MIT's "No Introspection" Zone
It was bound to happen. Just two weeks after the great press feeding-frenzy surrounding the death of Scott S. Krueger '01, the fraternity system's protection machine has swung into motion. Every single phrase that could be interpreted as favorable to the fraternity system is repeated endlessly: It could have happened in any living group, the voices chant. Binge drinking is a problem on every campus in America.
Most members of the MIT community have turned their attention to solving the problems at hand. The problems range from alcohol education, stress management, and underage drinking to wider issues like the stress of fraternity rush, the inflexibility of the housing system, and the apparently impenetrable division of the undergraduate population.
The faculty have been particularly eager to enter the fray. Usually our affable profs take little interest in campus life; now, they have been thrust into the center of the discussion. Many faculty members have been particularly concerned that MIT allows its freshmen to live in fraternities, unlike most other peer institutions of our caliber. Of those schools that do, MIT houses the largest percentage. Why has MIT taken this route, and is it right? These are open questions that the faculty - and the entire community - deserve to discuss.
All this introspective would be great, except for just one thing: The fraternity system may prove unwilling to take part. Once a topic is framed in terms of problems that might take place in the living group setting, the great fraternity defense mechanism kicks in. Any proposed change in fraternity rush or the housing system leads to a natural defensive response from fraternities and their advocates in the Dean's Office. It doesn't matter if the question at issue is a deliberate action by the administration or the natural outgrowth of parents' newfound awareness of problems with fraternity life. The reaction is always the same and always equally vehement.
The problem, as far as the fraternity system is concerned, has nothing to do with alcohol. The real problem is that MIT might change, that rush might change, that the fraternities might change. Any change, however minor, might reduce the "continued viability" of the fraternity system. It is as if the system is so fragile it could collapse at any time.
I am apparently an exception to the rule among students on this campus: I think that the fraternity system can weather significant changes. I don't know what changes should be made, nor do I have any solutions to propose. But to think that any change at all will kill off the fraternity system is downright paranoid.
The cause of the dire predictions is twofold. First, fraternities have an intense need to fill beds. The need to fill beds has become something of a mania with housing administrators to the point where this single goal prevents any real discussion of housing- or alcohol-related issues. The need to fill fraternities determines the format of Residence and Orientation Week, which has been dominated by fraternity rush in spite of the frequently expressed desire on the part of the faculty that academic and community orientation be given a larger role.
Fraternity resistance to freshman housing helped sink the recommendations of the Freshman Housing Committee a few years back. Most administration figures decline to even bring up the issues of rush and housing freshmen on campus for fear of raising the hoary demons that pounce on anyone who might reduce the yield of rush.
Next year poses an additional challenge: Even if rush stays the same, students and MIT officials believe it will go poorly. Parents are said to be downright afraid of letting their children pledge their freshman year. So the problem second is, how can the fraternity system survive next year?
The myopic need to fill beds and keep fraternities "violable" should not be allowed to determine the Institute's course of action. MIT needs to take a larger view: Fraternity life, and undergraduate life in general, is about more than filling beds in living groups. Proposals for radical change should be evaluated on their merits, not on their imagined impact on houses.