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COLUMN

Freedom Under Fire

Tao Yue

MIT occupies a unique position among American colleges. As one student pointed out to Richard Berlin at last week’s dining forum, amidst much cheering and applause, “You keep talking about what our peer institutions are doing. As far as I can tell, we have no peer institutions.” In fact, as MIT Medical’s advertising proudly proclaims, “At MIT, we do things a little differently.”

Other colleges do not weigh down students with such punishing loads of work. MIT treats its students as though they do not need to sleep, contrary to the approach of many other colleges. But in return for that hard work, we were also given a level of autonomy that no other college grants.

We get to choose where and with whom we live. At least, we used to.

We get to spend a year transitioning into the MIT environment, exploring the various majors, and experiencing the many extracurriculars that MIT and the Boston area offer without the pressure of grades. At least, we used to.

Other college students are stuck with meal plans. When I visit them, they invite me to their dining halls, the rationale being something like, “I have so many extra meals left on my card that I’ll have to eat ten meals a day for the rest of the term to finish them, so you might as well help eat one of them.” When I told them of the MIT system of fully-refundable declining balances, not a single one wasn’t amazed at our luck.

Note: “were,” not “are” -- next year’s freshman class won’t get that freedom.

There’s been a trend recently of reducing freedoms granted to students at MIT. Three years ago, the freshmen-on-campus decision. Last year, the ending of second-term pass/no-record. This year, the imposition of mandatory meal plans, suspended for upperclassmen because of fierce opposition.

That plan came out just two weeks ago. Thousands of e-mails to administrators flew from student’s computers. Some students met with Chancellor Clay and reported that he seemed not to pay attention to any of their main arguments. We gathered last Wednesday for a forum on the dining issue and discover that, seemingly miraculously, three-quarters of the plan gets dropped. But the mandatory plan remains intact for next year’s freshmen, who won’t find anything strange about being forced to pay for meals that they may not eat. Divide and conquer.

About a week ago, Dean of Admissions Marilee Jones’ article in a faculty newsletter was distributed by students via e-mail lists. This article presented a frightening view of how the MIT administration views its students. Again, thousands of e-mails flew around.

Freedom is what MIT is all about. That’s what students were defending with protests and petitions -- not just our right not to be saddled with a meal plan, but the freedoms that MIT granted to us as students.

About three weeks ago, I was in the east student center elevator, going up, when two people in business attire got in. The two were in the middle of a conversation and continued it as we went up. Somewhere between floors two and three, I heard them say, “MIT students have too much freedom. And you’ve got to control it right now because it’ll only get harder to take it away for their own good.”

That is the attitude that MIT students were defending against. Many of us have gotten into many fine colleges, yet we still chose to come here. We may not have known how great residence choice was, we may not have known how convenient it would be not to have a mandatory meal plan, but we quickly discovered it. I know many people, myself included, who came here with all the usual stereotypes of fraternities, but discarded all those stereotypes within twenty minutes after Killian Kickoff. That’s the greatest part about the freedom that MIT provided -- it allowed us to step beyond the narrow limits of our lives to date, to discover all the options that the world held for us.

During Rush, I wrote a column about the battles that we keep fighting over and over again, pointing out, in fact, that mandatory meal plans were tried in the 1980s but eventually discarded after years of student opposition. Little did I know that someone would bring this harebrained scheme back. An MIT student remarked to me recently that if we were to dig through archives of The Tech from as far back as the 1960s, we could read many of the columns and marvel at their relevance. This is sad.

As Veena Thomas wrote in her column on the mandatory meal plan, she has written so many “bad-administration-idea-needs-to-be-protested-and-defeated” columns that she’s tired of rehashing the same points. I haven’t written that many yet, but I’m already tired. We need change. And perhaps President Vest’s idea, in his letter to Chancellor Clay and Dean Benedict, of forming a centralized office to take input from students and apply them more directly to decision-making, will make some difference. But harmony on campus must begin with respect -- respect for administration, faculty, staff, and students. Without any of these, there’s no Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The attitude that I encountered in the student center elevator has to be the first to go. Because this is no way to run the best Institute of Technology in the world.