The recent proposal to change the freshmen-on-campus policy has caused much debate within the MIT community. The administration first made on-campus housing mandatory for first-years after the death of a freshman from heavy drinking at a pledge party for two main reasons. First, the Institute claimed that the change would expose freshmen to a community outside of their immediate living group. Second, the major public backlash after the death surely played a role in the policy change. But while keeping freshmen on campus does help them integrate within the broader campus community, that more campus-oriented community often isolates freshmen from an independent living group in which they may feel more comfortable.
Looking back, freshmen-on-campus seems to appease the general public’s outrage more than solving the problem of dangerous drinking at parties. According to a November 2002 article in The Tech, “Some Frosh Live in Fraternities,” fraternities have since the start of the policy encouraged freshmen to unofficially move into their houses, designating some rooms specifically for freshmen. Many fraternities even keep empty beds for freshmen. Today, freshmen continue to visit fraternities to party, and MIT has conveniently turned a blind eye towards those who choose to unofficially live in their fraternities. The freshmen-on-campus policy has become a formality. It is unsuccessful in regulating freshmen drinking and has only a limited ability to keep freshmen on campus during their second semester. MIT has not solved the problem of freshmen and fraternities, but has rather hidden it under the blanket of an ineffective policy.
I do not deny that forcing freshmen to live on campus is effective in helping students adjust to the college environment. However, is a year-long period of integration truly necessary? It is difficult to determine whether one semester is enough to experience the MIT campus life. But the popular practice of unofficially staying in fraternities indicates that many freshmen already feel comfortable with choosing a living environment. Although some MIT freshmen may still be adjusting to their newfound independence in the second semester, these freshmen can choose to stay on campus. MIT should give freshmen the freedom to choose where they would like the live during the second semester, especially since the second semester marks the first time freshmen are exposed to classes on a grading basis. A fraternity or sorority could become an important academic and social support network for freshmen.
Of course, the social networking involved in living with a fraternity or sorority could also negatively impact freshmen grades. In response to this possibility, MIT should limit moving to fraternities to freshmen who have passed all of their classes during the first semester. In other words, moving to a fraternity should involve the approval of freshmen academic advisors, and be a privilege given only to those who successfully adapted to MIT academically.
It is inappropriate to continue a freshmen-on-campus policy that is ineffective in regulating drinking and providing a fitting environment for freshmen. Freshmen should be able to experience “on-campus” life during the first semester and then be free to choose which community they prefer. A great source of fear MIT may have in allowing first-years to return to fraternities or other living groups is a sense of losing control over freshmen — many seem to believe that having freshman off-campus weakens MIT’s authority over them. This is not true. Rather, allowing freshmen to continue unofficially leaving their dormitories is a much more serious security lapse. To cover liability issues under a new policy, MIT should document all freshmen living in fraternities during the second semester. MIT could ask fraternities to follow a stricter alcohol policy, and severely reprimand non-compliance.
Although the new proposal to allow freshmen to move into FSILGs is promising, MIT needs to reconsider why such a new proposal is necessary. Supporters of the proposal believe that the policy could fix dormitory overcrowding and allow MIT to admit more students in the upcoming years. However, MIT should not push freshmen off campus to make room for more potential students. Instead, they should look for a more responsible pathway to find room for more students rather than degrading the quality of life of students already on campus. Of course, the opening of Ashdown to undergraduates would also alleviate dormitory overcrowding. However, as MIT’s faces a budget crunch, the date of Ashdown’s completion is uncertain. So in order for an FSILG first-year policy change to be effective in relieving overcrowding, MIT should not increase the class size until Ashdown reopens.
MIT needs to encourage an active cooperation between independent living groups and the Institute. It should not ignore those freshmen who leave their rooms every night to “unofficially” live in fraternities. Instead, it should give freshmen a chance to “officially” live in fraternities. MIT has failed in its responsibility towards freshmen, claiming that a weak policy actually protects freshmen from the very communities that could provide the support and companionship that many freshmen cannot find on campus. It is time for MIT to cast away a useless policy and give freshmen a chance to experience the college life, not the life of a student living in an overcrowded dormitory.
Diana Hsieh is a member of the Class of 2013.