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Wise Planning

Guest Column Eric J. Plosky

"Policy makers are well aware that an uninformed public can be swayed by uninformed emotion that can stop a foreign policy dead in its tracks. The 1985 bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon is a perfect example. It caused a precipitous U.S. pullout from Lebanon - an outcome that ran contrary to the long-run interests of the United States." ["The Shrinking of Foreign News," Boston Globe editorial, Nov. 15]

Short-term planning is almost always disastrous when it takes place in response to political emergencies. During crisis situations like the Lebanon incident mentioned above, emotions dominate logic. Uninformed citizens clamor for action without considering the long-term consequences of responding too hastily. As a result, short-term solutions are likely to cause needless headaches over the long run - in campus planning as much as in foreign policy.

In an ideal world, MIT should attempt to minimize the influence of short-term politics on its planning process. In reality, MIT is still at the center of a political frenzy created by the tragedy of Scott S. Krueger '01. Many of the plans the administration has announced since then are specific, short-term responses to media scrutiny. "With these plans," declares MIT, "we are addressing the factors that led or contributed to Krueger's death." Most prominent among these recent short-term plans is the proposed new undergraduate dormitory, scheduled to open in fall 2001. Although there has long been a need for more undergraduate housing, the current frantic push for a new dorm is clearly, and solely, a result of the Krueger incident.

MIT should not use its newfound political motivations as a pretext for rushing through hastily-considered short-term projects that may not be in the Institute's long-term interest. Rather, the administration should keep a level head, and should temper its momentary planning energy with a healthy dose of reason. If MIT wants to move not just quickly but productively with its new Krueger-induced plans, administrators would do themselves a favor to keep in mind several tenets of proper short-term planning.

The first such tenet is that short-term plans are best when small and implemented slowly. Sweeping changes confuse and overwhelm over too short a period of time; upheaval threatens stability and usually produces unrest (or revolution). For instance, it would be absurd to overhaul radically the dormitory living system by next year; the administration's clamor to do so makes sense only as a political expedient, not as a reasonable long-term plan.

There are any number of smaller, more experimental steps to try before scrapping well-established procedures. Dormitory rush must be eliminated? Try small changes first - make rush longer even than this year's, or get more dorm information to pre-frosh during the summer, or change the way temporary rooms are assigned. Remember, rush was already altered substantially for this year; making too many big changes in such a short period of time will inevitably make things worse.

It is better to implement change on an incremental basis, and to respond to individual issues with step-by-step change, not sudden, wholesale "reform." The Interfraternity Council wants to try substance-free housing, which is certainly an idea worthy of experimentation. But why impose the experiment on a whole dormitory? The logical starting place is a hall or entry within a dorm - a compact individual community. Since some entries and halls already have chosen, themselves, to be "substance free," why not seek to designate one or some of them as official substance-free housing? Then, if that works, perhaps declaring a whole dorm substance-free would be the next step.

An added bonus (and the third tenet of short-term planning): small, incrementally implemented short-term plans are usually flexible and even reversible. The recent expansion of Safe Ride service to include express runs over the Harvard Bridge is an excellent example of a small-scale, incrementally implemented, flexible, reversible short-term plan. If the express runs work out, they will likely be made permanent, and service could continue to expand. If the express runs fail, they will be discontinued with little fuss or muss; the well-established core Safe Ride service will be unaffected. Between success and failure, there is plenty of room to experiment, since the plans are flexible. Should the frequency of service be changed? The operating hours? The exact route? There are a variety of possibilities, and Safe Ride should continue to experiment, within reason.

We must recognize, of course, that MIT is and has been flexible with its Safe Ride plans only because there is no immediate controversy surrounding Safe Ride. If the administration had applied its current Krueger-induced planning mentality to Safe Ride, the results would have been disastrous. Suppose a student's death were somehow associated with Safe Ride. The administration would probably eliminate the service altogether. Alternatively, depending on the circumstances, administrators might prohibit walking or cycling on campus and require students to travel by Safe Ride at all times. Either way, people would complain, and rightly so.

Whenever a situation demands a crisis response, there is usually a mad rush to come up with a quick, definitive fix, as in Lebanon in 1985 or at MIT in 1998. The best response, however, is almost never to rush through large-scale, hastily-conceived plans. Good planning results from levelheadedness and long-term thinking, not from a series of crisis responses predicated on uninformed emotion. When short-term planning is called for, it should be small-scale and implemented as incrementally as possible, and influenced as little as possible by the uninformed frenzy that often follows crises.

Eric J. Plosky is a member of the class of 1999 majoring in Urban Studies and Planning.