "has there been a more urgent need than in our own troubled times to proclaim the meaning of an ethical life and of responsible constructive citizenship. The restlessness that has permeated the campuses of many universities this past year may be symptomatic of more deep-seated ills affecting the health of all our democratic institutions.... Whatever developments there may be in the forms and processes of management and government, there remains no substitute for informed, experienced leadership imbued with a willingness to serve. And it is to the graduates of our colleges and universities that we must look henceforward for the emergence of that leadership."

I mentioned MIT's failure in the area of civic education during a recent meeting between Dean for Undergraduate Education and Student Affairs Arthur C. Smith and the Committee on Student Affairs. Before I could finish, Dean Smith interjected that he wasn't sure "we had even tried to do that." He is right, of course. MIT has forgotten that goal. It shows in the way student involvement is often left festering on electronic mail lists, "months of discussion," and endless surveys. It is high time we started trying again.

The Action Committee's report recommends that MIT readopt the idea of "community-based" planning (as opposed to "administration-based" planning). This concept has a place whether the issue is Senior House or Ashdown House, card readers or food services, minority education or the choice of a new dean. It allows for the very development of constructive citizenship, leadership, and social responsibility extolled by Presidents Stratton and James R. Killian '26.

The question is, when these issues come up again - and they will - what will be different? They key word here is "will." Do the various deans, faculty committee heads, and administrators possess the will to act on the report's recommendations? Will President Charles M. Vest follow through for students? Will MIT solve the systemic problems in the current process, or will the community continue to be held hostage in the grip of the out-dated, top-down method of planning embodied by the SHPC boondoggle?

Old reports never die; they just get recycled. If today's administrators throw the Action Committee's recommendations in the recycling bin, these issues will arise again in a newer, perhaps more virulent form the next time. A glimmer of hope remains that the problems the report addressed will be truly laid to rest, and that MIT will soon embark on a new experiment in consensus-building and civic education. But don't hold your breath.

Anders W. Hove '96 is co-chair of the Senior House-East Campus Action Committee.