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The Alcoholics of the Class of '02: Does MIT Have a Newfound Reputation as a Party School?



Dan Dunn

Last October, MIT changed forever. But just how did it change? I have only considered worst-case scenarios: fewer applicants, lower applicant yields, and important to me, an all-time bad rush for fraternities. But I had never considered the up-side: What about the positive effects?

On Sunday I had lunch with the the officers of my fraternity's alumni association. We talked about the usual things: redoing the electrical system, mailing the annual fund appeal, and next year's budget. And, of course, we talked about rush for the coming fall.

Rush has been a regular topic of discussion at these meetings. But every discussion has been from a negative perspective. We have been very afraid that students are going to come to MIT demanding to live in dorms. Not only would the students want to avoid the fraternities, but the parents would forbid students to live in fraternities. What can we do to make sure that rush is successful? Can we write letters to parents talking about how responsible we are? What should we do if rush doesn't go well?

And then the treasurer spoke up: "My nephew got in to MIT. But his mother won't let him come because MIT is such a party school."

Party school? MIT?

This knocked me back in my chair. Party school? MIT? This would have been my last idea of a party school. Party school? MIT? Where did this woman get the idea? Party school? MIT? I guess the only news about the school has been about its alcohol habits. But still, MIT a party school?

Once you get over the shock, the ramifications of the idea are worth exploring. Perhaps, the Class of '02 won't be a group of beer-fearing, fraternity-hating kids. Perhaps, MIT's students of tomorrow will choose MIT because they want to have a good party.

Its a pretty crazy concept, isn't it? College decision time is not too far away. Somewhere, there is a high school senior deciding between MIT and Dartmouth. He's sitting around with a few friends, and he says: "I don't want to go to a school where I have to work all the time. I want to have some fun. I'm going to MIT!"

This seems, at first, completely crazy. But there is some precedence for such an effect. The admissions office has made changes before whose results were readily visible to the skilled observer. You can still find professors who bemoan the the decision to seek well-rounded students. They think that MIT and its caliber of student has declined since then.

More recently, the admissions office made a concerted effort to increase the number of female applicants. It commissioned a wildly successful recruitment video that destroyed the MIT male-nerd generalizations. The result has been obvious to even the casual observer.

I still know what a party school is. I have visited tons of schools across the country. A party school is one where you ask your friends where the kegs are on Tuesday. A party school has a thriving market for fake ID's. A party school is one where naked people sign each other's bodies while chugging beer and goldfish. A party school has parties that require duck shoes to navigate the spillage on the floor. MIT is not a party school.

Everyone already here knows that MIT is not a party school. But our opinions just don't matter anymore. We all watched, helplessly, as the six o'clock news defined who we were and passed judgement. We are about to reap the rewards of that definition - After all, the rest of the world thinks we are a party school.

MIT has had other, obvious changes on the basis of internal MIT decisions, or perhaps a video that a few thousand people watched. This school's recent exposure is on a different order of magnitude. Millions of people listened as their long-trusted papers and anchormen told them that MIT is a place you go to drink yourself silly.

Of course, I can't believe this is the only result. MIT will still recruit its hard-core science and nerd types. It will still have plenty of students who were forbidden by their parents to live off-campus or at a fraternity. MIT will not become a Beer U. overnight.

But I think that there will be a significant slice of incoming freshmen who do think this way. There will be people who came to MIT because they heard that there was an active, even wild social life.

Something momentous happened at MIT, and there is no way that the Institute could remain unchanged by the events that have passed. The question remains: In what way has it changed? No one really knows. But we do know that MIT's image has been shaped by powerful outside forces. We may be swamped next year by a few hundred students who think that MIT is a great place to get a cheap beer.

It may even be a self fulfilling prophecy.