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Keep Freedom and Choice In Housing System

Guest Column
Matthew L. McGann

Two weeks ago, I addressed the Class of 2003 at the President’s Convocation in Kresge Auditorium. I meandered through a variety of topics, ranging from Athena accounts to US News & World Report. One of the points I stressed to the incoming freshmen was how MIT students are treated like adults and how residence selection was a great example of that.

The trend of late with America’s colleges and universities has been a backing away from student freedoms and a regression towards a more in loco parentis role. MIT has been no exception. MIT has taken hard-line stances on parties and alcohol use. If the RSSC have their way, starting in 2001, freshmen will be unable to choose where they live in any personal way.

We’ve known for a year that the administration intends to not allow freshmen to live in our Fraternity, Sorority, and Independent Living Group system beginning with the Class of 2005. But it came as a surprise Tuesday when the Residence System Steering Committee recommended “that freshmen establish their residence hall preferences by July 1 in the summer preceding their arrival.” In other words, send out a book, and let people pick the prettiest dorm.

I’ve always admired that MIT allows its students to choose a living group based on the people who live there, as opposed to on the structure itself. Whether or not a dorm has a roofdeck isn’t going to amount to a hill of beans if you can’t get along with your housemates.

I understand the Committee’s desire to remove the focus of Orientation from residence selection. As a former Orientation Coordinator, I know all too well the constraints that rush places on the Institute’s other goals for welcoming incoming students to campus. However, eliminating a dorm rush is not the only implementation of President Vest’s freshmen on campus decree. An excellent solution would be to have a more low-key residence hall selection hand-in-hand with a welcome to the Institute. Several of our peer institutions employ this strategy quite successfully; one of those institutions was recently deemed “number one” in a non-scientific study by a national news magazine.

I’m also concerned that MIT doesn’t trust its students to make reasonable decisions in joining student organizations. Tuesday’s report would restrict incoming students from becoming a member of a fraternity or sorority until after they have spent more than two months on campus. No other student groups on campus have restrictions like this placed upon them. The thought of freshmen not being involved with the Black Students Union, Tech Catholic Community or GAMIT seems silly; why, then, restrict membership in other organizations?

Fraternities and sororities provide an important support structure for freshmen. The benefits that these organizations provide, including service to the greater community, a greater affiliation with alumni, and opportunities for leadership and self-governance, are things that the Institute should be promoting as per the recommendations of the Task Force on Student Life and Learning.

The allegedly beer-guzzling fraternities are not the only participants in the FSILG system. MIT’s independent living groups are beyond reproach, and few in the administration criticize sorority rush when they argue passionately against “rush.” MIT’s sororities provide a strong support network for a significant portion of female students. What this recommendation would do is to throw the baby out with the bathwater; sororities hardly affect Vest’s freshmen on campus ruling, but would be forced to abide by rules that only hurt freshmen.

In fact, these same arguments can be made for membership -- not residential membership, mind you -- in all FSILGs. While it may arguably be in the Institute’s best interest to not allow freshmen to live in an FSILG, certainly joining one assists in MIT’s goal of building community. Title XIII of the Higher Education Act of 1998 declares that “students should not be excluded... from participation in, [nor] be denied the benefits from... any education program, activity or division.”

MIT chartered the RSSC to devise a better residence system, not a different one just for the sake of change. Removing freedom and choice from the system was not part of the deal.

Matthew L. McGann ’00 is President of the Undergraduate Association.