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Leadershape, Other Programs Bring Students Together

Column by Orli G. Bahcall
Staff Reporter

I would like to address one particular issue of leadership raised in the column by Stacey E. Blau '98 ["Hypocritical Fraternities Embarrass MIT," Feb. 25]. Blau's column is a less-than-focused attack on MIT's Greek system. A wealth of letters written in response to this column have already addressed her inaccurate representation of Greek life and have stressed the significant contribution Greek organizations have brought to our campus. However, none of these responses have adequately addressed Blau's comments on school leadership.

Blau took the opportunity to share her views on leadership programs like Leadershape, a week-long leadership training program sponsored by the Public Service Center and offered at the start of summer term. Blau reprimands the administration for sponsoring such programs that only "promote the silly cliches like unity and activism, managing to convince attendees that their unique leadership is making the world a better place." Blau further attempts to deride the Leadershape program by claiming that "almost all [Leadershape] attendees are in fraternities or sororities."

First, let me correct Blau's inaccurate portrayal of Leadershape participants. Leadershape attendees are selected for their display of leadership qualities and an involvement in campus activities. Leadershape seeks to select a group that is representative of the entire MIT undergraduate population, showing no preference for the Greek system.

I attended Leadershape in 1996 along with 60 other undergraduates, fewer than half of whom were members of Greek organizations. Our group was representative of the diversity of MIT students in terms of everything I could think of - cultures, majors, activities, and living groups. Leadershape brought together a selection of students that would be unlikely to interact on campus because of the divided nature of our living groups and activities. Leadershape is not a retreat for the Interfraternity Council or any other campus organization. Rather, Leadershape is a unique opportunity to see the great diversity of the MIT student body.

Blau does, however, raise a very important issue by belittling the ideals of unity and activism. These comments reflect upon a very real attitude of seclusion that persists at MIT. Most other universities dropped the notion that their only role is classroom teaching at least several decades ago. These universities have long since recognized their important role in exposing students to current society by forming a community active both politically and culturally in the world. While MIT remained focused upon research and excelled in technological areas, the Institute lagged behind in terms of giving students such an appreciation.

Leadershape was brought to MIT largely to facilitate a changing, more inclusionary college life at the Institute. The program challenges students to take what they believe and bring it to reality. These "silly cliches" have guided the best leaders of our century, and exposure to such ideals are critical to the complete education of undergraduates at any university. The reason that unity is so often associated with the Leadershape program is very simply that the first problem most students find at MIT is a lack of school spirit. Many Leadershape graduates have therefore focused their efforts on events that unite undergraduates.

But this is not only Leadershape. MIT, as an excellent institution of higher learning, has realized the importance of providing a solid education to its students. This is reflected throughout the administration and organizations at MIT. Look, for example, at several of our newly appointed deans. Many of these deans, such as Dean for Student Life Margaret R. Bates, were brought to MIT for their expertise in unifying organizations consisting of both faculty and students. And Assistant Dean for Residence and Campus Activities Katharine G. O'Dair, who had direct student support in her selection, was recognized for her previous successes in the organization of extracurricular activities that enhanced student life and unified the student body. Now at MIT, O'Dair exemplifies the new spirit of student involvement in cocurricular life.

Following in this spirit are countless other programs at MIT. These include the Freshman Leadership Program, a new freshman orientation program that exposes students to issues of race and diversity. Other cultural programs that all aim for greater appreciation of the diversity of the student body have been organized by the Committee on Race Relations, the Class of 2000, and the IFC. And the election-time activities of the College Republicans and the College Democrats exposed campus to the political processes. All these programs and activities reflect a trend of MIT undergraduates becoming progressively more concerned about and directly involved with the political and cultural aspects of today's society.