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Will Administrators Ever Learn?

Daniel C. Stevenson

Last week, an MIT policy committee released a plan and schedule for next year's freshman orientation. Gone are the names Residence and Orientation and R/O. Events such as Killian Kick-off, Thursday Night Dinners, and Project Move Off Your Assumptions, long staples of R/O for MIT students, are no more. They will be replaced by new programs, including a Residence Midway and Johnson Games. Various rules regarding rush and contacting freshmen have also been revised, making for a very significant set of policy and procedural changes for freshman orientation.

The scope of these changes is certainly refreshing. Students, administrators, and faculty from all areas have been lobbying for revisions to the process for years. Orientation is a critical time of renewal for the entire Institute, with the influx of new students that follows the preceding year's Commencement and exodus of graduating students. For the freshman, the orientation period is their first, hurried glimpse into as much of MIT as we can fit into two weeks. For the upperclassmen, administrators, and faculty it is our chance to get across a broad, unified message about what MIT is to a semi-captive audience. To dormitories, independent living groups, and student activities, freshman orientation is especially critical for drawing in new people. Clearly, it is the most critical part of the Institute's calendar for a very large portion of the community.

With all the importance attached to the orientation period by so many, it would seem only logical for any changes, especially the major changes announced last week, to come after months of open, community-wide discussion and dialogue led by a committee or committees of concerned administrators, faculty, and, most of all, students. It certainly seemed like we were heading for such a group after major attention turned to revamping R/O following the death of Scott S. Krueger 01 last year. Early last fall, President Charles M. Vest and others called for a broad-based, introspective dialogue. Vest said that the issues surrounding Krueger's death had "forced me to think of the student perspective."

Never mind that the introspective dialogue initially assigned to October got extended through November, December, and January, apparently because the deans were surprised at such scheduling snafus as Thanksgiving and finals. Never mind that the faculty floated out-of-this-world proposals for revamping freshman orientation. Never mind, because a living, breathing "advisory" committee was formed in early November, composed of nearly equal parts students and non-students. Now it seemed like progress would indeed be made -a broad-based committee was charged with proposing major changes to the freshman orientation period. The outlook only improved when that committee released its final recommendations just one month later. Other good things were happening along the way, too the faculty and administration held open meetings; students organized activities and events; and the President's Office made a Web site to gather student, alumni, and parent input.

In their report released at the beginning of December, the advisory committee found that there was "a fundamentally different point of view between the faculty and the students with respect to what is broken in the present system of introducing freshmen to campus." That finding was not terribly earth-shattering for students, but was important nonetheless for the committee to recognize. Their report went on to propose that any meaningful change include a sincere effort by both faculty and students to agree on goals and work together, with compromises from both sides.

Really on a roll now, the committee made another good recommendation the appointment of a policy committee, composed of faculty, administrators, and students, that would immediately begin planning freshman orientation for 1998. It almost seemed like re-engineering in fast-motion the design team makes proposals, then the implementation teams acts on them. So far, so good.

Discussion was virtually nil over IAP, but that was not necessarily a concern, since it was reasonable to expect the announcement of the policy committee around the beginning of the spring term. Maybe the committee would hold "town meetings" and living group discussions through February, and release a report in March. Unfortunately, that was not to be. The broad-based advisory committee proved much too good to be true, as the Dean's Office and other administrators reverted to their traditional methodology of "Ready! Fire! Aim!" when it comes to making major decisions that affect student life.

The promises of broad, introspective dialogue and community-wide participation in the decision-making process disappeared into thin air last week when the changes to freshman orientation, now policy rather than recommendations, were announced. The group that formed them was composed entirely of faculty and administrators. The only student participation happened when one student sat in on one of the committee's meetings. The argument for including student opinion in decisions affecting students is clearly self-evident, but either the faculty and administrators do not share this logic, or, more likely, have decided to circumvent student opinion and impose their own plans.

Dean of Students Kip V. Hodges, a former member of the faculty, said that students were left off the committee as part of a conscious effort to have faculty and deans ponder what they want students to get out of orientation. I hope to god he wasn't serious. A conscious effort to leave students out? Well, at least he's being honest - student opinion doesn't matter, because the faculty and deans know what is best without asking.

Don't get me wrong: I think it's perfectly fine for the faculty and deans to get together and agree on what they think students should get out of freshman orientation. But, when that same group starts enacting policy based on those discussions, they have gone completely overboard. The administration and faculty have totally lost whatever goodwill they were cultivating with students about the decision-making process involving freshman orientation. Leaders in living groups and student government will still have to act in good faith on our behalf in discussions with the administration, but the actions of last week have made it clear that they might as well be talking to nobody.

One might expect students, with their four-year turnover cycle, to partially forget the past history of problems with administrative decisions made without student input that greatly affected students. But the faculty and administrators, some of whom have been at the Institute for decades, surely do not forget the fiascos of the past decade and the strident, tirelessly repeated calls for greater student input.

This year's seniors and a few graduate students are probably the only students left who remember the ill-fated Strategic Housing Planning Committee of 1994, a semi-secret group of administrators who decided, without any student input, to move all undergraduate students out of East Campus dormitories, possibly to Ashdown or other West Campus dormitories. Students protested, organized, and held meetings, and obviously the plan wasn't implemented. Those students learned their lesson, and were very watchful as the plans for new projects, such as the Senior House renovations and the new graduate dormitory, got underway. Some of the people who served on the SHPC were also on this year's advisory committee, and they appeared to have taken to heart the recommendations from three years ago when they suggested including students in any policy-making group. However, that hindsight stopped at the advisory committee, and the administrators and deans who came up with the policies announced last week either forgot or disregarded what students had clearly asked for in the past.

Now, students must again follow the lead of their predecessors. Students and student leaders should organize and lobby administrators and faculty. Despite the policy announcement last week, there is still a chance to change freshman orientation, but students need to act quickly. I've heard that the deans will make some concessions and listen to some student opinion in coming days, but announcing the policy first and then getting input is just not how things should be done.

After countless previous examples of student input getting sidetracked or ignored, to the detriment of the Institute, we thought they would learn. After the residence relocation fiasco in 1994, we thought they would learn. And now, we have to wait until another issue of critical importance to students comes before the Institute to see if the faculty and administrators have finally learned the importance of active student participation and the folly in thwarting or ignoring such participation.

Daniel C. Stevenson is a former Editor in Chief of The Tech.