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A Hackless Hall of Hacks?

Guest Column Aram W. Harrow

"Drinking Culture Charged with Murder, Phi Gamma Delta Indicted, No One Convicted, MIT Students Punished," would be an appropriate headline for the apparent end of the story that began with Fiji's "Animal House Night" last year.

According to Fiji's national, "The chapter is not in operation. There is no chapter to appear in Suffolk County Superior Court to answer the indictments." Fiji's strategy, which has left sheepish prosecutors admitting defeat, was simply not to show up in court for the indictments and defy the powers that be to pick justly whom to pin the blame on.

Unfortunately for the rest of us, punishment is motivated and administered by power, not justice or legal niceties. Fiji's neat evasion of guilt left those looking for "justice" and "answers" with anyone and everyone else to attack: the administration, the MIT student body, and the now tainted fraternity system. The result was disillusioning and sad: The option to live in a fraternity, that, quite simply, has helped so many become happy and successful, will now be fatally compromised by the plan to house all freshmen on campus starting in 2001.

That this will cripple the greatest Greek system in the country is undebatable. Many freshmen who join fraternities couldn't see themselves joining before they tried rush; if they became settled in their dorms, then they would probably never try rushing, especially in the middle of the year, unless seriously unhappy with MIT.

More importantly, MIT fraternities are often residences first and social clubs second. These priorities will reverse in 2001, causing the fraternities that survive to be most like those at other schools, where fraternities don't house freshmen - the ones that binge drink and haze and date rape and do things that MIT fraternities aren't supposed to do. Houses will stop selling supportive environments (what sophomore will need it?) and start selling the nationally recognized idea of a fraternity. The other innocent victims of the castration of the fraternity system are the independent living groups, which are smaller than the Greek system but no less essential to students' happiness and success. ILGs will be decimated like bystanders in a war zone when joining them becomes as uncommon as transferring dorms.

These drawbacks are justified by the purported benefits, a mumbled mixture of half-truths and rationalizations that have never been clearly articulated to the student body. The letters from Dean of Students and Undergraduate Education Rosalind H. Williams and President Charles M. Vest imply that the Presidential Task Force on Student Life and Learning recommended the plan to house all freshman on campus, but this implication is only a crude ruse to hide the fact that the administration can't mention its only true reason. This unmentionable reason is, of course, to save MIT's all-important image among parents of incoming students by taking symbolic action against the fraternity menace and distancing itself from the fraternity system in a desperate attempt not to prevent incidents, but to avoid the blame for them.

If this sounds too paranoid, note that not a single justification was given to students with the announcement right before rush, except the coded references in Williams' letter to "safe, healthy living environments" and "unacceptable behavior." Perhaps the new dorms and fraternities will drink less and the culture of binge drinking will decline for some reason, or perhaps hazing rituals will become safer or less common, or perhaps frats will just die and leave dorms with happy, integrated students and no "Fiji punch." More likely is that every issue that one would expect to be relevant in the debate over such a policy - costs and benefits to students in all possible plans - was kept as far from public discussion as possible to divert attention from its cavernous gaps in logic and the cynical nature of its true justification.

Apologists for the administration come to its defense here by saying that freshman housing on campus really is based on students' welfare and the positive public relations is just a pleasant side effect. In other words, the death of Scott S. Krueger '01 (who plays too primary a role to ignore) caused them to act by showing what was wrong with the system and not by creating unbearable negative publicity. Assuming that Krueger had died because of hazing (specifically, criminal peer pressure to drink beyond his limits), then the administration's earlier actions would prove their true motivations today. Every year, the administration receives dozens of reports of hazing, both anonymous and with offers to testify, which get only yawns for an answer. After Scott Krueger's death, The Harvard Crimson quoted a Fiji depledge as saying that the traditional "Animal House Night" existed nearly unchanged in prior years.

Yet, the administration did nothing to dispel the illusion that life-threatening hazing didn't exist at MIT. It pretended that hazing didn't exist as long as it could until the inevitable happened. Then it feigned shock and dismay at the state of fraternities and declared them unfit for freshmen. From the beginning it has been driven by cowardice: first of admitting exceptions to their ideal fraternity system, then of defending the vast majority of legitimate fraternities against the tabloids.

In the end, we can vote with flowers, pennies and Undergraduate Association polls but never ballots. The unfortunate reality is that the administration knows when it can afford to listen to student opinion and when it can afford to ignore it. If only incoming MIT students could avoid their share of Fiji's punishment just by skipping a trial.

Aram W. Harrow is a member of the class of 2001.