The Evolution of R/O
By Douglas E. Heimburger and Dan McGuire
Compared with rush in the first half of the century, today's R/O week seems almost peaceful. A freshman who showed up to MIT in the 1930s fell into the hands of The Agenda, the psuedo-legitimate organization responsible for bringing MIT freshmen into the fold, and whose favorite methods or orientation included depantsing and head shaving. The official name of Agenda was the "Local Society for the Prevention of Insolent Freshmen."
Fast forward around 60 years to today, where hazing is unheard of and the hot issues are Clearinghouse or rush violations. In between there was World War II, the gradual increase of women on campus, and the death of a student at a fraternity initiation.
For Glenn P. Strehle '58, rush was a hectic, not to mention wet, experience. "Rush happened in a real hurricane, it was early September 1954, I think it was Hurricane Carol," said Strehle, who now serves as MIT's vice president for finance and treasurer. "We were over in Burton House and we saw the wind come and blow some trees that MIT had just planted literally sideways. The members of the fraternities would come over to pick us up for the meetings, and as you could imagine if you have ever been in a hurricane what you look like when you enter the car." In the 1950s, a coat and tie was required at all rush events.
While not all orientation years have featured rainstorms like this year's or 1954's, what is clear is that the methods and logistics of freshman orientation at the Institute has been a major topic for over fifty years.
The early years
Records of the early days of rush are sketchy, but some details can be dug up. Very early on, before the Institute moved across the Charles in 1917, there wasn't an orientation or rush like the one today. Mass Tech's 19 fraternities were the only organized housing for MIT students, the remainder being scattered throughout boarding houses and apartments across Boston or living at home. Rush existed in some form to allow fraternities to bid for prospective members, but the details of the process have been lost to history. Orientation was simple and all freshmen shared the same schedule, a policy which lasted until the late 1950s.
In the 1920s and 1930s the Institute began its slow trend of expansion and built its first residential dormitory, East Campus House. It was also in the mid-twenties that MIT began a more formal type of orientation: Frosh Camp. Probably best described as a cross between Project Move Off Your Assumptions, Core Blitz, and summer camp, Frosh Camp was a voluntary outing designed to promote class unity. The entire freshman class departed MIT for Lake Massapoag where they lived in tents for three days. "As these four years of college life give a man a short cut to the best in life," declared the 1926 Freshman Orientation booklet, "so the Freshmen Camp at Massapoag will give the Freshmen who go a short cut to the best in Technology spirit and tradition." Camp traditions sprung up over the years. The 1941 Freshman Handbook read "unless the president of the sophomore class is immersed in the waters of Lake Massapoag no success will ever come to that freshman class."
"The record for sophomore president dunking was broken again this year," began a story in The Tech on the camp that year "when Lagdon B. Flowers '44 hit the waters of lake Massapoag at about 7 p.m. Friday night."
"It seems that while pitching a tent one of the brighter freshmen recognized the sophomore and tried to arrest him. He managed to escapethen returning to camp to mingle with the frosh he was rediscovered. His disguise had been pierced and he met his Waterloo."
Frosh camp introduced freshmen to one of the oddities of early MIT life, the rivalry between freshmen and sophomores. Before one camp in 1941, freshmen became the targets of an aerial assault and the traditional de-pantsing. "The assembled freshmen were subject to derisive jeers punctuated by not infrequent waterbags hurled from the eminences of the Walker cornices by agile sophomores," read one Tech article. "Enough spirit was finally aroused in the hearts of a few freshmen and a violent but ineffectual battle ensued. Moreover, possession of practical experience in the art of removing other people's pants heavily favored the sophomores."
A fight in the late 1930s "was inaugurated when a horde of freshmen poured out of the dorms and spent a fruitless 15 minutes daring sophomores to come out and do battle. When no opposition appeared, the irate freshmen rushed back into the buildings and made a systematic search floor by floor, carrying all sophomores into the showers by sheer manpower," reported a Tech story.
"It has been estimated by neutral observers that no fewer than sixty of the Class of '42 were routed out of their rooms and propelled forcibly under the icy waters," it continued.
It got more difficult for the freshmen, however. A blandly written statement from the Dormitory Freshmen Committee from the early 1940s notes simply that "freshmen may be called upon by upperclassmen for not more than one campus errand during the errand day."
A bewildered Tech writer tried to go into more depth in a 1941 article. "Among the earliest [of the freshmen] to depart [on their errands that morning] were those headed for Wellesley seeking, among other things, a paddle, banner, picture catalogue of the Wellesley freshmen, and the lip-prints of not less than four Wellesleyites on four chicken eggs."
The errands ranged from odd to downright impossible. There was one freshman who was tasked with getting a tree with roots no less than five feet in diameter and no shorter than ten feet [and] instructed to plant it in the gravel path in the center of the Main Court.'
World War II shakeup
World War II proved something of a watershed. As MIT resources were pinched and students were ejected from dormitories to make way for the military, activities geared down and dormitory life ground to a halt. As the war moved on, fraternity houses found themselves half empty as brothers were drafted to serve in the armed forces.
Frosh camp was moved to the MIT campus in 1941 due to wartime shortages of gasoline and prohibitions on unnecessary travel. The program was changed to include information about the Army Enlisted Reserve, reserve units which contained vast numbers of MIT students, and the role of MIT graduates and students in the army and navy.
MIT also found itself dangerously short of housing for new students. The Chairman of the Committee on Housing, Professor Leicester F. Hamilton, sent out questionnaires to fraternities asking about their ability to house students. It asked for "the number of accommodations which they now had in their house proper and also under lease to the house for the use of its members."
Some of the traditions that died during the war tried to make a comeback when the soldiers left the dorms in 1944. According to the entry for dormitories in the 1945 Technique, "an attempt to revive the Agenda was quickly quashed by the administration. They made it plain that they did not want such hard-to-replace items as beds, rugs, bedding, desks, and civilian students to be damaged."
The end of the war also marked the return of droves of students who left to fight the war. "We can estimate that between 900 and 1,000 men are associated with fraternities as brothers or pledges," said a 1946 Tech article. "As fraternities cannot house more than 600 men, this leaves a considerable surplus." The fraternities spread the additional people around boarding houses and apartments and Building 22, the now demolished twin of Building 20.
Fraternities also continued to take pledges despite the conditions to "preserve a well-balanced membership as far as the various classes are concerned." The conditions would taper off over a few years rather than drop suddenly, as a result.
Rush returns to the Institute
Rush week after World War II was a smaller affair that it is today. Freshmen interested in rushing had the option of arriving one week before classes to attend a "pre-Rush Week Meeting" where they would receive information from the Interfraternity Council and members of the administration. When meeting with fraternity members, freshmen were urged to "dress neatly, with suit or sport coat, and tie."
Rush week officially began Saturday morning, and the first bids were issued to freshmen on Sunday. Freshmen involved with rush were required to fill out "schedule cards, one for each day of Rush Week." These cards, processed through the Clearing House system, allowed fraternities to know "where to contact you if they wish to contact you."
Rush week ended on Wednesday, after which came Freshmen Weekend, when all freshmen would arrive for their academic orientation to the Institute. Those not interested in living in fraternities would receive a book detailing floor plans of available dormitories. Freshmen would submit their preferences to the Campus Housing Office, which would then assign freshmen to dormitories.
Initially, orientation was very basic. "There was no place large enough to take the class" for one group meeting, said Professor of Electrical Engineering Paul E. Gray '54, who arrived on the campus in 1950. Instead, "there was some sort of organized, mildly-competitive activity" between five or six groups of divided freshmen. "Before we arrived you got a letter from the registrar saying" what group you would be taking classes with, since all freshmen took the same set of classes. "You went to all your recitations with the same group of fellows."
Hell Week becomes Help Week
The pledge process at fraternities was reformed after the tragic death of Thomas L. Clark '56 in a Lincoln reservoir. Clark died as the result of an initiation scheme that required him to find his way back to campus overnight after having been dropped off by fraternity brothers in Lincoln. After Clark's death, fraternities began making investigations into the practice of "hell week," when pledges from all fraternities were hazed for the last time before officially being made brothers of their respective house.
After frank disclosures of "hell week" activities with the IFC chairman and the associate dean of students, the fraternities decided to make "hell week" into "help week," where members of all fraternities would go out into the community to do community service for a week. Members of fraternities also became increasingly aware of their responsibility to freshmen, Strehle said.
Rush renamed R/O Week
In the late 1960s, the dormitories started complaining about the advantages the fraternities had because of the structure of Rush Week. The message implicit in Rush Week was that pledging was the goal, and dormitory life was a fallback. Many in the Dean's Office felt that orientation needed to be expanded in scope.
In 1967, two-thirds of the incoming male freshman class attended Rush Week, which was still optional but highly encouraged by the IFC and the Institute administration. All those attending were allowed to stay in fraternities - even before the official start of rush - or in East Campus.
Rush week of 1967, however, was the last to fall under the old, completely IFC-controlled system. Then-IFC Chairman Tom Neal '68 said "as a radical innovation, all three speakers at the pre-Rush Week Meeting encouraged the freshmen to investigate the Institute Houses." The change was significant. Previously, those rushing fraternities were not even made aware of the fact that they could tour dormitories during Rush Week. Neal said that the changes were "progressive", but that the IFC should continue to run Rush Week.
Members of Dormcon disagreed. "The speakers did not give sufficient emphasis" to the availability of the new program, said Jerrold Grochow '68, then-Dormcon president. Grochow said he had been offered the ability to speak at the meeting but that opportunity was then revoked.
In January 1968, members of the IFC and Dormcon met and decided to house rushing members of the freshmen in all dormitories instead of just in East Campus, and to send out a schedule of Dormcon events with Rush Week registration material. A new Clearinghouse system was created that covered both the dormitories and fraternities.
The Institute Committee, however, did not feel that the changes went far enough. In February, they passed a resolution calling for Rush Week to be changed to Residence Week, and for an opening meeting to include speakers from the fraternity and dormitory systems. They hoped that the changes in name and structure would "aid more freshmen in making correct residence decisions" by bringing more of them to campus for the week.
"This didn't go down easily with fraternities, who were concerned about numbers," Gray said.
The revised and more complex Rush Week, which was implemented in 1968, resulted in record participation and record fraternity pledge numbers. Out of a class of 919 men, 815 came for Rush Week and 373 pledged fraternities. As a result, the traditional "housing shortage" was decreased, with just 55 crowds.
"Fraternities didn't change what they were doing" because of the introduction of the dormitories into Rush Week, "and the world didn't end; it was a successful rush and [the concern for numbers] disappeared," Gray said.
In 1969, many of the remaining recommendations of Inscomm were acted upon, and Rush Week officially became Residence and Orientation week. In 1969 incoming freshmen were also encouraged for the first time to change their dormitory selection cards if they so desired during R/O week. A new "moratorium" on rush activities also allowed freshmen to meet with their advisers before receiving bids and pledging on the Wednesday and Thursday after freshmen arrived.
R/O becomes mandatory
In 1970 the tradition of filling out a dormitory selection card before arriving on campus was abolished for the present system, and R/O week was made mandatory for all incoming freshmen. In addition, the time frame for the rush portion of R/O was moved to its now-common Friday-Monday arrangement.
Radical plans for the revision of rush also began to take light. At an IFC conference, the suggestion was made to "replace bidding and pledging with a random selection process" like that of dormitories. If the IFC were to eliminate rush, the fraternities would save almost $75,000 in costs and the "distrust which occurs between houses because of rush" would also be eradicated. But the fraternities wouldn't go along with the idea.
Instead, the IFC worked to eliminate the "hard flushing" of the time, when freshmen would basically be thrown out of a prospective fraternity with no referral to another group. This often created "bitterness which lasts for the rest of their four years at MIT."
Proposals by the Freshman Radical Caucus also attempted to reform rush. The FRC called for the "abolition of phone tapping" by fraternities against other fraternities, as well as an abolition to the pledge period which most new fraternity members wanted. "Freshmen had power during Rush Week because the houses needed them," said a pamphlet given to fraternities.
In 1971, a freshmen picnic replaced the traditional Saturday-morning beginning of rush with the now familiar cry of "Let the rush begin" on Friday evening. Until 1988, this picnic would remain the first major event that all freshmen would attend.
Now that dormitory upperclassmen could see the freshmen that might live with them, a new system of actively rushing dormitory members arose. Dormitories saw some of the same pressures as fraternities as they attempted to recruit members who would fit in with the spirit of their dormitory.
Until 1995, incoming freshmen were able to have some selection power in determining their temporary dormitory. Members of the Senior House Committee were emphatic about ensuring that the temporary freshmen assigned to their dormitory in 1968 were interested in the dormitory. "Ken Browning promises that these 100 [freshmen] sent to us from Dormcon-IFC Clearinghouse have expressed a preference in Senior House by a form sent to them this summer. We have to keep an eye on Clearinghouse to make sure we don't get screwed with the real losers of the Class of '72" wrote Stephen Hill '68, then-freshman orientation chief for Senior House.
In the 70s, dormitory housing chairs were presented with the cards of the freshmen who had ranked their house first, face down, and were then asked to pick out the requisite number of students at random. However, "MacGregor had been choosing the freshmen they wanted in the dorm rather than picking them at random," according to Andrew J. Celentano '73. "However, they were caught."
After much discussion at Dormcon, three proposals for dormitory allocation were proposed, including a complete system of dormitory choice and a system where the dormitory would be able to choose 20 percent of its residents. In the end, Dormcon voted that "all freshmen dormitory assignments be made totally randomly, with the exception of familial relations."
Some freshmen entering the dormitory system had especially lengthy R/O weeks as a result of the complexity of dorm allocations. Until 1991, when the dormitory lottery moved completely onto Athena, dormitory lottery results were rolled out in stages. Those who could not be placed in one of their first four dormitory choices were placed in limbo, "with the hope that a place will open up for him before the end of the week."
In 1978, after two lotteries had failed to find places for 72 freshmen, the remaining freshmen were encouraged "to visit Bexley if you have not already done so" because it was the only dormitory with open rooms. They were also advised to look at other options for housing. "I would strongly encourage you to seriously consider pledging. Otherwise we will be forced to assign all remaining men to Bexley," Sherwood said.
Because of the manual lottery system in place at the time, over 80 percent of the incoming freshmen class received their first choice, but those who didn't would frequently receive a very low selection. Since the lottery moved online, computerized algorithms have been used to increase the number of people receiving one of their top choices, but not necessarily their first choice, according to Philip M. Bernard, program director for residential life. This year, only 69 percent of freshmen received their first choice dormitory, while 99.3 percent received one of their top three choices.
In 1987, the official beginning of R/O week was moved up one day to Thursday to give freshmen a day to get acquainted with MIT before starting rush. Project Move Off Your Assumptions was added in 1991, the same year freshman started taking the math diagnostic test.
Relations between fraternities and dormitories began to sour in the 1990s. In 1991 fraternities complained of "active rushing by dormitories" as one reason that only 314 freshmen pledged fraternities, compared with about 370 in a normal year. That year, Adviser to Fraternities, Sororities and Independent Living Groups Neal H. Dorow required that dormitory desks release phone numbers of temporarily-housed freshmen after the beginning of rush went poorly for fraternities.
In late 1995, Dormcon decided to withdraw from the Clearinghouse system. "When we used Clearinghouse we were doing a lot of work for no purpose and we got no advantage from it," said then-Dormcon Rush Chair Nicole L. Weymouth '96. In addition, Dormcon decided to not give fraternities the location of freshmen when they were located on campus. The IFC felt initially that the changes were minor."The fact that the dorms ran Clearinghouse ineffectively [means its loss] doesn't affect fraternities in a large way," said then-IFC President Jason D. Pride '97.
In the end, rush is improved today
While a lot has changed, Strehle things that rush today is improved from that of 1954. "It's better in that there is greater sensitivity to the problems during rush and because I do know that when a student is not fairly treated during Rush Week people are concerned in the [Office of Residence and Campus Activities]." In addition, the introduction of dormitory R/O into the Rush Week activities "Develops pride in the dormitory, gets everyone here on campus, and gives students who find that they don't want fraternities a place to go."
Still, the orientation program is not perfect, Strehle says. "The experience of going through Rush Week for those who go through it can be a very intense and challenging period and is maybe not the best way to start your MIT career."
For Strehle, "It was somewhat of a frightening experience, to show up at MIT and go through rush."
Almost every student here today can agree with that statement, even after 40 years.