On Friday morning, news of President Vest’s resignation broke to the world. For many MIT alumnae and alumni, word came via an e-mail from Beth Garvin, executive VP and CEO of the MIT Alumni Association. Beth invited us to take great pride in our school’s accomplishments and influence on the world while Chuck Vest has been at the helm. Indeed, we can, and I certainly do. However, one thing we cannot take pride in is Dr. Vest’s abandonment of the rights and responsibilities of students as legal adults. Dr. Vest’s drive to destroy the independent living group system (and by that I specifically mean all ILGs, of which fraternities are but a subset) is rooted in politics, fear, and greed, not a dedication to the mental and educational well-being of MIT’s students. Catalyzed by Scott Krueger’s death, the notion that individuals are responsible for their own successes and failures -- a notion that has been a foundation for the heights to which MIT and its scholars have soared -- has devolved under Dr. Vest’s tenure into a morass of in loco parentis that mirrors, rather than challenges, the dismal legal riptide of our society.
MIT’s independent living group system gave those students who wanted it a wide-ranging freedom to live as they pleased in one of the world’s great cities, and gave those students who desired it an intimate community of their peers and colleagues, never more than a few minutes’ walk away. Now, purportedly for the purpose of “building community,” Dr. Vest has simultaneously eliminated choice and made MIT take new responsibility for the consequences. By requiring freshmen to live on campus supposedly because MIT is “safer” and because they are supposedly incapable of handling the decision to live elsewhere, MIT now has to explain itself when the theory is proven flawed. To wit: the tragic death of Elizabeth Shin in 2000.
Indeed, Friday’s article in The New York Times about Dr. Vest’s resignation (http:// www.nytimes.com/2003/12/05/education/ 05CND-MIT.html) cuts right to the core:
“He also dealt with enduring problems of student life like drinking and mental health. The death of a freshman, Scott Krueger, from an overdose of alcohol in 1997 after a fraternity hazing, highlighted the alienation many students felt at the university, largely because so many had lived in fraternities and independent houses around Boston and Cambridge, Mass., since the institute was chartered in 1861.”
The thesis -- in particular, the thesis as seen by international media at a pivotal moment in Chuck Vest’s career -- is flawed, and everything that flows from it is suspect. In order to handle this “alienation,” we need to dismantle a system of communities that for generations have let students feel like they have finally come home. We had to destroy the village in order to save it. Perversely, this purported cure for alienation has resulted in some of the most profound antagonism and distrust between MIT and its students in recent memory.
At this point, one can only hope that MIT’s next chief executive will realize the error of his predecessor’s ways, and make a sincere effort to build new bridges to the students, rather than razing them. Foremost, this requires that students be respected as free-thinking individuals: so that at MIT they learn not just how to choose their own path forward, but also when to defy the path and step off into the great unknown.
Kevin McCormick ’99