The Future and the Task Force
Last week, the task force on student life and learning issued its long-awaited report on the future of student life at MIT. It comes out with more moral and political force than almost any document in MIT's recent history. A good chunk of this comes from the breadth of the document: it examines everything from dining to residence to faculty-student relations. It also has a great pedigree: The administration is positioning the task force's final report as the first comprehensive review of Institute policy since 1949, when the Lewis Commission reviewed MITs educational charter in the wake of the tremendous changes and growth caused by World War II.
A document with this lineage and political backing has the ability to both make controversial recommendations and, more importantly, make them stick. The task force seems to have recognized that. It recommends that MIT's promotion and tenure process, always a sacred cow in any university, be altered to include the professor's "community involvement" as a criteria to be considered when granting tenure or promotions.
But the report has also set its sights on what is, in fact, an even more ingrained institution than promotion and tenure: MIT's fraternities, sororities, and independent living groups. FSILGs have been housing freshman for over a century. The report recommends that all freshmen be housed on campus, and the MIT administration has indicated that this recommendation will be followed.
It's here that we begin to see the report as the hybrid beast that it is. It addresses immediate political concerns which happen to coincide with with a larger vision of how MIT should work.
The political situation here is relatively easy to read. The death of Scott S. Krueger '01 last fall made people begin to question whether FSILGs were capable of self-regulation. Initially, most people were willing to give FSILGs the benefit of the doubt because they'd been regulating themselves pretty darn well for more than a century. But in recent months the historical evidence was overshadowed by an ongoing tragi-comedy that climaxed this summer with one FSILG giving prefrosh a higher octane introduction to MIT life than allowed by Massachusetts law and with another facing charges that summer residents assaulted a police officer.
And so we end up with a mess that looks something like this: a freshman dies at an MIT FSILG, raising very difficult and damaging questions about MIT's housing situation. Then, while everyone is supposed to be keeping their heads down, we get a parade of embarrassing, high-profile screw-ups.
Administrators can't tell worried prospective parents and angry politicians and policemen that an incrementalist approach is sufficient. This is a public relations war, and excuses, even if they happen to be good ones, don't play well in Peoria.
Moving freshmen on campus is a decisive response that's easy to understand. MIT is doing its best to make sure that the word gets out to all quarters. The Boston Globe, for instance, somehow managed to get an early copy of the task force's recommendation to move freshmen on campus and wrote a top-ranked editorial praising the decision.
But to call the recommendation an addendum made purely for political reasons, as has been suggested, is to ignore the complexities of the issue. The recommendation to house freshmen in dormitories is, in fact, an organic part of the task force's report.
If we accept the committee's assertion that students don't feel part of a larger MIT community, and if we agree that this is a bad thing, then it makes sense to put in place some long-term acclimation program. Most FSILG pledge programs, which seem a useful basis for comparison, take about a term and fully immerse pledges in the culture and history of their new home. The only feasible way to do that on an Institute-wide scale, it would seem, is to institute mandatory on-campus freshman housing.
It remains to be seen where this all will lead. Both sides have most of their cards on the table, but this is a complex issue and a dynamic situation. The task force report gives us an initial direction. It's up to us to figure out what path we take.