by Anna Dirks
In recent weeks, a group of students known as the Extropians touched off a heated campus debate, when they sent an unapproved mailing to all the incoming freshmen in the class of 2001.
This mailing, decrying what the Extropians call "the freshman tragedy," was originally rejected from the ASA summer mailing. Because the mailing was sent without permission, the ASA has stripped the Extropians of their official recognition.
The ASA summer mailing, designed to provide incoming students with information regarding student activities at MIT, is composed of material written by recognized student groups. This July, the Extropians submitted a pamphlet they wished to included in the mailing.
However, this pamphlet made several assertions which the MIT administration claimed were inappropriate to include in the mailing. Says Dean Rosalind Williams, "What was different about this was that it wasn't explaining what the Extropians are about, it was an extraneous sort of essay on why many of the freshmen who are receiving this package are not welcome at MIT."
Among the Extropians' assertions cited as inappropriate by the administration were statements that "The average woman and 'under-represented' minority at MIT is less intelligent, less intellectual and less ambitious" and "too few of the best people are here, and far too many people who do not belong are also here, ruining the place. The culprit is MIT's admissions policy, especially its policy of affirmative action."
In their defense, the Extropians founders, Han Huang and Jason Davis, claim that they only had MIT's best interests at heart. "We believe that MIT is the university that has the potential to be the vanguard... in solving the mind, the mystery of life, and so on. It can choose to mire itself in contradictory or lower goals. Or it can become the ideal university many think it could be."
Dean Kip Hodges echoed Dean Williams' sentiment, saying "I see two basic problems with the Extropians and their mailing. The first has to do with freedom of speech. In order to have free speech, one must provide the opportunity for discussion. Simply sending a mailing of this nature to freshmen does not allow for discussion. My second problem has to do with the content of the mailing. I find it unfortunate that one of the first messages the freshmen received is not an affirming one. Rather, the message these guys sent is that 45% of our students do not belong here. As a professor, I can attest to the fact that this is simply not true. Women students are every bit as capable as their male counterparts. The Extropians' arguments are specious."
But according to Han Huang, "The emperor of affirmative action is naked. We are pointing the fact out. Does this mean we are bigots? It does not... and our pamphlet, if you read it properly, is not an expression of bigotry. We are defenders of reason, individualism, merit, and an Extropian future."
"Race and gender," continued Huang, "are subsidiary issues. The entire point is to look past race and gender -- for this precise --> -- reason, we argue against affirmative action -- because race and --> -- gender are distracting us away from our fundamental mission."
A series of discussions regarding the content of the flier ensued, culminating in a decision by Kathryn Willmore, Executive Assistant to the President, to exclude the flier from the mailing. Margaret Bates, Dean for Student Life, then informed Davis and Huang that their flier would only be included if they worked out an acceptable text, specifically one that met the following criteria: nothing libelous, discriminatory, or derogatory could be said about any person, group, or program and nothing that could be perceived as racist or sexist could be included.
The Extropians did not respond in time, and the mailing was sent out without their pamphlet.
A few weeks later, rumors began to surface around campus that the Extropians had sent a revised flier to the freshmen. Their webpage confirmed this and the ASA Executive Board decided to hold a special disciplinary hearing.
At the hearing held by the Association of Student Activities Davis and Huang were questioned as to how and why they sent out their mailing to the freshmen after being expressly told not to do so. (Mailing labels with the addresses of all of the incoming freshmen are only available to FSILGs for their summer mailings; MIT policy prohibits their use for any other purpose.)
When asked how they procured the labels, Davis and Huang admitted having solicited a student or group of students from a FSILG for a copy of the group's list of addresses. Telling the student or students simply that they had missed the deadline for submission, they copied the mailing list and spent roughly one thousand dollars to assemble and mail their pamphlets.
The board charged them and found them guilty of violating Kathryn Willmore's ruling that the text with which she was provided (or any comparable text) could not be mailed to any incoming freshmen. They were also convicted of unauthorized use of the MIT mailing labels and unauthorized use of student data. Finding the group guilty as charged, the ASA denied the Extropians recognition as a student activity and stripped them of "any ASA privilege heretofore obtained."
In a statement regarding the trial, the Extropians described their mailing as "an act of protest against an administration who cares more for preserving their regime than upholding academic freedom of speech."
Several possibilities exist for further action regarding the Extropians. First, the Committee on Discipline may elect to hold a hearing or hearings to address issues such as whether the mailing violates MIT harassment policy.
"We're quite concerned over the administration's intimations that a COD trial may (or may not) be likely," said Huang. "It is difficult to be effective students and members of the community when one cannot be certain what punishment will befall one for trying to make MIT a better place."
Various student groups are also working to organize a response to the assertions made in the mailing. Adrian Banard of GaMIT (Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals, Transgendered People and Friends at MIT) commented on his group's plans, "We believe that it is imperative to demonstrate to the MIT community that bigotry of any kind has no place at MIT."
Kip Hodges, Dean for Undergraduate Curriculum, offered the following advice to students. "The Extropians should be dealt with by the students. If I could give advice to the students, I would say that they should hold an intelligent debate or an open forum to discuss affirmative action and racism. Growing up in the 1960s in the south, I remember dealing with racism first hand. The only solution is open discussion; without this you can never achieve social change."