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A Policy Not So Intuitively Obvious

Guest Column Mark A. Herschberg

I have become rather alarmed at the disregard for science the MIT faculty have shown recently.

As an undergraduate here, I was taught the scientific method: Propose a hypothesis, find data to support or disprove it, and draw conclusions from the results. Yet the same faculty that are espousing these principles in the classroom have put on their blinders and are railroading new, unanalyzed policies in faculty meetings.

Within a few weeks of the death of Scott S. Kruger '01, the faculty have called for a seminar on binge drinking. I applaud the faculty for this, since it would allow us to research what many consider to be a problem. But why then, when the members of this group have yet to be appointed, have some in the faculty called for all freshmen to live on campus? Why collect data when the conclusions are preordained?

I have not heard any official reason for the proposal to house all freshmen on campus. I can assume only, given the time when it was made, that it stems from the recent alcohol-related incident on campus and the belief that the proposal would decrease the chances of a repeat incident. I'm sure students in Junior Lab are happy to learn that a single data point is now considered conclusive evidence.

Many people are happy with the current living arrangement, although there are quite certainly some who dislike it. Quite simply, MIT needs to have a good reason to change the current housing system, not because a few unfortunate incidents took place or because one professor considers our current system an "accident of history" ["Faculty Criticize Current R/O System," Oct. 17]. To house all freshmen on campus, MIT first needs to prove that the overall happiness of students would increase. Of course, a reasonable trade-off for happiness is safety. If MIT can show that the plan will make MIT significantly safer, that would be acceptable, too, even if happiness would decrease.

I would like to remind the faculty what is involved in such a proof, since it is not intuitively obvious. It must be shown that independent living groups significantly increase unsafe behavior more than dormitories. Note that finding a simple correlation is not sufficient because there may be an independent factor causing such behavior which will not be eliminated by the new policy. Upon proving causality, the faculty must then show that the new proposal removes the cause without introducing new agents and thus increases the overall safety of the students.

Only when the above criteria has been met has a rational argument for changing the housing system been made. Then this proposal's pros and cons must be weighed against those of alternative proposals. Until such arguments have been made and debated, I submit to the faculty that they must table their measures and research the problem.

There is another aspect to this issue, which the MIT faculty also have avoided - a rational distribution of resources. During the last few years, MIT has found both its budget and housing to be tight. Housing all freshmen on campus would clearly put added strain on these problems. Still, if the benefits outweigh the costs, moving freshmen to campus is a rational course of action.

If MIT is willing to go to such an effort for one alcohol-related death in the history of the institution, why is it so stingy in dealing with other problems that may yield better returns? Suicide comes to mind, since there have been an average of 1.4 student deaths a year since 1964, according to one dean.

MIT is spending your tuition money; they should certainly justify to you that it's been appropriately spent. As of yet, I have not seen a shred evidence that we can save more lives by forcing freshman to live on campus than by say, providing more accessible counseling services to MIT students.

The nation is beginning a witch hunt, against alcohol and against fraternities. Lately there's been talk of how students make irrational choices under peer pressure. The rest of MIT is not immune from this fault and is currently facing tremendous pressure from the media and from parents. Banning alcohol and hiding all the freshmen in on-campus housing seem like an easy fix, but that isn't justification for such a change.

Mark A. Herschberg is a graduate student in the department of computer science and electrical engineering.