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A Matter of Trust

Guest Column
Kai-yuh E. Hsiao

In reading about the situation on Fourth West at East Campus last week, I noticed a disturbing quote; the hall chair said that “MIT was disappointed that some students on the hall knew the marijuana plant existed and did not report it to administrators” [“Fourth West, MIT Working to Avoid Future Incidents,” Jan. 30].

To give the benefit of the doubt, no administrator was named as the source of this disappointment, so I have no fingers to point. But what the statement implies bothers me greatly. It suggests that some portion of the administration expects that members of the MIT community should police each other.

This is silly. This is tantamount to being expected to call the police when your friends are speeding. It never happens. It doesn’t even matter if your friend is doing 120 in a 35 zone. You might tell him to be careful and slow down. But calling in the authorities on your friends simply doesn’t happen, not to mention the adverse effects it would have on your own life. Community self-policing isn’t going to work. People haven’t complied in the past, and they aren’t going to start now.

Lately, I can see that three potentially conflicting values are at work in the student life-related offices of MIT. On one hand there is an emphasis on building community, on the other is an emphasis on improving mental health, and on the third hand there is an emphasis on staying clear of legal difficulties.

However, expecting students and members of the MIT community to blow the whistle on each other ultimately furthers none of these goals. It even hinders an additional goal, which is to develop an environment where students, most of whom are already legally adults, can complete their maturation into responsible members of society.

One of the cornerstones of any community is trust. If I cannot trust my living group to respect my privacy, to allow for my personal development, and indeed to help me sustain the sanctity of my lifestyle, then I will see little reason to remain part of that community. I will retreat into my room, allowing no glimpses into my personal space. Furthermore, even if anything I do also happens to present a danger to myself or others, it will go unseen by anyone in my environment. Now, which situation is more dangerous, one in which danger is present and is exposed to at least the judgment of those nearby, or one in which the danger is hidden outright?

So, let’s say students calling the cops (or just calling in the administration) on each other became the norm. This pretty much precludes any possibility of having a thriving community. It certainly destroys any possibility of people reaching out to others to help maintain their emotional health. And what’s even funnier is, it will even further promote the hiding of illegal activities, which looks all good until something inevitably pops up out of the woodwork and all hell breaks loose, all over again.

On a realistic level, the best I believe MIT can hope for is that students simply help each other. If people do things that are dangerous, then MIT should learn to trust the judgment of the students around them to keep the danger from getting out of hand. Indeed, it might be possible for administrators to meet personally with students and help shape their judgment. As in my speeding example above, if your friend is speeding, you might point out that it’s dangerous and that he should slow down. But if you call the cops on him, you can bet he’ll still speed when he gets his license back. But none of your friends will ever drive you anywhere anymore.

Thus, an open community that engenders trust is worth far more than a fearful community that doesn’t. The kind of enforcement attitude displayed by the administration is not going to solve any problems. I can already envision students’ interactions shifting from “Dude, lay off the smack a little, you’ve had enough,” to, “Hey, close that in your room and make sure nobody can see, okay?” -- except when they have a chance to get people they don’t like in big trouble. Then you’ve potentially opened up a can of worms into a world of harassment and subtle discrimination.

Unless, of course, MIT is trying to teach its students to be really damn good at hiding things, which I can’t rule out, but I don’t think it will help the overall environment around here. In fact, I for one would really like it if the administration would meet and decide on a set of goals and values for MIT to pursue, and then pursue them consistently. And to tell the students, so they know just what to expect and how they can fit into the plan.

Yes, a student was caught with a plant. Yes, the student was punished. I have no objections with that part. Beyond that, though, the mere prospect of punishing the entire floor for the actions of one student violates some of the founding principles of our nation’s legal system. And the expectation that students police each other, barring imminent danger to themselves or others, is simply a bad idea.

There are a number of conflicting values at work around here nowadays. I think it would benefit all of MIT if people would be careful to check their decisions to ensure that they realistically improve MIT’s stated values. As with all the other student life difficulties in the past god-knows-how-many years, engendering trust between students, and between students and administration, would go an incredibly long way towards improving all aspects of life on campus.

Kai-yuh E. Hsiao is a graduate student in the Department of Media Arts and Sciences and a former president of East Campus.