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Fresh Air from Above: At Last, President Vest Emerges from the Bureaucratic Woodwork

Anders Hove

For the first time in decades, cracks have begun to appear in MIT's stolid upper administration. Until now, the administration flatly denied that the inflexibility in the housing system had anything to do with the way it handles problems that arise in the fraternity system. Until now, the notion that an incident involving alcohol at a fraternity would be linked - even remotely - to the design of the undergraduate housing system would have been dismissed out of hand. The MIT fraternity system is healthy, the party line used to go, so why make the various accidents and incidents at fraternities the excuse for any introspective dialogue about anything?

No more. There will be new housing on campus for undergraduates, President Charles M. Vest announced at a press conference Wednesday. The housing system simply does not have the flexibility to handle changes that might result from the death of a fraternity member. In fact, the housing system has no flexibility at all whatsoever. In the past, when near-tragic situations involving underage drinking, possible hazing, and out-of-control parties have threatened the integrity of the fraternity system, dean-type people have been quick to douse the flames of introspection.

Now the same deans who were so quick to dump cold water on incidents in the past are running for cover. Take Neal Dorow, for example. Dorow, the assistant dean for fraternities, sororities, and independent living groups, has previously reveled in his role as press agent for the fraternity system. Dorow has had nothing to say on any of this; he even took backstage to Iddo Gilon '98, president of the Interfraternity Council, who was all over the news for having initiated a ban on alcohol at fraternity events.

Without a doubt, Vest has played the most surprising role in the ongoing drama. Before his Wednesday press conference, the upper administration's role was falling right into line with its record of stonewalling. Vest's initial statement Sunday morning redefined the word "fluff" in speaking of "introspective dialogues" and "campus-wide discussion." Our habitually-out-of-town president also chose to sit out the emergency in New York.

This left Vest's Dean's Office underlings to manage the media circus with an amazingly typical display of the Building 7 snow job. Senior Associate Dean Robert M. Randolph fobbed off questions about what specifically would be done to address MIT's problems, saying simply, "Everything will be on the table." At MIT, saying everything is on the table is akin to saying nothing at all.

The press conference Wednesday changed everything. Here was the president himself, directing addressing previously taboo subjects, all in front of the glaring eye of national television. For example, in response to one question, Vest went out of his way to single out rush as a "stressful" time when inexperienced students could easily be led to make poor or uninformed decisions.

Previously, rush was regarded as MIT's sacred cow; even the vaunted Task Force on Student Life and Learning was instructed to stay away from that hot potato. By bringing the problems with rush before the national media, Vest seemed to indicate that it could no longer be considered inviolable, free from any threat of change.

Vest's proposal of new undergraduate housing is also revolutionary. In the past, the Institute's plan for new dorms was restricted by the timeline on rebuilding Vassar Street in conjunction with a new subway line. Since the subway won't be built for a decade or more, housing plans were essentially on indefinite hold. Now it appears MIT will move forward, and rightly so. The prospect of using funds from the upcoming capital campaign is also encouraging, suggesting that the new housing really will provide new flexibility, whereas previous dorm construction has been funded primarily by increased admissions.

Nothing in Vest's presentation hit home harder than his exposition of what he called "the MIT way." Allowing considerable individual responsibility within the residential environment is not only an important part of the educational role of the residence system, but it is also the key to safety within that system. Banning alcohol outright would only drive it underground, off campus, increasing the danger and reducing the chance MIT would do anything about its problem.

Vest's press conference represents his finest hour. Unfortunately, that's not saying much. This is the first time Vest has ever publicly engaged the general community about rock-solid issues like housing, alcohol policy, and rush. Prior to this press conference, he had remained essentially removed from the fray, keeping a line of worthless, dean-headed committees between himself and the community he should be trying to serve.

It is unfortunate that it takes the death of a student to move forward on such important issues. After all, they have been under discussion for years. Although Vest's response to the Scott S. Krueger '01 tragedy has left much to be desired, it represents the first instance of actual leadership on this campus. I hope that Vest will continue to engage the community directly, without the dulling mediation of bumbling deans and fumbling committees. Who knows: Now that he's tried leadership, maybe Vest will find he likes it.