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The Housing Protest Schism

Dan McGuire

The administration’s plan to house freshmen on campus is back in the news. The instigator of the latest phase of this conflict was, of course, the Boston Globe’s shoddily written editorial on MIT’s fraternities. The city’s paper of record took a break from griping about the delay in the Massachusetts budget to dismiss all of MIT’s fraternities as slums inhabited by selfish, slow-thinking party animals.

Student government and the administration mobilized to try to contain the issue. Undergraduate Association President Matthew McGann ’00, in a remarkable display of statesmanship, ventured over to the Globe and met with the editorial writer. He walked away with an offer to write a response. President Charles M. Vest broke a high-level appointment to argue his case before the Globe’s senior editors.

But not all of the responses were as productive, or as polite. Long-dormant groups took the chance to harness the outrage generated by the Globe’s editorial to renew their fight to overturn Vest’s decision to house freshmen on campus. They staged a sit-in. “Chuck Vest” t-shirts, a revolutionary call masquerading as a pun, were available in abundance.

The events of last week were a study in contrasts. Two different forms of activism were on display, and their results were plainly visible to the MIT community. McGann, pragmatically, picked a fight that he could win. He then fought it from within the system and walked away victorious, gaining plaudits from concerned community members.

The sit-in folks picked a fight that was lost a year ago -- a loss that had been compounded in recent weeks by a parade of embarrassing, high-profile screw-ups. They fought this battle by staging an aggressive, hostile protest and by damning, in emotion-choked voices, the man capable of making a compromise possible. Very little came of this protest. A couple of administrators stopped by and made friendly noises, but that was about it.

But there is more to this protest than meets the eye. What we are witnessing here is a real schism in the protest movement. Like many other mature opposition groups, the anti-housing moment is dividing itself up into pragmatists, who want to get the best deal possible under the circumstances, and the True Believers, who want victory at any cost.

The problem, as I see it, is that the True Believers have yet to come up with anything approaching a viable rallying cry. “Ignoring the will of the students” seems to be the current rallying cry. It sounds pretty good on its own and is infinitely better than “I don’t want my house to change.” However, it conceals a tremendous conceit.

It assumes, first of all, that the student body is monolithic. Additionally, it assumes that those protesting against the housing decision are the sole guardians of truth and morality. Both of these ideas are patently false. The student body is composed of a lot of different groups who want a lot of different things. The Tech, for instance, has been behind Vest’s decision from the beginning. The UA and IFC, in many respects, have also fallen into line. Dormitory residents have generally not been unsupportive.

Additionally, what we’ve seen here is that morality and truth are relative things. Multiple sets of people working from the same set of information can come to vastly different conclusions. That is why members of the faculty, many of whom have a better sense of MIT culture than the students because they’ve been here longer, are cheering the decision. So are many students concerned by the parade of bad press that the Institute has gotten. They both have different priorities from the protesters. That doesn’t mean their priorities are invalid.

One might be tempted, despite the distastefulness of this all, to simply dismiss the protesters as a fringe group. That would be unwise.

MIT Choice has a remarkably effective publicity machine. The sit-in, as a protest action, is designed to attract attention from media and the student body. And it seems to have worked. Interest in the group is rising and the good work being done by others is being pushed aside.

In addition, the group has something of a point, at least in terms of their criticism of the decision-making process. Even the most enthusiastic proponent of the administration will admit that most decisions have been made unilaterally.

The argument has been made that drastic times call for drastic actions. In this case, I think that the administration has made the best decision possible under the circumstances.

But nobody should be surprised when unilateral decisions prove unpopular. And this is probably healthy. It deters people from handing down unilateral decisions unless the stakes are tremendously high.