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COLUMN

Why Must Diversity Imply Re-segregation?

Bill Frezza

Each year my fraternity holds a banquet to welcome incoming freshman, the newest members of an enduring community that reaches back over 125 years. I’ve never missed one of these events since my own initiation banquet 30 years ago. And each year after I toast the incoming pledges I tour the old chapter house, sharing memories and renewing friendships in front of the complete series of class photographs that line the walls.

Look closely and you can see a disturbing trend. Before my time, these pictures reveal a stark uniformity, a sea of white faces and white-bread names. This began changing in the early ‘70s as the hidebound traditions of the Greek system gave way to an inclusiveness that reached full flower in the early ‘90s. Those later photos boast a rainbow of faces as diverse as the unpronounceable names that go with them.

Why are we so intent on destroying this success story? Why are self-appointed social engineers working so hard to re-segregate college campuses along racial, ethnic, and religious lines? Why do residential living policies encourage fealty to group identity to the detriment of color-blind communities that have proven that friendship knows no boundaries? Why are the more recent photos on the wall of my chapter house starting to look like the ones from the ‘50s? And what does the MIT administration hope to gain by slowly undermining its fraternity system?

These questions represent more than the lament of a middle-aged man. They represent the future of a world-renown institution whose living policies mold it students just as surely as the mountain of problem sets we learned to climb in the classroom. No lesser light than Benjamin Franklin reveled in the power of self-organizing civic associations to break the class structure that characterized British society, a society where group identity was destiny. We reject his lessons at our peril.

Official administration encouragement and support for racially or ethnically segregated dorms like Chocolate City (the most visible, but sadly not the sole example of administration sanctioned segregation) only serves to undermine the value of diversity. Can you imagine the justified uproar that would ensue if MIT had a whites-only dorm? Administration discouragement of fraternities by restricting freshman’s living options only serves to weaken an institution that has done more to promote diversity on campus than any other living arrangement.

Fraternities strengthen MIT in ways that can never be equaled by central planners concocting politically-correct dorm strategies in search of some mystical integration of student life and learning, an integration that can never be successfully imposed from above. What do we gain by teaching incoming freshmen that freedom-of-choice is inferior to some pale imitation of the old British boarding school tradition where everyone knew their place? What do we gain by discouraging complete racial, religious, and ethnic integration as best exemplified by modern fraternity life?

Show me a dorm that has done half as much as any fraternity to bind its alumni to each other and to MIT. I have brothers from the class of 1944 to the class of 2006 and everywhere in between. And brother is not just a figure of speech; these people are there when I need them and know that I will be there when they need me. Show me a dorm with traditions that go back 100 years, new traditions that are propagated forward as they form, and an ongoing dialogue between generations as vibrant as it was when we debated the issues of our times 30 years ago. Show me a dorm with national reach that brings students together from colleges all over the country to share ideas on how we can make our campuses better places to live and learn. Show me a dorm with its own association of older alumni that takes an active role in monitoring day to day goings on as it preserves and shares the institutional memory so critical to long-lived organizations. Show me a dorm that includes every single resident in the fabric of its life. The lonely isolation that leads too many young MIT dorm residents to crack under the pressure, sometimes leading to tragic consequences, is unthinkable in a fraternity.

We have just come through the first year of an experiment aimed at de-emphasizing fraternity life by forcing freshman to live on campus. A new dorm with all the charm of a concrete rabbit warren stands in a forgotten corner of campus, a portent of things to come. It is not too late to question the policies that lead us to this juncture. It is not too late to reexamine the unintended consequences and unmitigated hubris of trying to engineer from first principles a replacement for a social system that evolved over many decades, one that has provided an integrated sense of community to generations of MIT students coming of age in this unique and peculiar place.

Bill Frezza is a member of the class of 1976. He can be reached at frezza@alum.mit.edu.