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Fractured Communities are MIT's Biggest Problem

Column by Jennifer Lane
Contributing Editor

In the largest flurry of letter writing to The Tech in recent memory, students have demonstrated in no uncertain terms that they are not the apathetic, unopinionated bunch they are often labeled as. When I read the column by Stacey E. Blau '98 ["Hypocritical Fraternities Embarrass MIT," Feb. 25], I could almost sense the fires igniting in the hearts and minds of countless readers.

But what is it that stirred such widespread and violent reaction among students? We read a lot about sex and drugs and alcohol - or the lack thereof - in fraternities and dormitories, but I don't think that it's these types of examples and stories that motivated people to write. After all, one story will always be able to outshock the next. So, I'll leave everyone to worry personally about the amount of alcohol in their systems, because I don't really want to hear about it anymore.

I think that people's emotions were evoked because they were hit where it hurts most - at the heart of their circle of friends. What people wrote and continue to talk about, sometimes in veiled terms, are the concepts and viability of community-building and brotherhood. The same issue that motivated strong critiques of the fraternity system motivated their defense, and that is the profound sense of community that comes along with joining a Greek system.

This is a far more worthy topic of discussion. Virtually everyone at MIT has found a community where they feel a sense of belonging. Whether we rely on people we meet in classes, activities, jobs, or living groups, everyone has some kind of support network to share the ups and downs of everyday life. The difference between these communities is evidenced by the manner in which they contribute to the overall MIT student community and how they interact with each other.

Everyone from the members of the Campus Activities Complex Programming Board to the candidates for Undergraduate Association offices to the deans will acknowledge that the MIT student community is severely fractured. This is a great obstacle to progress as a whole at the Institute. Basically, we never get out and do anything all together.

Fraternities and sororities at MIT provide the support network for a large portion of undergraduate students. But these networks are significantly different and set apart from others at the Institute in several important ways. These differences form an automatic barrier across which many students will never cross.

The interplay between the Institute and the Interfraternity Council is a good place to start. It is extremely unfortunate that the Institute must rely on the fraternity system to provide housing. This often gives the IFC a great deal of bargaining power when it comes into conflict with other portions of the Institute. Residence and Orientation Week is a clear manifestation of this, where dormitories are not allowed to rush in the same way as the fraternities. The battle lines are being drawn, and new freshmen see right away during their first week on campus that the same rules don't apply to fraternity life that apply to dormitory life.

The basis of fraternities and sororities is also different from that of other groups on campus. Basically, the Greek systems exist to provide a support and friendship network for their members. With few exceptions, students do not "find" friendship in the fraternity system; they receive it through membership. Don't get too excited - I'm not challenging the validity of friendships and bonds made through the fraternal system, I am merely stating that as opposed to other groups of students united over cultural or other kinds of similarities, the fraternities exist as friendship networks. Members might decide to participate in activities or projects together once there, but originally, they joined to be a member of the community.

Fraternities and sororities are also, by their very nature, extremely exclusive. They have secret and almost sacred initiation procedures, vows, and often even handshakes or songs that set members apart from the rest of the world. Again, such things are contrary to many other communities of students that don't have such complete power to pick and choose their membership. In the Greek system, there is a clear unmovable line between those who are in and those who are out. While this makes the community within the line that much stronger, it increasingly sets them apart from the larger MIT community.

More and more this semester, students are going to be hearing a lot about communities. With the restructuring of the administration, the Dean's Office has become concerned with the fragmented student body. When an advisory council of students was formed, it seemed that every facet of the student body was scared it would not be properly represented. The council's membership is at 30 and growing, while every little community of students tries to make it's voice heard.

The CAC Programming Board is also fighting the problem of fractured student community. It is desperately working to unify all undergraduates with simple activities mostly in the Student Center. With UA elections coming up, you can expect to hear candidates discussing this issue as well. There isn't even enough class unity to motivate people to run for class offices.

Every so often, students should take account of how alienated they have become from the larger MIT student community. How often do you eat lunch or have conversations with people who aren't from your living group or other close circle of friends? How concerned are you with issues that affect the student community but maybe don't immediately pertain to your particular living group?

All students are capable of hiding within their own communities, regardless of the level of alcohol or anything else that is consumed in those communities. But the unique nature of MIT's fraternity system makes it easier for its members to become isolated from the larger student body.