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MIT's Housing Failures

Dan McGuire

The Undergraduate Association and the Interfraternity Council inaugurated the beginning of the new term by tacitly acknowledging the collapse of the student government's role in the ongoing debate about MIT's housing system. The move was not unexpected, but depressing nonetheless.

Last fall, Chancellor Lawrence S. Bacow '72 announced that MIT would hold a public contest to determine the future form of MIT's undergraduate residence system. MIT made almost no pretense of going through the bodies that ostensibly represent students: the IFC, Dormitory Council, and the UA. Members of the UA and the IFC, instead of trying to create a more active role for their organizations in the design process, instead jumped ship and formed teams to tackle the problem as freelancers.

The administrators' decision to go to the students directly rather than work with the student government is easy to decipher. In past meetings, the UA, the IFC, and Dormcon have proven themselves to be singularly ineffective. The IFC effort opposing Vest's decision has petered out. The UA decided to bring out the big guns months after the issue had already been decided and has yet to develop a coherent plan on where it wants to go after getting back the results of the referendum it held in the fall. Dormcon, as always, is absent. So why should busy administrators take time out to deal with groups that can't offer any particularly compelling ideas or promise to whip their constituents into line if a sufficiently sweet compromise solution is offered?

The reps' figuring is similarly easy to read. Early on, they managed to create noisy, undirected student protests. But nothing came of them, and the average student decided that his or her time would be better spent elsewhere. The most recent joint IFC-UA protest consisted of one rep thrusting orange ribbons at passing students while a few other politicos hung out near a table holding hot cocoa to refresh the crowd that never materialized.

The student government members have decided that their organizations are politically bankrupt. The best thing to do, they figure, is to simply go through the motions of governance while trying to effect real change on the side by forming design teams. We may well be the only institution in the country where the real decisions are made by student government reps moonlighting from their jobs as representatives of the student body.

These events are symptoms of a more serious set of problems. The first is that the administration seems to have decided that the official organs of student governance do not have any credibility, either on their own or as representatives of the student body at large.

That's regrettable, but there is something even more sinister going on. We are seeing that we as students have no body capable of competently representing us. We are involved in the debate about housing because the administration has decided that student input in this matter is important. In order to get student input, it's providing everything from staffers and money to judges for the contest.

What will happen when the administration decides to take up less earthshaking issues that involve student's welfare? The answer will probably be nothing. The idea of a "housing design contest" is unprecedented, and is a product of the extraordinary times that we're going through. It's doubtful that similar programs will pop up every time a dean needs to make a decision about student welfare.

While these problems are not new, the housing issue has highlighted the rot that permeates student government. We are going through one of the most intensive redesigns of housing in 50 years. Student reps recognize this and are participating in it. But the student government as an organization has yet to rouse itself into action. A government that cannot address its constituents' most important concern housing is not one that can address the other issues that pop up over the course of the year. This state of affairs cannot continue. Students deserve effective government. If the existing structures cannot deliver it, they should either be reformed or replaced.