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The Real Questions about Housing

Guest Column Douglas K. Wyatt

Over the past couple of weeks, a lot of ink has been spent on the topic of housing at MIT. After the death of Scott S. Krueger '01, one of the proposed responses was to have all freshmen live on campus. The proposal has created quite a bit of debate, much of which, unfortunately, seems to miss the mark.

First, many people are arguing against the proposal not by pointing out flaws in the proposal but by pointing out flaws in other, unrelated ideas. The proposal to house all freshmen on campus need not imply randomized housing. The current dormitory rush could continue as normal, with freshmen arriving on campus several days early with a temporary housing assignment and upperclassmen from dorms giving tours of dormitories, having barbecues, etc. Just because the independent living groups would not be rushing does not mean that freshmen cannot pick their own dorm. MIT dormitory - and ILG - character is an important asset to MIT, and I think those involved understand this or can be made to understand.

Additionally, the proposal to move all freshmen to campus does not necessarily mean that seniors will no longer be guaranteed housing, that MacGregor singles will be crowded into quads, or that freshmen will be housed in Building 20. As students, we are all smart enough to realize that the currently highly-overcrowded dormitory system cannot accommodate the approximately 300 freshmen that live in ILGs. I have confidence that the faculty and administration-folk have realized this as well.

But there are a number of solutions to this problem that are not so horrific as many seem to believe. As proposed by President Charles M. Vest, a new dormitory could easily handle this new population. This leaves us with a three- or four-year interim problem to deal with. One could either deal with this by delaying the change to Residence and Orientation Week until then, providing a temporary solution similar to - but better than - the Huntington Hall experiment from a few years ago. I am sure a number of other creative solutions could be developed to bridge this gap.

Another interesting idea people seem to be concerned about is the idea of all-freshman housing. While I personally don't think this is a good idea, the arguments for and against it aren't black and white. While there are many benefits to be had by living with upperclassmen during one's freshman year, there are also benefits to be had by living with a group of people going through the same experiences.

Additionally, one could argue that freshmen, having lived in a "normal" dormitory for a year, would be less inclined to take the step of moving out their sophomore year to an ILG. I personally doubt this given the number of people I know that have moved from one place to another during their time at MIT. Additionally, if it were expected that freshmen take time to consider living in an ILG and that a number would do so, I suspect quite a few would.

And finally, I am not convinced that just because a certain number of people currently live in ILGs that that is the "correct" number. The number is merely a function of the way that R/O currently works and a number of other factors at MIT. With a different R/O, the number of people living in ILGs may be different, but I don't think it would be "wrong."

A fascinating criticism I have heard people make during the housing debate is that accommodating all freshmen on campus might require cutting the class size significantly, possibly up to 50 percent. But since the number of freshmen living in ILGs hovers around 300, moving all freshmen to campus would require reducing the average class size by only less than 100 - less than a 10 percent decrease. Not that I am an advocate of cutting class size as a solution to this problem, but the number of people that have been throwing around in the context of this proposal has been absolutely ridiculous.

I have heard a number of people ask the question, "What does the fact that a freshman drank himself to death have to do with the housing system?" A common reaction is to attribute this to people's latent hatred of ILGs or the R/O system and accuse them of using this recent tragedy as an excuse to promote their hidden agenda. I would posit that the two are, at least in theory, very related. No one questions that everyone here - including freshmen - is quite intelligent, and no one doubts that we are adults capable of making our own decisions about where we should live.

However, the current system of housing makes unreasonable expectations on freshmen. Expecting students to be able to make intelligent and stress-free decisions about their living options in a three-day period when most freshmen know few enough people that they can count them on one hand - or in many cases, one finger - is unreasonable. Telling freshmen that they must wait until IAP or spring term before they will make their long-term housing decisions is not the same as saying that they are incapable of making decisions for themselves. It is merely giving them the necessary information to make the decision rationally.

Currently, some portion of freshmen end up in environments where they are not completely satisfied, happy, or comfortable. One cannot possibly get to know the brothers of a fraternity or understand the social environment of MIT in that short of time. Given the obvious obstacles to "fixing" one's situation (moving out of a fraternity, finding a dorm room once the lottery is over, severing budding friendships), it is no surprise that many people who are not happy with their ILG selection choose to stick it out. These situations, where people are thrust into environments where they do not feel they belong, contribute to immense stresses of peer pressure - pressure to act a certain way, pressure to dress a certain way, and, unfortunately, pressure to party a certain way.

I do not claim to know enough of the reality of Scott Krueger's situation to say whether or not these things played a role in his death. But the fact that such pressures exist is undeniable, and I believe that MIT is being remiss in perpetuating a system that amplifies the disorientation and stress of going to college. A system in which freshmen are given some amount of time to acclimate themselves to the new reality of MIT in as stress-free an arrangement as possible and then are allowed to decide whether to join an ILG would greatly increase the odds of freshmen making the right decision.

Douglas Wyatt is a second-year graduate student in computer science. He was a member of the Class of 1996 and lived in Burton-Conner House as an undergraduate.