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Responding to Flag Flap

Keith Hampton

In early July a student made a complaint to Housing about an Israeli flag that had been hung from a fellow resident’s window overlooking the courtyard of the Sidney-Pacific (SP) Graduate Residence. This student felt that the SP courtyard was a community space that should be welcoming and safe for everyone regardless of their origin or political affiliation. This student expressed that the presence of a flag interfered with their ability to enjoy the courtyard and to feel welcome in their home.

The Tech’s news articles and opinion columns that have discussed these events have focused on what are reported as unfair MIT policies and have recently implied that I and others were intolerant and bigoted for requesting that the flag be moved inside that resident’s window [“A Flag That Won’t Go Away,” Oct. 10]. I am concerned about the lack of balanced, objective reporting on this issue, and have a greater concern of how tolerance is debated on the MIT campus.

After the issue was brought to my attention by MIT Housing, it was my responsibility as the associate housemaster for Sidney-Pacific to visit the resident hanging the flag from their window. I informed the resident that concerns had been raised about other students feeling welcome in the courtyard. At this time the resident was also told that Housing policy prohibited items from being attached to the outside of graduate residences without approval from the House Manager. The following day the resident was also provided with a reference to the appropriate guidelines as published in the MIT Housing Policies and Regulations:

“The use of flammable decorations, including natural evergreens, in any room, corridor, stairwell, lounge, dining hall, lobby and other public areas is prohibited by Massachusetts fire laws. The use of non-flammable decorations must be approved by the House Manager.”

The resident was told at the time of our first meeting, and on subsequent occasions that the housing policy would be enforced and was asked to bring the flag from outside to the inside of their window (where it would still be visible from outside). The resident was also told that if complying with existing policy did not resolve the initial complaint, that the student who made the complaint would be welcome to take their concerns to the house government or some other body to discuss community expectations regarding this issue.

It would have been inappropriate to conceal the complaint from the resident. The administration has no interest in lying or misleading students. The flag likely would have gone unnoticed by me and by Housing if it had not been brought to our attention through the concerns of a student. It does not matter how the infraction was brought to MIT’s attention: any other banner, decoration, or flag hanging from SP would have been dealt with in the same way.

Over the next two months the resident involved continued to hang their flag from the window overlooking the SP courtyard. The resident was repeatedly asked to place the flag inside the window to comply with Housing policy. The resident was also asked if they would be willing to help raise awareness of issues related to diversity, tolerance, and inclusion on campus by working with Housing to develop educational programming for SP. At no time was the resident involved asked to remove their flag from public view. It was only after two months and repeated requests to comply with the policy that the resident was told that they may face disciplinary action if they did not follow housing guidelines. This was not a capricious, blindly authoritarian act; it was the result of an extended discussion as part of which the resident involved was given many opportunities to comply with policy and help address the underlying issue.

So why a policy that asks students to seek approval from House Managers before hanging things from dorm or residences? Objects hanging from buildings can cause damage, be fire hazards, or represent a safety concern. All of these may not apply to this flag, but the policy is not about one flag. It is a policy about all things students may want to hang on the outside of student residences. Despite the best intentions, there are situations where a student may become injured by attempting to hang something from a building, an item could represent a fire hazard, or an object attached to the building could cause damage or be a safety concern. No items are excluded from this policy. Students should seek the advice of their House Manager before hanging things out their window or otherwise from a building.

What I find even more compelling as an argument against hanging items from the windows of a building like Sidney-Pacific is that an assortment of laundry, flags, and banners can be visually unappealing. A lot of time and energy goes into building a new student residence. One of the things that delayed construction of SP was concern by Cambridge residents about the appearance of the building. SP is located farther from campus than any other student residence. One flag is not the issue, but if a large number of items of various description were permanently draped from the side of the building, how would this be viewed by our neighbors? Again, it’s not about one flag; neither housemasters, student groups, nor should the administration be involved in regulating content. It is all or nothing, and “nothing” is the policy that was adopted by Housing and is reflected in the “Publicity Guidelines” established by the SP house government:

“Posting is not permitted on doors [building entrances, this does not apply to decorations on student doors] or in hallways or on the exterior of the building... This is to protect the walls, to not create extra work for the janitorial staff and to be courteous to our neighbors.”

Still, students should and are encouraged to express themselves at MIT. Putting items in a window instead of hanging them from the building does not significantly limit self-expression. When coordinated with House Managers, exceptions should be made so that items can temporarily be hung from student residences.

Beyond the debate over whether students should be free to use the external surface of MIT buildings without interference from the administration, there remains a much larger and more serious issue. A student expressed a concern about feeling unwelcome in their living environment, and those who were willing to hear those concerns have been labeled intolerant and bigoted for enforcing MIT policy. This complaint was not motivated by intolerance! It was a request for tolerance. I can only assume that those who would associate this complaint with being bigoted are missing key pieces of information, for these accusations are false and only reinforce the intolerance at the root of the problem.

As members of the MIT community we should be working to make our environment welcoming for everyone. The most regrettable aspect surrounding this event is not that a flag has been moved a couple of feet behind a pane of glass. The true travesty in all of this is our failure as a community to address concerns about campus tolerance and to develop community expectations around these issues. Express your concerns, but do not shut out those with whom you disagree. It is far easier to attack someone personally than it is to attack a policy or address the underlying issues. The MIT community should not allow a small number of students, lashing out at the administration, and the unbalanced reporting of a student newspaper, to draw attention away from what is important. It should not be a lofty ideal that we as a community accommodate others, respect differences, and go out of our way to make everyone feel welcome. It should be the underlying motive behind all that we do.

Keith Hampton is associate housemaster at Sidney-Pacific and the assistant professor of technology, urban, and community sociology in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning.