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The Power of Small Communities

Neel Kantak

Propelling the recent overhaul of the housing system - which has included the building of a new dormitory and the requirement that all freshmen live on campus - is the MIT administration’s perception of the current residential setup as an antiquated relic of the past, an array of options that unnecessarily impedes the development of a true residential community.

While the Scott Krueger incident may have given the new housing policy a final push, the decision to move freshmen to campus had been proposed years earlier. In 1989, the Potter Report, named after the chair of the Freshman Housing Committee, recommended that all freshmen be required to live on campus as a way to improve diversity and increase students’ connection with the Institute as a whole.

In an interview with The Tech in 1991, former MIT President Charles M. Vest said, “I don't think it's clear that a system that served this institution very well in a day and age when the student body was almost entirely male and extremely homogeneous in its makeup will necessarily be the best system for 10 years or 20 years from now.”

Many in Vest’s administration clearly shared this belief that smaller living groups tend towards insularity and exclusivity, engendering divisions among MIT students and destroying the sense of school unity that, in their eyes, all campuses should possess. This lack of school unity is manifested in the way many alumni form allegiances with their living groups, often seeing themselves as belonging more to their individual groups than to MIT as a whole.

While MIT does not want to eradicate the Fraternities, Sororities, and Independent Living Groups system, the revamped housing system certainly seems to have a goal of reducing the influence of FSILGs and keeping more students in on-campus residence halls.

Many of these arguments raise important issues. What does the administration mean when it says that it wishes to enhance “community”? When analyzing college communities, it becomes very important to make a distinction between the smaller “micro-communities” and the composite “macro-community.”

The macro-community involves what most people see as a typical collegiate environment -- the collection of large groups of students who enjoy group experiences which are unique to a particular college and which foster a sense of school spirit.

Micro-communities, by contrast, create the smaller, everyday interactions that students experience. These interactions, often connected with a living group, tend to center around a student’s circle of close friends. Such communities consist of more intimate and personal relationships and, arguably, have a greater impact on a student’s everyday life. While MIT currently possesses very robust micro-communities in the form of FSILGs and some cohesive dormitory halls or suites, a greater macro-community has never truly coalesced. The Vest administration’s housing policy attempts to build this macro-community have come at the expense of the micro-communities that have been vital in so many ways.

So why shouldn’t MIT weaken some of the micro-communities in order to create larger interactions across the entire student body?

For many, FSILGs have served as de-facto families, facilitating the development of lifelong friendships and providing critical support networks for their members. In a way, these living groups serve as “relief agencies” for students after they have been worn out by the rigors of the infamous MIT firehose.

These living groups have also aided the personal development of many students, giving them the opportunity to manage finances, plan social calendars, clean and maintain houses, recruit new members, organize their philanthropy events, correspond with alumni, and control own risk largely outside the influence of MIT. This control over their own lifestyles and acceptance of the accompanying responsibilities has encouraged students to accept personal responsibility early in their college careers while nurturing their leadership abilities through the governance of living group affairs.

The academic support that the system has provided cannot be overlooked, either. MIT’s independent living groups facilitate interactions between underclassmen and upperclassmen, who provide assistance with problem sets, advice on course selection, and insights into career paths. These micro-communities have provided students with the friendships, support, and experience that enables learning to continue outside of the classroom. By mandating that freshmen live of campus, MIT is downsizing the FSILG system and threatening these precious micro-communities.

One could argue that the development of a campus-wide macro-community is so important that it justifies weakening micro-communities, but before undertaking such a revolutionary campaign, MIT should first analyze the context in which it is attempting to forge these communities, and then determine the likelihood of success. A careful analysis reveals the difficulty in building this campus-wide community that presumably exists at some other institutions.

Modeling MIT after other institutions makes little sense, as many MIT characteristics make it very much unlike any other institution.

MIT students are inundated with academic work and highly pressured by competing with the best and brightest minds. As a result, they inevitably have little free time and energy to expend on the development of university-wide community. Ask any student group leader about the biggest obstacles they face, and he or she is sure to gripe about student apathy.

Another factor inhibiting the development of broad school spirit and unity is the relative lack of nationally competitive sports teams, which draw thousands of students to games at many other schools. Unless MIT drastically increases the scope of its athletic program, this type of school pride will continue to be difficult to create.

The geography of MIT’s campus presents yet another obstacle. An urban school forced to gradually annex land for expansion, MIT’s campus is neither beautiful nor conducive to student interaction. While the administration has poured many resources into remedying these problems, certain characteristics of the campus, such as the lack of grassy quads and large dining facilities, will be difficult to change.

Finally, although we MIT students may hesitate to admit it, our student body is just not as outgoing as the those at many other institutions. As much as the admissions committee has focused on admitting more “well-rounded” students, MIT must face the reality of being a technical school. Students tend to be more focused on academics and research and less concerned with leading vibrant social lives. While this certainly does not preclude the existence of social events or community gatherings, it makes a lively social atmosphere on a grand scale difficult to develop and sustain.

So what should MIT’s “community vision” include? Rather than resisting micro-communities to create an elusive macro-community, the MIT administration should embrace the power of smaller units to profoundly improve student life.

In the short term, MIT should direct its efforts at developing better micro-communities on campus. Since the micro-communities forged in FSILGs have formed so naturally and worked so well, why not borrow some of their ideas, helping all micro-communities function as well as the ones that work best do? To achieve this, dormitories could be organized and governed to allow for greater student management and independence.

In the long term, MIT needs to reconsider the rationale behind the recent housing changes. While many FSILGs have struggled to maintain their communities with the new policies, they aren’t the only ones affected. When affiliated freshmen abandon their dormitories as sophomores to move into other living groups, they leave behind a void that hinders the development of tightly-knit dormitory halls. As these small communities fail, so will MIT. If the housing change was indeed about community, then the administration should recognize that it may be destroying what it seeks to create.