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A Decision Made In the Dark

The Tech received a copy of this letter addressed to President Charles M. Vest

As an MIT alumnus and a previous Interfraternity Council president, I must share with you my incredulity and anger at a decision that seems to have been made behind the backs of the entire fraternity, sorority and independent living group system and the alumni of that system.

Clearly, the system and MIT in general has been under an intense amount of scrutiny this year, but until I read your so-called "open letter" (you must have been using this phrase ironically, as it states a policy made in secret), I had much admiration for the way you and your administration had been handling the onslaught of media mis- and disinformation. It seemed to me that you were standing firm on the principle that MIT is a unique place in the U.S. university system, and that MIT students are deserving, by and large, of adult status. Clearly, I was wrong.

The policy of forcing freshmen to live in dormitories indicates that MIT is following the nationwide trend toward returning to en loco parentis. Some have said that this is about allowing students to have more time to make choices, that Orientation causes undue stress, etc. But, MIT by nature is a place that forces students to think and act quickly - you have undoubtedly heard the metaphorical expression that MIT is like taking a drink from a firehose - and the Residence and Orientation Week system as it existed from the 1970s through the 1990s was a good, though of course not perfect, introduction to the realities of MIT.

I would like to know what, precisely, the administration thinks is wrong with the current Orientation process. In this case, I operate according to the old maxim, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." In my view, Orientation at MIT has worked well, for the vast majority. The last time I checked, the overwhelming majority of MIT students stay in the same place for four years - there is no other school in the country that can make that claim.

I have argued, since the days of Dean for Student Affairs Shirley M. McBay, that MIT students adhere to this "low mobility" pattern for two reasons: first, that MIT is a really demanding place, and small group solidarity is crucial to one's psychological stability throughout one's MIT career, especially in year one; and second, that most students are happy with the choices they make.

This is not to suggest that Orientation is perfect. If it were up to me, I would make Orientation longer, if possible. But I think on the whole the system as it existed from the 1970s through the 1990s worked quite well. It was intense, chaotic, and somewhat harsh, as well as exhilarating, challenging, and lots of fun - giving freshmen an accurate capsule portrait of MIT life.

Unfortunately, this new policy means that many of the choices that I and my cohorts had will cease to exist; the FSILG system undoubtedly will contract severely. Assuming that the "low mobility" pattern of MIT students with regard to housing continues, few will make the effort to attempt to join fraternities once they've gotten comfortable with dorm life. MIT will become like everywhere else - with 10-15 percent of the men choosing to go through rush. I predict that 30 percent of the FSILGs will shut their doors within four years, many of these the newer and more innovative ILGs, which are those with less deep-pocketed alumni.

A final point. MIT students are not by and large the most social folks when they get to MIT - fraternities have "forced" them, generally in a very positive sense of the term, to learn how to be social. Naturally, there have been excesses in this regard, and this is in no way intended to exonerate chapters for tragic incidents arising, perhaps, from social pressuring. But, if my memory serves me correctly, if we were to do a tally of substance-related deaths in the past 10 years, there would be an even balance between the dorms and fraternities.

It would be a huge tragedy if the FSILG system, the cornerstone of MIT undergraduate life, were to be undermined by what appears to be administrative fiat. I wonder if MIT students or the IFC or the Alumni IFC got a vote on this?

President Vest, I am sure you do not wish to be remembered as the president who fundamentally changed MIT undergraduate life for the worse, but I fear that twenty years from now, that is how you will be remembered. You can rest assured, as well, that I will make no further donations to MIT if this policy is carried forth.

Jeffrey M. Hornstein '89