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COLUMN

The After Generation

Eric J. Plosky

Perhaps it is fitting, in a millennial sort of way, that we, the Class of 1999, are the last class at MIT that will remember the Way Things Were -- that is, the way things were before the alcohol-induced death of Scott S. Krueger ’01. Just as December 7, 1941 and November 22, 1963 divide the United States’ cultural history into Before and After periods, so too is September 29, 1997 a divider, a tragic, unforgettable one that will forever remain in MIT’s collective memory.

The atmosphere on campus has since changed dramatically. Distrust and suspicion have replaced the carefree openness that has long been MIT’s unique identifier. Administrators and the ever-vigilant Campus Police keep everything under close guard nowadays, a situation that is not likely to change in the near future. Indeed, the near future -- and the far future -- will likely be shaped largely by the growing conflict between students and administrators.

In the wake of Krueger’s death, President Charles M. Vest announced a series of sweeping reforms intended to transform undergraduate life. Some of these reforms, such as the re-working of the fall residence/orientation period, have already been implemented (at least partially). The single biggest change, however, is yet to come -- the requirement that all freshmen live on campus beginning in the fall of 2001.

To accommodate the increased student population -- currently, hundreds of freshmen live in off-campus fraternities, sororities, and independent living groups -- a new dormitory is scheduled to open in September 2001. Of course, the dorm doesn’t yet exist, and a number of unresolved questions are still floating about. What should the physical design of the dorm be? Should it be a freshmen-only dorm? How will it fit into campus life? How will it change campus life?

Student groups spent much of this year trying to answer those questions by declaring their opposition either to the on-campus housing requirement itself or to its proposed implementation. Each group weighed in with its own opinion, but individual organizations, such as the Undergraduate Association, seemed utterly powerless to effect change, and completely mismanaged their chance to organize something productive out of the mess of protests.

The early babble of discord eventually quieted in favor of more constructive influences. Some students got themselves on the committee to design the new residence; some worked with the administration in other ways. Still, most of the student body displayed nothing more than apathy, and considerable effort was squandered on petty ribbon-wearing campaigns and “Tool-In” publicity protests outside President Charles M. Vest’s office.

Eventually (as I recommended in November), the heads of the five student-government organizations got together to produce a Unified Student Response to the administration’s housing plans. The USR, authored by representatives of the Undergraduate Association, the Dormitory Council, the Interfraternity Council, the Graduate Student Council and the Association of Student Activities, was a single, coherent message from students to administrators. But it wasn’t finished until spring finals, only about two weeks ago -- too late to make any difference.

Still, a strong, promising precedent has been set. Regardless of its content, the USR should be a model for future student communication. The UA, Dormcon, the IFC, the GSC, and the ASA have proved they can work together to produce concrete responses to the administration; in the future, they should build upon their working relationship in order to produce timely documents.

Timing is everything. Depending on the speed at which the new Unified Students can move, it is possible to still exert considerable influence upon the plans the administration has in store for undergraduate housing and student life. It might even be possible to successfully address the foglike apathy that permeates nearly every nook and cranny of the Infinite Corridor. If all goes well, the Unified Student crew will be able to command a seat at the administration’s table; if the situation remains indefinite, they may be able to force a showdown. It’s a terrible thing to have to hope for continued conflict, but such thinking merely underscores the undercurrents of antagonism that now exist on campus. Even the apathetic are antagonistic; they just don’t care to actually do anything about it.

Regardless of what happens, today marks the departure of most of the Old Guard, those ’99-ers who have a more complete historical perspective on the changing campus. Sadly, but understandably, most graduates have displayed little interest in what happens to MIT next fall and beyond. Students are tired of conflict, tired of living under a magnifying glass, and even the “real world”, it seems in some cases, is a preferable alternative.

I am curious to see what happens to MIT. I’ve always had mixed feelings about the place, and the recent brouhaha has added both pluses and minuses to the mix. I will walk proudly across Killian Court to receive my diploma; I can’t imagine having gone anywhere else for what turned out to be four scintillating, effervescent, frenzied, perplexing years. But the place is in turmoil, with no resolution yet visible. It is my hope that students and administrators, in the fall, find a way to work together productively, to eliminate the hostility now present.

If I have the fortune to return to MIT one day wearing the carmine blazer of a half-century alumnus, I will be an anomaly not just because I’ll be a 71-year-old man in a red jacket, but because I’ll represent the mythical Before. May the After generation also be given the opportunity to know an MIT campus at peace.