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The Limitations of Orange Ribbons

Eric J. Plosky

As Whoopi Goldberg joked when she hosted the Academy Awards a few years ago, there's a colored ribbon for every issue under the sun. Now, proving that even MIT is susceptible to popular cultural trends, a new campus group known as the Orange Ribbon Campaign has sprung up, handing out printed cards and ribbons - orange ones - to communicate its protest message.

What message? At first glance, the Orange Ribbon Campaign apparently exists to protest President Charles M. Vest's decision to house all freshmen on campus beginning in 2001. If one actually reads their information card, though, one learns that the orange ribbon in fact "stands for our anger at administrative condescension toward MIT's students," and also "for our belief that the administration must stop taking its lead from the press" - a clear reference to the recent flurry of MIT plans induced by last year's tragic death of Scott S. Krueger '01.

It is refreshing to see some form of student protest taking place on campus; it certainly marks a change from the usual, frustrating apathy. But the organizers of the Orange Ribbon Campaign, while displaying admirable initiative and determination, clearly do not understand the current planning situation on campus. Though a fine idea in theory, their protest movement is shortsighted, counterproductive, and ill-advised. However, by addressing three main problem areas, the Orange Ribbon Campaign may be able to overcome its own ineffectiveness, and may actually be able to influence future planning.

First, it is important to remember the cause of the administration's unusual activity over the past year - the Krueger tragedy. In response to the resultant political frenzy, MIT has hurried forward with an assortment of short-term plans, including a controversial new dormitory. It does not matter that many of those plans are, at best, hasty - the surrounding political situation required an emergency response on MIT's part. The Orange Ribbon Campaign would have us believe that MIT could simply ignore the political necessity of an immediate crisis response - "the administration must stop taking its lead from the press." In actuality, there is no way the administration would or could have ignored the media pressure resulting from the Krueger incident. To have done so would have meant severe, immediate consequences for MIT; for one, the Institute would have acquired an unshakable public stigma that would have greatly hampered both its teaching and research. Even in spite of the administration's attempts to fend this off, some argue that MIT has indeed been stigmatized.

The Orange Ribbon Campaign believes that MIT's teaching and research are in even greater danger if the administration continues to cater its plans to the media. Over the long term, argue campaigners, continued crisis planning by the administration will lead to the "homogenization" of MIT and the destruction of its "unique identity." I am no fan of crisis planning; I consider myself quick to criticize inferior or ill-thought-out plans. But it is foolish to deny the need for crisis planning in certain situations, such as the Krueger incident, that require a quick response. Instead, planners and protesters alike should work to ensure that crisis-based short-term planning does not replace level-headed long-term planning.

The second problem with the Orange Ribbon Campaign is its antagonistic, belligerent stance toward the administration. Adopting such a position may help add to the group's membership; apathetic students are often attracted to loud, militant protest groups. But creating antagonism is a poor strategy overall; it lessens credibility, leaves little maneuvering room, and makes cooperation and meaningful participation difficult. Rather than foster defiance and contempt, the Orange Ribbon Campaign would do better to establish a productive dialogue with the administration.

Because of ongoing media scrutiny, MIT is anxious to avoid continued student unrest. The Orange Ribbon Campaign can use this fact to its advantage by identifying issues on which the administration is willing to compromise. It is pointless to seek negotiations on issues that have already been decided, such as the 2001 freshman housing resolution. But if the Orange Ribbon group, or any other protest group, can stomach throwing its support to the administration on freshman housing, they may just find administrators willing to bend on some of the matters yet to be decided, such as dorm rush, substance-free housing, and the configuration of the new dormitory. A conflict-seeking protest group, a simple "Anti-X Campaign," is seldom as effective as a clever group that picks its battles wisely and compromises intelligently.

Finally, whatever the Orange Ribbon Campaign's message, it is largely being lost in the current cacophony of opinions, arguments and counter-arguments. I have previously written that the most serious problem with current planning is the lack of clear communication between the administration, student groups, and the student body; I have also provided a set of recommendations in order to achieve clearer communication. Yet the organizers of the Orange Ribbon Campaign seem not to have taken my suggestions. Instead of seeking solidarity among students in order to form one loud chorus of protest, the Orange Ribbon people are simply adding another dissonant voice to the fray, making other groups, as well as themselves, even more difficult to hear. In order to get anything done at all, students would do well to remember that union is far more important than recognition - otherwise the administration won't hear and won't respond (but will still claim to care).

If the Orange Ribbon Campaign really wants to eliminate "administrative condescension toward students," protesters have to work with the administration, not against it. Campaigners must accept the necessity of short-term crisis planning in Krueger-like situations, but should rail against continued crisis planning over the long run. They should pick their battles wisely and compromise strategically, avoiding issues that have been closed. And most importantly, protesters should recognize the necessity of clear communication - if nobody can hear or understand, nothing will happen. The Orange Ribbon Campaign hasn't quite realized all of this yet, but if it reconsiders its platform and attitude, students may finally have the means at their disposal to meaningfully influence MIT planning.