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Institvte Lacks Credibility to Represent Student Affairs

Column by Anders Hove
Executive Editor

Every so often this newspaper runs a fairly lengthy story describing the progress of other campus publications. Counterpoint and The Thistle are covered, as are Technique and Voodoo. The campus print media may take pot shots at each other now and then, but they largely compliment each other. They also provide each other with some healthy competition.

One new campus publication has received next to zero media attention. Institvte, which calls itself "The Electronic Journal of Student Affairs," is essentially a restricted e-mail list. It has been published via e-mail on an almost weekly basis for nearly a year. Whatever their feelings about its content, administrators and student leaders often discuss it. Not, however, in print. What is this new journal, and why have this paper and other publications chosen to ignore it?

Any serious description of Institvte must begin with its self-styled editor, John S. Hollywood G. Few people on this campus could claim to be more involved in student government than Hollywood has been during his first four years at MIT. He was involved in the Undergraduate Association from the beginning, co-author of a controversial UA report on housing, and an unsuccessful candidate for UA president. Hollywood also worked for Counterpoint, and sat on the Institute Committee on Student Affairs.

Institvte the magazine was begun by a "foundation" of the same name in the fall of 1995. The foundation was founded in turn by Hollywood and a couple of friends from the UA Committee on Student Life. In spirit, Institvte was a natural outgrowth of Hollywood's frequent e-mails to the committee's mailing list, which included quite a few students and administrators who had never even heard of the committee itself.

The task of describing Institvte's coverage of student affairs is hardly difficult. Topics that fall within Hollywood's area of prior interest or current employment receive a coverage more suited to a press release than to a news article. In the three summer 1996 issues, there were 13 articles or editorials. Eight of the 13 stories covered re-engineering topics; two covered the activities of the Food Services Advisory Board. Hollywood is personally involved in and employed by re-engineering; he sits on the Food Services Advisory Board.

Journalistic integrity is hard to come by in a school of medium size, and chances are that those who get involved in one activity are also involved in others, or have friends who are. Conflicts of interest are a part of my organization, and my work as well, as much as I might try to minimize them.

The problem with Institvte, however, is that conflict of interest is not even looked at as a problem. Only recently have articles even bothered to include the name of the author. Non-profit print publications are legally required to place a mast identifying staff members within the first five pages of the paper. Institvte is not bound by this rule, nor does it publish a list of its staff.

Anonymity is only part of the problem. Most papers try to keep sources strictly separated from reporters. When the two get too close - as they do in Primary Colors, by Joe Klein - serious ethical charges are raised against the journalists involved and the organization they work for. Not so for Institvte. As its recruitment literature makes clear, the sources are the reporters.

The conflation of reporter and source results in some tantalizing journalistic output. Take the headline on a one paragraph story that ran July 9, 1996: "Housing and Residence Life: Re-engineering Team's Mission Changed." Suffice it to say, the result is not terribly gripping.

Concentration on re-engineering aside, the real problem with Institvte has less to do with its information than with its image. The fact is, many people get valuable information from Institvte that, unfortunately, is not being provided anywhere else, including The Tech. But to label this paltry sum of re-engineering updates and committee reports a "journal of student affairs" does a grave injustice to both student affairs, and to the readers of the e-mail itself.

I don't worry too much for the student readers of Institvte; they are savvy enough to understand where the information in Institvte comes from, and they can place it in context themselves. Many administrators, however, have little or no contact with students; they find the stories in Institvte factual enough and are thus liable to conclude that its claim to represent the whole of student affairs is factual as well.

The fact is that far from being a journal of student affairs, Institvte has concerned itself almost entirely with the work of administrators, or the re-engineering committees they run. Administrators who want to be the focus of undergraduate life find confirmation of their view in Institvte. Anyone holding the belief that students have power and influence, or that they ought to have more power to manage their lives, would find scant evidence in Institvte.

In the deans office and in the Institvte e-mails, it is often lamented that students don't get more involved in their community. The fact is that they do. Their community simply does not intersect with the administration's. Two parallel worlds exist on campus: an administration world and a student world. The first is ignorant of the other, and thus purports to manage both worlds. Institvte unwittingly helps the administration hold onto this view by portraying it as the be-all and end-all of student affairs coverage.

It is unfortunate that important student organizations and activities are essentially invisible to all but those directly involved in their operation. If the press, and Institvte, whatever it is, could do one thing to serve students on campus, it would be to augment the voices of student leaders, rather than pandering to administration apologists by magnifying the gyrations of Building 7 bigwigs.