Parallels Between High-Class Institutions
Once upon a time, a large and well respected school became the focus of national attention because of something that was happening in its students' living groups. Although the underlying trend was an issue in many American institutions, the good reputation of this particular school made it an especial target for embarrassing reports in the press. The school's administrators were torn. They wanted to seem responsive to the problem, but, in order to avoid more embarrassment, they didn't want to mention the problem by name.
Instead, administrators framed the issue as a lack of student community. To develop the missing sense of community, they said they'd have to bar freshmen from small living groups. To students, this decision seemed backward because it destroyed exactly the situation that the school was trying to foster. Students continually created and renewed their own communities around their living groups, and the administrators' proposal would replace those genuine commitments with some pre-packaged and ineffective notion of school spirit. The school, students said, needed to stop being a slave to the media and to recognize the value of student-led communities. Sound familiar?
All of this happened at Cornell University from 1992 to 1997. After several years of discussion and debate, we at Cornell were able to find a consensus that preserved freshman housing choice and student-led residential communities while addressing the underlying issue. At Cornell the ugly issue was race; at MIT it's alcohol. The dynamics are largely the same. At Cornell, many of the small living groups affected by the ban had nothing to do with the complaints of racial self-segregation and, in fact, were some of the most racially balanced and tolerant houses on campus. At MIT, many of the fraternities, sororities and independent living groups affected by the freshman-housing decision have little or nothing to do with alcohol.
At both institutions, small, cohesive living groups provide a place to come home to. Without this support, first-year students can be overwhelmed by institutions that are large and often impersonal. Following the death of Scott S. Krueger '01, MIT began a process of public discussion akin to the one at Cornell. This discussion was short-circuited, though, by an executive decision that was made under great public and legal pressures.
There may be a way for MIT to reverse the internal damage done by this unilateral decision without losing face in the public spotlight. Doing so, though, requires that we not shrink from using the word "alcohol." During the past fifteen years there's been a shift in American society away from 1960's legacy of freedom with responsibility. In the early 1980's, students experimented with alcohol in high school; now, with a higher drinking age and less tolerance of teenage drinking, many have not yet passed through this stage by the time they begin college. In such an environment, the availability of alcohol magnifies all the problems of becoming a young adult.
At MIT, then, the obvious solution seems not to ban freshmen from staying at FSILGs but rather to ban alcohol in FSILGs, and to develop an aggressive program of alcohol education. Such a move would remove the immediate problem and give us all time to replace crisis management with long-term planning and dialogue. It may seem unjust to the majority of MIT students who use alcohol responsibly, but the situation requires some concessions on all sides. Most MIT students will recognize that good times depend much more on good friends than on good beer.