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Freshmen on Campus? That's Not the Issue

Guest Column Leigh Royden

Following the tragic death of Scott S. Krueger '01 last month, the debate on alcohol use and the freshman housing system has waxed hot and heavy. The housing debate pits visions of freshman living in regimented supervision within police-state dormitories while fraternities and independent living groups languish across the river against the prospect of debauched freshmen running amok in dens of fraternal iniquity, cutting classes, and becoming progressively less tolerant of people who look, act, or sound different from themselves.

Few of us would like to choose between such alternatives. But even patently ridiculous visions like these play a very real role in the current debate as proponents of each side succumb to the visceral fear of what might happen if the other side gets its way on housing and drinking.

In fact, drinking and housing are but two elements in what remains the least satisfactory part of an MIT education - the freshman year. There are many reasons MIT does a better job of nurturing its upperclassmen than it does its freshmen, but the fact remains that there are major problems with the first-year academic program and the general environment that freshmen encounter from the moment they arrive at MIT. These problems go beyond questions of where students live or what they drink and beyond what formal and informal groups have to say on the diverse factors that contribute to the failures of the first-year program.

The bottom line is that MIT fails to provide for its students (and for itself) a sense of community within which learning is enhanced by natural social interactions among students, faculty, and staff. Moreover, the physical proximity of community members and the architectural spaces within which these interactions take place have a big effect on how, and even whether, such interactions occur.

MIT does a good job of providing upperclassmen with the opportunity to find a sense of academic direction and autonomy via the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program and the outstanding options for study available within many departments. But it does very little to help freshmen feel a sense of control over their own lives, or even their own course work, and provides them with little opportunity to discover an intellectual niche or sense of academic purpose. Can it be any surprise that the fraternities and ILGs are of such importance to our students? They give a sense of identity, community, and support that the broader Institute fails to provide.

Without focusing on these larger issues, the issue of freshman housing will amount to merely a trade-off between the greater emotional security and support provided by fraternities and ILGs and the greater supervision and diversity of residential groups that would be possible if all freshmen lived on campus.

This is not a trade-off that we should make. I believe that MIT freshmen should live on campus but not until we can provide on campus the same level of support and community that is present in the best of the fraternities and ILGs. We must nurture a sense of identity and belonging within these on-campus living groups and certainly not isolate first-year students within all-freshmen dorms. We also must be cognizant of the valuable role of fraternities and ILGs at MIT and take care to keep them as viable upperclass housing units as we move freshmen onto campus.

If the fraternities and ILGs are so successful, why even bother to bring all freshmen on campus? First, we need to build an MIT that has a overarching sense of community and inclusiveness, not an MIT that is merely a collection of small, exclusive communities without overall integration. Physical proximity, especially in the first year, is an important component in the building of that community, and we need to include more faculty and staff within these student residences; a balanced MIT residential community cannot be a student-only community.

Second, the residential configuration of our freshman class and the nature of the first-year academic program are inextricably linked. MIT is caught in a gridlock where many improvements to the first-year program are impossible when freshmen are scattered across the greater Boston area. Yet it is partly the structure, rigidity, and lack of individuation in the freshman program that make fraternities and ILGs a haven from the forced march of the freshman year. The best outcome will be to move toward a more inclusive and flexible integration of the academic and residential experience in the first year.

Third, inarguably, the support one feels from being with people who experience things similarly is comforting. But as a society we must fight the tendency to self-select for cultural, ethnic, temperamental, academic, or physical sameness. The university years offer many young people their first opportunity to participate in a broader community. Many of us who went to universities where freshmen roommates were randomly assigned ended up liking roommates whom we never would have chosen and learning to live with and respect roommates who never became close friends. This is an important lesson in life.

Fourth, most matriculating freshmen are not yet adults; many of them are away from home for the first time. Their freshman year will be one of the greatest transition periods in their lives as they adjust to a new academic rigor, to living without parental supervision, and to the multiple opportunities for self-exploration and testing of limits. As adults, MIT faculty have the obligation to make this transition as smooth (it won't be smooth in any case) and as free of trauma as possible. Supervision is not the issue; maturation is.

Of course, all of this comes from my 42-year-old vantage point, so I thought I should ask my seven-year-old son what he thought about it (I had to begin by explaining the term "freshman"). He pondered for a few moments, then answered, "They should be able to live anywhere they want because MIT is OK, but a house could be a lot nicer." So here is my homework question for the week: If it takes a seven-year-old one minute and 40 seconds to figure this out, how long with it take an 18-year-old MIT freshman? I don't know the answer, but until we change the question, the housing debate at MIT never will be resolved.

Leigh Royden PhD '82 is a professor of earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences and a former associate chair of the faculty.