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A Mechanism for Change: Community Problem-Solving Would Eliminate Haphazard Decisions

Jim O'Donnell

Recent events have released a flood of dialogue on alcohol and housing issues. Every possible medium has been exhausted; committees have been named, forums have been held, newspaper articles written, and petitions circulated. The discussion is long overdue.

At the licensing board meeting, councilman Joseph P. Mulligan drilled Rosalind H. Williams, dean for students and undergraduate education: "Are you not aware of the tradition of drinking in frats which has gone on for years and years?" Williams responded, "No," causing a few members of the audience to laugh. Neal H. Dorow, assistant dean and adviser for fraternities, sororities, and independent living groups, added, "I don't make it my business to know about underage drinking." Of course, any administrator who admits knowing anything related to what happened is liable. Moreover, because administrators do not live in the MIT community, they may not be able to gauge the seriousness of problems here. The administration does not seem to have the tools to adequately respond to problems of campus life.

Given the current system, only a death could have forced the Institute to house all freshmen on campus. Proposals to build an undergraduate dorm have been on the table for quite some time. There has also been a proposal on the floor for 10 years to shorten pledging; it was never enacted because some the students, presumably fraternity members, did not want pledging to be shortened. Similarly, Ceani Guevera '99 petitioned the Metropolitan District Commission to paint a crosswalk across Memorial Drive, but no action was taken until the death of Michele S. Micheletti '00. It seems that if any group objects to a change, it is vetoed. Even if no one objects, it is left on the table if it's not viewed as urgent .

Students feel they are not being listened to, that problems are ignored, and that faculty and administrators draw hasty conclusions from a ridiculously small amount of data. What we need is a mechanism to solve campus problems before someone dies because of them. My high school participated in an international competition called community problem solving bowl. It is a written competition in which a team of four systematically analyzes a social problem in the community and then goes out and implements the solution. The analysis has six parts spread over a three-hour period; brainstorming twenty problems, identifying the underlying problem, brainstorming twenty solutions, ranking them according to several criteria, and writing up a page-long essay detailing the best solution.

Robert M. Randolph, senior associate dean for students and undergraduate education, has suggested making this program an annual Independent Activities Period activity, and I agree that it could be applied with great success. Every year students could write up an anecdote depicting a problem, such as a recent hazing incident or something less life-threatening like school spirit. A single problem would be picked and a committee of students would gather data and make a single comprehensive report for contestants' use. Committee reports, newspaper articles, and student essays, as well as hard data from surveys and financial statements could be included. At each step, teams would be rewarded for including as many types of reasons as possible such as social life, emotional and physical health, and academic concerns.

A community problem-solving competition would be an event open to the community. Each team of four could be made up of a student, two faculty members, and an administrator. The time commitment for participants would be minimal: a couple of hours to read over the background material and three to four hours for the analysis.

It does not take a rocket scientist to solve housing and alcohol issues, although MIT has its share. However, whenever someone from a fraternity argues against changing the housing system, they can be dismissed as "defending their turf." On the other side of the coin, the letter by Scott S. Velazquez G and Robert Plotkin '97 detailing alcohol abuse at Pi Lambda Phi was dismissed because they "had an agenda." The community problem-solving format would allow people to show that their arguments are valid. In complex issues like housing, it's easy to get muddled unless one separates each step of the analysis. The timed competition format forces people to concentrate on each step separately.

Checks and balances were originally installed into the American government to insure that all groups had a say in the governing of the nation. This system would act as more of an intelligent democracy, circumventing the gridlock inherent in checks and balances. From an engineering point of view, the existing system at MIT has too much potential to fail. It would be amazing if it did work. If the problem-solving structure was put in place, it would allow the Institute to act independently of interest groups, both internal and external. It would foster intelligent participation from all groups of the MIT community. With all the brains at MIT, I think one team can come up with a reasonable solution.