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The True Process of Housing Change

Guest Column
Peter A. Shulman

I am not an “us versus them” person. I do not feel “against” the MIT administration. However, I am against unilateral decisions, decisions justified for political and not actual reasons -- and, foremost, I am against the installation of false hopes into this student body. For each of these topics, I could compose an essay, but for now, please allow me to address just the last one.

Over the past ten years, the MIT administration provided students with the impression that in regards to housing, their views would be considered. Yet an examination of the history of MIT’s efforts to bring freshmen to campus clearly indicates that the administration’s decision was immutable from the outset.

What I seek is an admission from the administration that nothing students would or could have ever done over the past ten years, despite all the political rhetoric, would ever change a decision already made.

That this issue stretches back ten years refers to a proposal made in 1989 by the Freshman Housing Committee (FHC), appointed by then Provost John M. Deutch ’61. The FHC proposal suggested that at some point in the near future, all freshmen live on campus, and further advocated dismembering the R/O system (keeping just the “O”) and controlling dorm assignments.

After the report, students responded en masse against the proposal. Faculty rallied behind the student cause. The issue crept onto the back burner until it was revived two years later for further consideration. Upon its return, students and faculty alike opposed the proposal and negotiated with the administration to hold off any implementation. But Director of Planning O. Robert Simha MCP ’57 stated quite clearly in 1991 that within ten years, the system had to change.

He knew it then. The rest of the MIT administration knew it then -- yet illusions of control were, and still are, dangled before the MIT student communities.

Earlier this week, the MIT Strategic Advisory Committee (SAC) unveiled its “Unified Proposal for the MIT Residence System.” As has long been noted, the Committee (composed of members of the Undergraduate Association, Dormitory Council, and Interfraternity Council) stated how MIT imposed “the rigid constraint that freshmen not be allowed to live in independent living groups.” The mere creation of this committee by Chancellor Lawrence S. Bacow ’72 with “constraints” demonstrates the degree to which the powers that be wish students to think they possess some measure of control, when in fact all major and significant changes remain decided and moot.

Why give MIT students that committee in the first place? Clearly, to impart the illusion of control and influence, when in fact neither exist. Granting some limited influence on the details provides the sense that the administration values the opinions of MIT students, when in fact, these details matter not, so long as students arrive and remain within the strict and watchful eye of those in control.

What I cannot stress enough is that moving freshmen to campus is no longer the issue. For the purposes of this column, I place my personal opinions regarding that issue aside. Instead, I want to express my concern that MIT purports to take student suggestions into account, when in fact the freshmen-housing decision was made in 1989, and was to be implemented when the opportunity made itself available. Although a tragic misfortune for the MIT community two years ago, the death of Scott S. Krueger ’01 provided the appropriate catalyst to prompt action, as most opposition to change from concerned parents (a financial backbone of the Institute) could now be manipulated into support.

What alarms me as a student is that although students were promised repeatedly that they would have input into any housing changes (most recently through the SAC report), only minor details have been allowed into student hands.

I care most that students at MIT have the best possible four-year experience. I mean “experience” educationally, socially, and all shades and overlap in between. Clearly, if students passively accept the administration’s assertion that there is no discussion on the freshmen-on-campus issue, but that we do have a say in how that plan is implemented (where they live, when they can affiliate, etc.), then we should commend the SAC on its “best job with what we’ve been given” proposal.

But how can a student accept in good conscience that he or she was lied to from the beginning, and that despite an 87 percent disagreement with the proposed changes and promises from the administration that students would possess a meaningful voice in the process, given that it was decided in 1989 that freshmen would someday live on campus?

While I do not claim that the existing status quo of housing choice meets the needs of all of MIT, I believe that less drastic means exist to modify, rather than mutilate, the decision process. What I assert is that MIT’s administration has rejected those measures not because they won’t improve the system, but because improving the social experience of MIT undergrads is not their reason for the change.

Well, I have had enough. Please tell the students the truth: freshmen were, and are now, destined to live on campus, despite an overwhelming opposition by the student body. In five years, the students here in 1999 who care will have graduated. Incoming freshmen will have no idea about the freedom they just lost. And the MIT administration, which has been working for ten years to enact this change, will be sitting on the top, saving themselves from the humiliation of negative national publicity and gloating at their successful change as if it were in the best interests of the students it hurts and offends the most.

Peter A. Shulman is a member of the Class of 2001.