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Losing Sight of the Real Goal

Ken Nesmith

After three short months, this wonderful summer season is meeting its end, and we have nine long months of school before we’ll see its sunny face again.

I had a pleasant summer, and was fortunate enough to have some time to relax. One of the less interesting things I got to do was watch CSPAN-2 for an hour. Senator Harry Reid, D-North Dakota, spoke at length about debating the motion to proceed on debate over a farm subsidy. He seemed impassioned enough, and he managed to tie in the notion that our country’s entire value system rested on this federal bill at one point. In retrospect, that was probably a slightly overdramatic gesture.

As I listened to Senator Reid, and then to a Republican senator who responded with similarly languid bombast and unhurried, casual interest, I thought to myself that those in government might not win any common sense competitions anytime soon. It takes a certain detachment from any good judgment whatsoever to behave as government types often do. Furthermore, personal quibbles and frustrated political vendettas often serve as the strongest determiners of action, so that valuable time and resources unnecessarily go to waste, and those who government is meant to serve end up the victim of their folly.

During the recently concluded Rush 2001, watching the Interfraternity Council handle the enforcement of rush rules again brought me forcefully to these conclusions. It was a discouraging experience. I heard a phone ring at 2 A.M. that would serve to inform my fraternity that we were to suddenly receive nearly the strongest sanctions the IFC could administer; I watched that group suggest that we appeal that ruling to members of that same group; I watched a separate appeal board of IFC veterans reduce the sanctions and express disgust over the IFC’s righteous presumption that they were the sole arbiters of law; I watched IFC council members huddle secretively on a street corner preparing to enter my home and officiously demand further investigation; I watched the now frazzled IFC aggressively and disparately pursue every opportunity to sanction my fraternity for the most casual, inconsequential, and unintentional infractions. At one point, a freshman who got up early to go to church cause nearly insolvable problems by leaving the house to worship God before IFC rules allowed. Finally, after eleven freshmen whom now form our pledge class returned from the Activities Midway fifteen minutes later than expected, it was decided not that we had actually violated any rule, but that we had violated the “spirit of rush,” and our rush desk was closed. After all of this, further sanctions are yet to be determined.

The IFC consists of representatives of the fraternities and living groups they govern; Their most notable task is to oversee Rush. In this incident, conflicts of interest abounded. Many of the IFC council members were members of the houses that filed complaints. This year, Joanne Chang ’03, who lost a tough race for class president to a brother of Chi Phi, served as IFC Rush Chair.

Since these events, a spate of e-mails over public mailing lists has clumsily rehashed events and justifications. Things seem to have finally calmed a bit, and with the start of classes, everyone will have plenty of other issues to think about.

We weren’t the sole victims of student government silliness. This newspaper itself was sanctioned for advertising to freshmen before ASA rules allowed. Running these ads, used consistently throughout the year to fill empty space and solve layout problems, brought the severe consequence of reduced office space for the newspaper. The Undergraduate Association, another haven for those thirsting for duty, is probably better known to students for its election gaffes and quibblesome practices than for anything the group has done for undergraduates at MIT.

There are many hard-working, dedicated individuals who put significant time and effort into student government. They often accomplish very good things for the student body. Sometimes, unfortunately, those who serve forget that they are only college students participating in an extracurricular activity, and lose themselves and their judgment in a false sense of power, duty, and control.

Many seem to have forgotten that the sole purpose of Rush is to find the best place for freshmen to live. What struck me most about the incident was not the selective pursuit of punishment -- other houses made similar mistakes but went rightly unpunished -- but rather the aggressive and almost childish behavior of the IFC board. In the end, all that we can hope for is that all the freshmen are happy with their housing decisions.

This was the last rush of its kind, and it could be for the best. The stresses the process places on both freshmen and upperclassmen are not desirable. Houses compete, often to a laughable degree, for the attention and time of the freshmen, and their behavior is so heavily regulated that the freshmen themselves find it absurd. I feel some sympathy for the freshmen who will be forced to live on campus in the future and for the fraternities which may face hard times and a shortage of new members in the next years. The IFC will play an important role in working with and for the fraternities during this time. Let’s all hope for something better than what we saw here.

Ken Nesmith is a member of the Chi Phi fraternity.