Student Concerns dominate town meetingBy Jennifer Lane
Editor in Chief
Several students took advantage of President Charles M. Vest's fifth town meeting Friday to query him on the possible upcoming changes to the Institute's housing system and alcohol policies.
Representatives of the Black Students Union as well as Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals, Transgendered and Friends at MITstressed in their questions that the current housing system allows members of their respective groups to choose housing arrangements in which they feel comfortable.
Members of the fraternity and dormitory system alike expressed their uncertainty over the president's vow to keep students informed of administrative activity and not to make rash, quick decisions.
In a break from previous town meetings, where 90 percent of the audience consisted of faculty and staff, approximately one-third of the audience Friday was composed of students.Undergraduate Association Vice-President Sandra C. Sandoval '00 expressed her disappointment that the meeting was held from noon to 2 p.m. on a Friday, when many students were in class. The administration should have tried harder to make the statement that the "MIT campus as a whole is going to focus on this [housing and student life discussion]," she said.
Vest admitted that little was done to accommodate student attendance, apologizing by saying, "We should have recognized there would be more student interest this time."
Housing dominates discussion
Vest said he had expected the meeting to focus on four issues: morale and career development, communications, re-engineering, and housing and student life. The two-hour questioning period, however, was primarily focused on housing issues.
These questions were so prolific, in fact, that at several points during the meeting Vest asked to entertain only those questions aside from the subject of housing.
Joaquin S. Terrones '98, a representative for the BSU, expressed the group's concern that upcoming housing decisions may adversely affect the "black community which forms strong residential communities, especially around New House."
Vest responded by stating that "any decisions we makeŠ have got to be taken in the best interests of all students."
He commented on the positive aspects of the strong residential communities at MIT, but said, "I hope that we can do a better job at integrating them together."
Stephanie A. Miller '98 read a petition signed by members of GAMIT stressing the importance of freshman housing choice to the gay community. Freshman housing choice allows students to choose an environment in which they feel accepted, she said. "When you have 40 to 60 hours of work per week, it's hard to deal with gay-bashing," she said.
Vest then reiterated the need to listen to all voices and acknowledged "there are complexities to this issue that have to be thought about overtly."
Vest cited supportive communities and the integration of upper- and underclassmen as the strengths of the current residential system. He pointed to the "rapid rush process" and varying degrees of "adult presence" in the housing system as its weaknesses.
Students defend FSILG system
Student questions over the system of FSILGs were prolific and covered a wide range of concerns. Several students asked Vest what effect changing rush would have on the fraternity and independent living group system.
Outgoing Interfraternity Council Rush Chair Jorge F. Rodriguez '98 asked about the economic feasibility of postponing rush, since freshmen comprise approximately one-quarter of most houses' residents.
Vest had the same answer to most of these concerns. "I do not accept the argument that if the system would change, that necessarily means FSILGs would die," Vest said. "I do not understand why a system of value to students would not be equally accessible in the sophomore year."
Two groups will be working to move towards a housing solution. One group, the Orientation/Residence Fall '98 Committee, will make recommendations to the senior administration for next fall. A second group will map out, with the task force on student life and learning, the Institute's long-run housing plan.
Alcohol issue finally broached
Three-quarters of the way through the meeting, a student raised a question over the alcohol policy changes, and administrative progress toward examining alcohol use on campus in the aftermath of the alcohol-related death of Scott S. Krueger '01.
Vest welcomed the question amidst the flurry of housing concerns, stating, "I really want to be sure that we don't get defocused from our need to exact greater control over alcohol on our campus."
He pointed to the student-faculty seminar chaired by professor and biology department head Phillip A. Sharp and chief of pediatrics and student health services Mark A. Goldstein, which will be designed to improve educational alcohol programs, as an example of how the Institute is planning on tackling alcohol issues.
"I cannot tell you how much thinking about this issue has weighed on me personally," Vest said.
"Drinking among college students has been going on since the Middle AgesŠ we cannot achieve success by trying to recreate prohibition." Therefore, the focus of the response has been placed on education, Vest said.
Studying the problem and coming up with educational programs is an appropriate way for MIT to handle alcohol abuse, Vest said.
It is "very much in MIT's tradition not to accept a problem as insurmountableŠ and my preaching is not going to make a wit of difference," Vest said.
Minority issues also raised
Representatives of the Black Students Union raised concerns over the declining percentage of black students in the freshman class, as well as race relations on campus, specifically in reference to the inflammatory mailing sent by the MIT Extropians over the summer.
Vest reiterated his commitment to improving and examining campus race relations. He stated that he personally found the views outlined by the Extropians to be extremely distasteful, but that he also felt that all students on the campus should feel free to express their opinions.
Vest tries to focus on finances
Whenever there was a lull in the questioning, Vest took the opportunity to discuss the level of government funding at the Institute and the re-engineering effort.
Displaying a bar graph of Institute funding sources, Vest remarked that the level of government funds was continually decreasing and "we can't just increase tuition at whatever rate we want to."
Vest announced that a capital campaign will begin in two years to fund large developments.
He also reviewed re-engineering's progress, pointing to a substantial reduction in employee headcount, down approximately 400 from three years ago.