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Orange Ribbons for a Better Institute

Guest Column Jeremy H. Brown

Rush '98 was designed by a committee with no student members, but that's not the point. President Vest's decree that as of 2001 freshmen will be forced to live in dormitories overrode a painfully achieved consensus between students and faculty, but that's not the point. Dorm Rush is probably going away too, but that's not the point. If you throw a party, you have to hire so many Campus Police that even they grumble because it's a waste of their time, but that's not the point. If you call for medical help for your drunken friend, he's going to get slapped with the alcohol policy, but that's not the point either.

I happen to think that all these things are bad news. Although you may not mind some of the policies, I suspect that you agree with me on a bunch of them, and you're probably none too fond of the way any of them came into being. There's also a good chance you can list off another half dozen problem points I didn't think of.

So even though you and I don't agree on each and every specific point, we almost certainly agree on the overarching problem - the MIT administration is piece-by-piece screwing up MIT. They're screwing up by setting policies to treat MIT undergraduates as infants, by caving in to pressure from the media, and by concerning themselves more with avoiding litigation than with the real mission of education. In the case of medical transport, they are even jeopardizing basic safety, since no person should ever have to worry that by calling for help, he or she is getting a friend or himself or herself in trouble. Policy after policy is being passed in direct defiance of clearly stated student wishes, and most of these policies are stinkers.

Students try, over and over, to work with the administration, with faculty, with whomever is working to change some aspect of MIT. But in spite of all that - town meetings and luncheons, Undergraduate Association slime and Graduate Student Council whines, good-faith agreements and a slap on the back - students are ignored when the final decision comes down from on high with stunning, agonizing, and ultimately numbing regularity.

"Working within the system" has bought us nothing. "Compromising strategically" has bought us nothing. And certainly apathy has bought us nothing. It's time for some antagonism, some ire, some anger. It's time to show the administration that we students care about MIT, that all our kvetching aside, we love this place and our experiences here, and we hate what we see the administration doing to MIT and the experiences to be had by the next wave of MIT students.

And that, to me, is the point of the Orange Ribbon campaign. An orange ribbon is a token of anti-apathy. It is a way to say "I'm here. I care. I'm angry about the mismanagement of MIT." It doesn't interrupt lectures, disrupt meetings, or take hours away from classes, de-stressing, or sleep. But if my experiences wearing a ribbon around campus are representative, it does get attention and provoke discussion from students, faculty, and staff.

Now, I'm not claiming that orange ribbons are a panacea; a ribbon is just a symbol. Symbols can be powerful things, however, and I see the orange ribbon having the potential for power in two ways. First, there is the simple function of solidarity. For me, seeing another ribbon-wearer is truly uplifting; it shows me that I'm not alone in experiencing, and protesting, the incredible spate of awful policies and the administration's treatment of MIT students as infants. The orange ribbon can serve as a rallying point, a way for concerned people - students, faculty, even administrators - to find one another to talk about the problems and the solutions.

Second, there is the function of increasing awareness. By inspiring discussion and questions, the ribbons will cause people from all parts of the Institute to consider the situation we the MIT community are in, how we got here, and where we are going. We don't all have to agree on everything, or anything, but we need to figure out what issues are on the table. One of the primary issues is the sense that the administration is astray; presented with the growing number of ribbons worn (and the number is growing, even professors are wearing them), hopefully individual administrators will become aware that this sense is not restricted to a few fringe fanatics among the students, but is a widely held belief that they must address if they honestly desire a healthy and coherent MIT community.

In closing, I want to issue one important caveat. I've spoken of the administration as a monolithic block making dreadful decision after dreadful decision, when really the administration is composed of a large number of individuals. A great many administrators are good guys who care very much about doing the right thing for the students and the Institute as a whole - I hope they know who they are, and understand that student anger is not directed at them personally.

It's just that - you know how a few idiot students can make the whole lot of us look like binge-drinking fools? Well, there are a few binge policy-making administrators, and those are the ones we really have to wake up, be it with orange ribbons, petitions, alumni donation withholding, or any other scheme, if the future of MIT is actually to improve.

Jeremy H. Brown G is one of the coordinators of the orange ribbon campaign.