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Hands Off Our Stuff!

Who owns student group property? More importantly, when student groups use their own funds to purchase property, who should have a say in how it is used? The simple answer is that MIT owns everything. But who is MIT?

A recent dispute over the use of the Logarhythms a cappella recording studio has moved these questions to the forefront of undergraduate leaders’ minds. The UA hasn’t made a decision about the debate and instead the issue has been forwarded to the Association of Student Activities.

According to Student Life Programs (SLP) guidelines, student organization members act as “stewards of MIT” – that is, they are the functional owners and supervisors of their groups’ property. These guidelines also state that recognized student organizations “are given the autonomy and responsibility to spend their funds as the organization sees fit.” We believe that the language used in the SLP Financial Policies regarding student group funds should also, by extension, apply to student group property, so that the student group that pays for property should by default also control access and supervise the use of that property.

Ultimately, student groups are in the best position to manage their funds and their property, not Big Brother in the form of the UA or the ASA or Finboard. Not only do they have more complete information, experience and understanding of their specific situations, but they also have the best incentive to see that funds are not wasted, to maintain their equipment, and to optimize its use.

Of course funding sources do and should have some say in how the money they allocate (money which comes from everyone’s student life fee) is spent. However, any restrictions on the use of the property should formally specified at the time of allocation, and funds that student groups earn or receive independently should be under the jurisdiction of the respective groups. And as members of the MIT community, groups should be encouraged to be good citizens, and share resources within reason.

What the ASA, Finboard, and the UA do not and should not have is the ability to coerce student organizations (either by threatening their space allocations, their recognition status, or interfering with their Finboard accounts) to redistribute their property “for the greater good” (however that may be interpreted). Student organizations exist because students volunteer their free time and energy in order to create something that they find worthwhile, and that they control. A policy that threatens their autonomy would alienate students and discourage the independent initiative, creativity, and pursuit of rewarding non-academic goals that are the most valuable parts of what organizations bring to student life.

While redistributing student group resources through central planning may sound appealing (fairness! efficiency! Communism!), it would in practice be unacceptably disruptive.

Michael McGraw-Herdeg recused himself from this editorial.