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Dwelling on the Past

Dan McGuire

Amidst all of the fanfare that it can muster, the Undergraduate Association is raising its tattered tartans and marching off to war. The target this time around is the administration's housing policies.

The recent debate over the design of the new dorm has rekindled some interest in the Institute's housing policies among students. The UA has apparently decided that this debate gives it the opening it needs to launch an entirely new attack on the administration-endorsed plan to house all freshmen on campus starting in 2001.

The UA's secret weapon is the results of a referendum, released last week, which indicate, surprisingly enough, that the student body overwhelmingly thinks that housing freshmen on campus is a bad idea. The UA has relentlessly pushed these figures in public and in private, largely to the detriment of the other questions on the ballot. The UA is making it relatively clear that whatever political muscle and moral authority it can muster will be spent on forcing the administration to withdraw its plan to house freshmen on campus.

There's an old saying that goes along the lines of "it's no use closing the barn door after the horse has run away." Restoring the old residence and orientation system is no longer possible.

MIT publicly committed to housing freshmen on campus in August. It has incorporated the decision into the document that will be a roadmap for MIT's development over the next 50 years. The Boston Globe wrote an editorial about it. The district attorney's office dropped the case against Fiji, citing the policy as its lone concrete achievement.

Backing down now would be an astonishingly stupid move on MIT's part. They have already taken their knocks from the alumni and the fraternities, sororities, and independent living group. They have managed to garner some level of good will from the city, the police, and the DA's office. They were gifted with a district attorney who equated "novel interpretation of the law" with "good interpretation of the law" and who subsequently spectacularly flubbed the case against Fiji. Now is not the time to backpedal. Certainly not when the attackers are two dozen student government members with a marginal mandate who have arrived on the scene nearly a year late.

This leaves the UA stuck defending the remainder of its data, namely the questions regarding the timing and structure of rush and the structure and layout of the new dormitory. The results, to be perfectly frank, are disappointing. The questions were valid, but the responses are meaningless.

Most notably, a weighted average of the students' responses reveals that the average student both wants the new dormitory to be divided both into houses and entries (3.13 on a scale of 0 to 5) and to remain undivided (2.95). One could call this a statistical dead heat (albeit a silly one).

Students also revealed that they strongly wanted the new dorm to contain both a dining hall (3.86) and kitchen facilities (4.22). Dorm dining halls cannot survive economically if students do a lot of cooking in their rooms or lounges. That's just common sense.

In one of its most interesting and provocative sections, the survey sought student opinions on housing faculty and graduate students in the same building as undergraduates. Students again, however, sent mixed signals - the polling numbers reveal a virtual dead heat among those supporting and opposing the proposals.

So the question becomes what to do now. The UA has proved itself something of a past master at tilting at windmills (remember the pedestrian bridge over Memorial Drive?). It looks very likely that it will proceed along this path yet again and challenge the administration on the housing issue. It certainly can't wave around its survey numbers on housing and expect to be listened to.

But before it wanders off into obscurity, let me offer an alternative viewpoint. The student government is running on a false assumption: It thinks that its duty is to carry the concerns of the student body to the administration. That's no longer sufficient; things are changing far too quickly for that.

The UA needs to lead this debate and this discussion. People were chosen for leadership positions because the majority of undergraduates approved of their views. These leaders must now go out and do what they think is right. If this means departing from their constituent's immediate concerns to get some greater, long term benefit, so be it. But this is what must be done. Slamming a survey down on some deans will accomplish nothing.

But if the survey taught us anything, it was that the students think that housing is an important issue. If the UA manages to get something out of the administration, it will gain a new lease on life. If it can't address its constituents' most serious concern, people will begin to wonder whether the UA is worth having.