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Communication Critical to Housing

Guest Column Jennifer C. Berk

For effective student government, two things go hand in hand: communication with students and communication with decision-makers, primarily in the administration. This effective process is exemplified by the Undergraduate Association's role in the current discussions about housing.

One of the first actions of the UA Council this year was to authorize a referendum on housing issues. It asked the questions we believe will be most relevant during the coming year: questions about the schedules and structures of fraternity, sorority and independent living group rush and of dormitory rush, about the characteristics of the new dorm, and about the decision to house all freshmen on campus starting in the fall of 2001.

With a publicity campaign involving e-mail, posters, the MIT web page spotlight, and mentions at every meeting we attended, we had a quarter of the undergraduate student body take the time to vote. Participation by a large fraction of the undergraduate student body in the referendum and the study breaks showed the extent of student concern with these issues and our ability to communicate with students to better represent them.

Along with the numbers from the referendum, we collected anecdotes. The UA held a kickoff for the referendum, which was attended by the Dean for Student Life and the Director of the Planning Office. The UA Committee on Housing and Orientation ran study breaks at Alpha Delta Phi, Chi Phi, East Campus, and Next House. We heard not just what students' opinions were, but the reasons behind those opinions. Interested students were also encouraged to join the committee and work on these issues directly. The referendum ended Oct. 25, and complete results, along with our reactions and plans, were released on Oct. 28. They were published in The Tech, placed on the newsstands in Lobby 7, and personally distributed to key members of the administration.

Now that we had some clear reading of student opinion, we proceeded to set UA policy and goals for lobbying. The Undergraduate Association officially disapproves of President Charles M. Vest's decision that all freshmen be housed in residence halls starting in the fall of 2001, and is particularly concerned by the manner in which the decision was made and announced.

Our primary goal at the moment is to preserve dormitory rush. Students are very satisfied with dorm rush in its current form and would not be satisfied with any of the other systems proposed thus far. There is no reason that the decision to mandate all freshmen live on campus should change dorm rush. While knowing at the beginning of the summer who will be your roommate might help you plan how to decorate your room, knowing at the beginning of September that you will not hate your roommate immediately is far more important.

We plan to make the case for dorm rush to the Steering Committee now being formed. It will run the housing system design contest over Independent Activities Period and make a final recommendation for the system to Chancellor Lawrence S. Bacow '72. Dorm rush is a system that works, that has not caused problems, and that students want to preserve, and we will lobby strongly for it as the Steering Committee finalizes its recommendation.

We have also been discussing the new dormitory with those planning it. Students are most interested in kitchens, lounge space, and event space, and we have presented those desires to the Planning Office and to the planning consultants. We have taken part in the continuing suite versus hall and kitchens versus communal dining hall debates. In fact, my co-chair, Matthew L. McGann '00, and I were asked to present these two issues at the Nov. 4 community meeting.

Administrators' participation in our discussions and our participation in theirs demonstrate that the second part of our job is being done well. We must work with the administration in order to affect the housing decisions being made now. It is essential that we create partnerships with other sectors of the MIT community to make undergraduates' opinions heard and undergraduates' ideas reality. With internal communication alone, no thoughts get out. With external communication alone, the wrong ones do. Either way, students and administrators cannot know what the other group is thinking. But with good communication on all fronts, student government can truly be effective.

Jennifer C. Berk '01 is co-chair of the UA Committee on Housing and Orientation.