Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs: The Prospects for Faculty Leadership Fade To Black
This Monday, some new signs appeared along the McGrath-O'Brien Highway in Somerville, my road home in the evening. I assume the signs, which were posted below the left-turn arrow across from Sav-Mor Liquors, intended to show a left-turn only arrow. After all, any driver attempting to make a right turn from the left-turn lane at that spot would have to cut in front of three lanes of 50 mile-per-hour highway traffic. I imagine the Metropolitan District Commission will correct the error within hours of my writing this paragraph.
MIT has been getting some bizarre signals of its own, albeit from a different source than the MDC. When November dawned upon the world, the campus was embroiled in a debate over housing and alcohol, with the balance of vitriol expended on the housing side. The cause for the debate was a brash motion made by one professor, Stephan L. Chorover, that suggested all freshmen should be housed on campus beginning next year. When the motion was made, several faculty members spoke to the necessity of having the faculty show leadership on topics related to campus life.
Like all motions at faculty meetings, the Chorover motion was to be considered at the next faculty meeting, one month later. During that month-long interval, the campus was embroiled in a debate over housing freshmen on campus - a debate that pitted fraternity members eager to save their ever-so-fragile community against the supposedly unfeeling, unknowing faculty. Professors threw meetings, and fraternities offered dinner. E-mail flames shot hither and yon. Students from independent living groups presented a petition. Parents and alumni weighed in. Dozens of letters and columns on the subject appeared in the campus press.
All this during the month previously set aside for introspective dialogue about alcohol and binge drinking. Instead of dialogue or discussion, the campus had a debate - a debate over MIT's sacred cow, fraternity rush.
For what purpose did the faculty engage the community in this debate? The end result, as everyone must know by now, was not a vote of the faculty on the issue at hand. At the last moment the Chorover motion was gutted and replaced by a vacuous shibboleth. The replacement motion waxes optimistic about increasing funding for faculty-student interaction and better aligning MIT's dorms and fraternities with the educational mission. It proposes no concrete action, and it studiously avoids the issue of whether freshmen should be housed on campus.
In other words, we signalled left and cut right.
It seems safe to say that the motion, like so many high words spoken about faculty-student interaction in the past, will be quickly forgotten. Perhaps a house fellow or two will be funded, a new associate dean for faculty interaction hired, or a seminar founded; beyond that, little will change.
It was bound to happen. The fraternity system is every bit as entrenched and set in its ways as the faculty. A motion at a faculty meeting suggesting change in either fraternity or faculty life causes as much change on MIT as a breaking wave upon the shore of a continent.
Don't get me wrong; this month of discussion about housing has been quite extraordinary. Never have so many faculty interacted with so many students. Never have the creative efforts of student leaders and their organizations been so widely heard and integrated into the work being done by administrators and faculty. Never in living memory have faculty meetings been so heavily dominated by actual concern about the nitty-gritty of student life. For that matter, never have faculty meetings been so widely attended.
Will anything come of it in the long run? I for one will believe it when I see it. What we have on the boards so far is a plan for a new undergraduate dorm. In the past, new housing space has been filled by increasing admissions; in other words, a new dorm does not necessarily produce real change. I need hardly point out that changing the name of "R/O" to "Orientation" amounts to nothing at all. And as Arthur C. Smith, professor of electrical engineering and computer science (and a former dean himself), pointed out, little about orientation can change since faculty don't even return from break until after Labor Day.
On the housing side, it seems fair to say we've already had a brush with the forces of conservatism on campus. Every single word of Chorover's watered-down motion faced the most intense scrutiny from faculty members concerned not to give umbrage from members of fraternities, sororities, and independent living groups. Henry Jenkins, professor of literature and housemaster of Senior House, even objected to the suggestion of improving the sense of MIT as a whole community. The forces of conservatism seem eager to reduce everything to a zero-sum game between preserving living groups and achieving any other conceivable goal.
Whither MIT? Now that the faculty cat has had its say, the deanly mice will play. Up until this point, the Dean's Office has proven adept at blowing in the political winds of the moment. And at this moment, the political winds are howling with the most arctic variety of conservatism. Committees will meet, reports will be written, more fair words will be spoken. As the days slip past, fewer and fewer people will remember the day when someone breathed the words "faculty leadership."