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A History of Abuse at Fiji

Guest Column Jeffrey M. Hornstein

As a former president of the MIT Interfraternity Council, as well as a former Chapter Consultant of Zeta Psi fraternity and an aspiring professor, I feel I have an obligation to weigh in on the recent tragedy at Phi Gamma Delta.

On one hand, I understand the impulse to condemn the fraternity system at MIT with a broad brush. However, after having spent a year on the road visiting over 50 campuses on which Zeta Psi has its chapters, I can say unequivocally that the MIT system is unique. It is unique not only in the sense that it houses by far the highest proportion of its undergraduate population in the country, or in that freshman reside in fraternity houses from the first week of their MIT experience, but that it is largely devoid of the dangerous behavior that is at the heart of much fraternity life elsewhere.

The independent living group system is consistently the single most positive social experience that many alumni of MIT reflect back upon. MIT's unique policy of allowing freshmen to move right into the ILG system is very important for the health and well-being of new students; unlike the alienating atmosphere which reigns in most college dormitories, the ILG provides the new student with an immediate support group. I would bet that the vast majority of MIT graduates would agree with me when I state that without the ILG experience from day one, MIT would be a very cruel place. This speculation is borne out by the fact that very few ILG residents choose to move out, a fact that is highly unusual in the national context.

I would urge you to look at the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity for what is: an anomalous chapter in an otherwise reasonably healthy ILG system. As an historian, I am loathe to employ such cliches as "one bad apple in an otherwise good bunch," but in this case it is justified.

Unfortunately, Phi Gamma Delta has a long history of abuse toward its new members. In 1989-90, when I was employed at Zeta Psi International Headquarters in New York, I was compelled, by a complaint from within the Phi Gam pledge class - a family friend had pledged Fiji, and called me in New York to complain of abusive treatment he was receiving - to file a report with the Phi Gamma Delta national office citing their MIT chapter for hazing. This was particularly painful for me, as at least half of my closest friends from MIT were brothers of Phi Gamma Delta. As I recall, the chapter was reprimanded by the national headquarters, but the very next year won some sort of chapter award. In my view, Phi Gamma Delta needs to be shut down for at least five years, after which time it could be given the ability to reorganize.

The administration has always treated the ILG system with the respect due a group of highly intelligent adults, and that is because, by and large, it has deserved to be treated as such. Incidents like that at Phi Gamma Delta are far from the rule at MIT, whose students are far too self-actualized and intelligent to put up with the sort of hazing which is the norm elsewhere, despite a decade or more of attempts by national fraternity organizations to change behavior.

I know that there are some in the MIT community who will urge the abolition of the ILG system, or at least the fraternities, on the pretext that they encourage underage drinking. The fact is that alcohol consumption on college campuses will not change if fraternities are abolished. I personally have come to believe that alcohol should be abolished from fraternity houses altogether. The root of student drinking is not fraternities; abuse happens everywhere on the college campus, probably as much so at MIT as elsewhere, and I would suggest that the phenomenon is deeply rooted in American culture's schizophrenic relationship toward alcohol: advertised as "cool," linked with sex and success, yet proscribed for "minors," arbitrarily defined as those under 21 years of age.

The administration's flexible approach toward student life has tended to ameliorate the problem of substance abuse rather than exacerbating it. I make this statement after working with students on numerous campuses since my graduation in 1989; substance abuse is an American problem, and further prohibition will accomplish nothing at best.

I hope that the administration will continue its rational approach to student life at MIT. Building more undergraduate dorms is not the solution. MIT is a unique place, and this is largely due to its ILG system. Punishment for Fiji should be swift and harsh, and MIT should keep close watch on other suspect chapters.

Jeffrey M. Hornstein '89 is a former president of the MIT Interfraternity Council. He now lives in College Park, Maryland.