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Let’s Be Honest About Housing

As pledge numbers begin to stabilize, the first year of rush with freshmen on campus yields more questions than answers. Doomsday predictions of the entire FSILG system collapsing, not all that uncommon when President Vest first announced his decision four years ago, seem to be unfounded. To date, 293 students have pledged, somewhat short of the typical 350 or so in recent years, but a respectable number for the first year of an entirely new system.

No, Delta Kappa Epsilon will not cease to exist next year because no one has yet pledged this year. With transitional funding for empty beds and perhaps a few graduate or CMI students, FSILGs will make it, at least this year. But now is when everyone at MIT, especially the administration and FSILG leadership, needs to be honest about MIT’s housing system, and how it must change in the next few years.

Approximately 3,000 on-campus beds exist for undergraduates, thanks to the recent addition of Simmons Hall and some borrowed space in Sidney-Pacific. Chancellor Clay’s goal of zero crowding was met this year thanks to this borrowed space, and the administration’s stock answer seems to be “wait and see” -- hopefully, more students will pledge over the year, and enough students will move off campus to avoid re-crowding or stealing more beds from graduate students.

However, the problem at MIT is not a shortage of beds for undergraduates. The real problem is overcapacity. Prior to this year, some 350 people needed to move off campus for the housing system to be sustainable. Roughly 1,400 people lived in FSILGs in any given year; this year, Simmons Hall pulled 350 of these students into on-campus housing, leaving 350 empty beds. Some of these have been filled by graduate students, but MIT doesn’t need 1,400 off-campus beds anymore.

MIT will never again be able to house so many students off campus. This would require approximately 450 students from each class year to live in FSILGs. Considering that an overwhelming majority of off-campus beds are in fraternities, this would mean that nearly the entire male population of each class would pledge each year. There simply are not that many students who want to live in FSILGs. Moreover, MIT has committed to maintaining the current class size, and a full FSILG system would open up too many beds in Institute housing.

In his Sept. 5, 2002 letter to FSILG presidents, Chancellor Clay talks about supporting FSILGs through the transition with financial support, and he discusses several possibilities of what transition might mean. “Re-size” -- make your FSILG smaller. House graduate students. Physical changes to the house -- in Clay’s words, “you may discover excess capacity and new and creative ways to use it, including the possibility of leasing excess property.” And the most frightening word to FSILG members, “consolidation.”

The bottom line is between the lines: MIT expects to lose FSILGs. MIT has expected this all along, but the administration has not done an adequate job preparing for this eventuality, nor has the Interfraternity Council, Panhellenic Association, or Living Group Council.

The current rush numbers show a very uneven distribution of pledges, from zero in DKE to 21 in PBE. If each FSILG was short a few people, then perhaps with graduate students and alumni support, they could manage to get by indefinitely with some empty beds. Unfortunately, reality is not so kind. Some FSILGs will not attract enough students to survive the transition, and as difficult as this is to admit, especially for members, this is not a problem for MIT. That is, of course, if the transition is handled correctly.

The worst thing that could possibly happen to MIT is for too many FSILGs to collapse under the financial burden of empty beds. If this occurred, MIT could suddenly be short dozens or even hundreds of beds, and a new dorm cannot be built overnight. MIT and the FSILGs must find a way to manage the transition so that the right number of houses survive. As painful as this will be, it will benefit MIT in the long term. Losing too few houses will not solve the overcapacity problem, but losing too many would be a disaster.

Currently, however, The Tech sees no evidence of the careful planning this will require from both the administration and the FSILG leadership. The times demand brutal honesty from all parties, and strong leadership to emerge from the rubble that is the IFC. Though it has lost influence as sororities and ILGs have established their own governing bodies, the IFC is still the best chance the students have to make the administration handle the transition responsibly and fairly.

Losing living groups is not good for the MIT community. The diversity of housing options, especially some of the unique living experiences in ILGs, is part of what makes MIT special. With fewer choices, there is certainly the chance that fewer students will pledge, and a vicious cycle of fewer and fewer pledges for fewer and fewer houses could ensue. Moreover, the current imbalance in pledges does not help MIT’s on-campus situation as much as it might appear; certainly PBE will not have room for 21 students from the Class of 2006 next year. There is also the somewhat frightening possibility that many students who pledged as freshmen will decide to stay on campus as sophomores -- what is to stop them from doing so?

The time has come for MIT to face the facts and the harsh reality it has created by housing all freshmen on campus. A wait-and-see, hope-for-the-best approach is not the answer.