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FSILG Assistance Has Shortfall

By Keith J. Winstein

SENIOR EDITOR

MIT’s mistaken optimism about rush has led to a budget shortfall in a program to help fraternities and independent living groups survive the transition to the new freshmen-in-dormitories residence system.

The program, known as the Financial Transition Plan, is designed to help groups adapt by reimbursing each house for 80 percent of the cost of its empty beds, capped at a fraction of the house that decreases and phases out after three years. Because freshmen have been required to live in dormitories for the past two years, fraternities, residential sororities, and independent living groups have had to fund their budgets with one less class of dues-paying residents.

But as fraternities learned in December, MIT did not allocate enough money to fully fund the program beyond its first year. This year, the second year of the program, FSILGs were due $628,000 under the program’s formula, said Frank Council of the Student Life Programs office -- $128,000 more than was projected and requested by the office in 2002. “For the 2003-2004 academic year, due to MIT’s financial constraints, monies above the initial allocation of $500K are not available,” the office wrote on its Web site.

Student-admin plan, MIT budget

The Financial Transition Plan was drafted by a student-administrator committee and approved in February 2002 by Larry G. Benedict, the dean for student life. To calculate its first-year budget, student life staff collected information from each house in late 2001 to estimate the number of empty beds the houses would have: 190 beds, for a cost of $750,000.

For subsequent years, the office’s budget request rested on the assumption that the total number of empty beds would not increase -- that is, the budget assumed that FSILGs would continue to do as well in recruiting new members after 2002, when Simmons Hall opened and freshmen were required to stay in dormitories until their sophomore year, as they had done before.

MIT thought rush would do as well

By October 2002, this assumption had turned out to be overly optimistic. FSILGs received about 290 pledges in 2002, compared with an average of about 344 for the years before 2002, according to Council. Instead of staying the same, the number of empty beds increased, from 190 last year to 260 this year. In December 2003, the student life office notified the fraternities that there was not enough money budgeted to satisfy the program’s formula, and reduced this year’s payments by 20 percent.

The student life office’s description of the shortfall as “due to MIT’s financial constraints” runs somewhat counter to remarks by high-level administrators earlier in the year, that MIT’s financial problems would not affect student life. “The effect is going to be about zero on the things you might be concerned about in student life,” President Charles M. Vest told the Undergraduate Association Senate in October, before the budget shortfall in the Financial Transition Plan was disclosed.

Assistant Dean David N. Rogers, the director of FSILGs, defended the budgeting assumption that fraternities would continue to do as well at rush under the new residence system. “I think that’s a pretty good assumption,” he said, adding that some fraternities have done very well and some have not done as well. He allowed, though, that if the budget’s assumption had been correct, the transition program probably would not have had a shortfall.

“The committee presented this formula and our proposal to MIT and to the chancellor,” said Joshua S. Yardley ’04, who was on the original committee that drafted the program. “Then MIT kind of put the price tag of $1.5 million on it. At the time, as I remember it, the committee had some questions about, ‘Well, what if the $1.5 million isn’t enough to provide for this formula that we’ve come up with?’”

“MIT reassured us that they were on our side,” Yardley said, “that they would find the money.”

MIT, IFC differ on commitment

Part of the reason fraternities have been upset is that, almost to a person, students and administrators have differed in their understanding of the actual commitment MIT made in 2002.

Administrators insist that MIT’s commitment was to spend $1.5 million -- an amount never reported in The Tech or discussed in the Financial Transition Plan itself -- and not necessarily to fully fund the Transition Plan’s formula. “We committed an amount of money, and that’s what we have spent,” said Chancellor Phillip L. Clay PhD ’75. “I certainly think the documents were very clear a couple of years ago that year one would be 750 [thousand dollars], year two would be 500, and year three would be 250,” he said.

“I don’t think there was any notion that we would allocate however much was decided would be good,” Clay said. “In lots of ways around MIT, we’ve discovered we need more money than we have.”

The Financial Transition Plan describes “what was anticipated we could do,” Council said. In the end, though, the plan’s formula is “a guideline,” he said.

Perhaps as might be expected, students say their understanding was different: that MIT had committed to follow the Financial Transition Plan as written. “That was obviously our understanding,” said Daniel H. Daneshvar ’05, the Interfraternity Council president. “I think most fraternities are pretty upset about this,” he said. “There’s obviously a disconnect.”

Pius A. Uzamere II ’04, the Undergraduate Association president, said that his understanding was also that MIT would follow the plan.

Some fraternity members likened the shortfall to a bait-and-switch operation. “They buy the fraternity system’s easy compliance with having freshmen on campus by claiming they want to make sure no house fails financially, and then as soon as the original students involved are graduated, the amount changes,” Brian T. Neltner ’05, who lives at Tau Epsilon Phi, wrote in an e-mail. “MIT needs to uphold its contractual obligations to its student body.”

Future may include extension

This year’s total rush was similar to last year’s, leading to a likely figure of about 330 empty beds in FSILGs next year, or funding of $430,000 from the Financial Transition Plan’s formula -- $180,000 more than has been allocated.

Daneshvar and Uzamere have met with Clay to discuss additional financial support for fraternities, and Daneshvar, who stressed that financial support must not become “a crutch,” will meet with the FSILG Task Force to discuss the issue later this term.

“I think there’s a probability the committee will say something about extending the financial aspects of the transition,” said Professor Patrick H. Winston, co-chairman of the task force. “We think that the transition isn’t over.”

The task force is expected to release its report by the end of the semester. “I don’t think we will do anything until we review that task force report,” Clay said.