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The RSSC Report and Its Critics Embattled Group Faces Task Guaranteed to Draw Student Ire

Dan McGuire

You have to feel sorry for the folks on the Residence System Steering Committee. The debate on what to do about MIT’s creaky residence system has turned into something of a meat grinder, ripping apart any group or person that tries to propose a solution that significantly disrupts the status quo. Now, people are lining up to flay the RSSC.

That’s a shame, because the committee has done its best to resolve problems not of its own making. Most of the blame for the current situation lies with a host of other groups, some of whom, ironically, are now self-righteously flaying the RSSC. The committee should be given the credit due to a group dutifully trying to clean up someone else’s mess under very difficult circumstances.

The committee’s final report takes a surprisingly conciliatory and thoughtful stance towards some of the big issues on the plate. The Interfraternity Council gets tremendous latitude in outlining what form the new rush will take. The Undergraduate Association and dormitory governments get more sharply defined spheres of influence.

In sum, the committee has made tremendous progress in addressing the peripheral issues involved in moving freshmen on campus. It fails, however, to provide a satisfying answer to the question that first surfaced over a year ago when President Charles M. Vest announced that MIT would house all freshmen on campus beginning in the fall of 2001: how can MIT rely on fraternities, sororities, and independent living groups to house students while at the same time trying to pull some members of the community out of them?

The RSSC proposes to force students into fraternities, sororities, and independent living groups by revoking MIT’s traditional guarantee of four years of housing. If FSILGs don’t make their quota, up to five percent of the sophomore class would be ejected from campus housing, the report says. The implication for freshmen is that if they don’t want to wind up sleeping beneath the Longfellow Bridge, they should join a FSILG.

The RSSC’s approach certainly gets points for audacity, but even the most dispassionate viewer should acknowledge that this approach, while theoretically workable, is terribly unsatisfying. Fear and paranoia will become the driving force in the administration of MIT’s housing system. This is neither a morally sound nor a practically viable solution.

First, it creates a false community in FSILGs. FSILGs will become places for people to live rather than communities based on some sense of shared values. This doesn’t strengthen them; it simply puts them on life support.

Furthermore, there is something distinctly unsavory about the idea of kicking 19-year-olds into Cambridge’s murderous housing market. This, after all, is a problem that MIT has committed itself to solving for graduate students. Consciously pulling the rug out from under the sophomores while working to fix it for everyone else strikes me as a very singular approach.

Finally, there will also be practical ramifications. MIT, despite its position as one of the world’s preeminent research universities, recruits very hard for students -- especially for “Academic Superstars.” Freshmen looking for a safe place to spend their first four years away from home may be deterred by a policy stating that they may only get one year of on-campus housing.

The problem facing the committee, I think, is that it hasn’t been able to find a nice way to reconcile its main goals. The committee was charged with finding a way to keep freshmen on campus while also keeping FSILGs healthy. It’s proven very hard to merge these goals. A lot of smart people -- not only on the RSSC but on its predecessor, the Student Task Force on Life and Learning -- have been working for a long time to make these pieces fit together, and they haven’t found any real winners. The old idea of the “Sophomore Shuffle,” while less terrifying than the RSSC’s current approach, is no more elegant.

It strikes me that any proposal the RSSC submits will be harshly criticized. Given this, it might be worthwhile to perform a far more sweeping reappraisal of MIT’s residence system.

The RSSC has outlined a very compelling educational role for MIT’s residences. It is time for the committee to decide whether this plan can better be carried out in an FSILG-style environment or in a dormitory-style environment, and to begin to dismantle the rejected system.

MIT, for the first time in its history, has the opportunity to develop a revolutionary, comprehensive plan for its housing system. We should use it.