Proposal by Ted Peck; S.B. Math 1982Submitted 29 January 1999
Introduction & Preface
Our residence system can be the envy of the Ivies without
Fall Rush and Freshman Housing Choice are valuable institutions which we should preserve.
Last month, I heard of this contest from Bill Hecht, the
contest chair and head of the MIT Alumni Association.
I had gone to urge the Association to better solicit and represent the views of alumni on this and other issues. Instead, he urged me to join this contest, and here I am. He assured me that if no proposal was better than the current system, or if the best proposal included letting freshmen live off campus, then his committee would recommend to let freshmen continue to choose their housing. While the published contest rules seem to contradict that assurance, and while I object to the idea that the ultimate decision belongs to the Chancellor and President alone, I am taking Billís assurance at face value and presenting the best plan I can envision, which includes Freshman Rush before Registration Day, similar to the system we have now.
A classmate of mine, now an MIT professor, tells me that pursuing this issue is divisive and counterproductive, like the Impeachment proceedings under way in Congress. I however, being on the defensive side, prefer to identify with the Democrats, where itís clear that a vigorous defense and not capitulation is in the best interest of the country.
This same professor confides that when as a freshman, he unknowingly joined a fraternity at MIT where drinking was on the upswing, and he was unprepared for it. I do not argue that structured pressure to drink is defensible. But the news reports show that even where freshmen live on campus, drinking can still be a problem. Even where there are no fraternities, drinking is still a problem.
When we came to MIT 21 years ago, most students were of legal drinking age, free beer was served on the steps of the Student Center, and public outdoor drinking contests were a celebrated event on campus. Times have really changed, probably for the better, but college drinking remains a fact of life. I argue to my classmate and to you that the problem of drinking and the problems of housing are not the same. Dangerous drinking should be reduced through thoughtful, sensible, effective engagement, not through preaching or clumsy attempts at repression or to find a magic bullet.
Furthermore, I argue that MITís residence system is already better than the systems at any of her sister institutions. While it certainly merits improvement, it does NOT merit demolition. While I know that demolition has already been promised in many quarters, I for one can still envision a day, a year or so from now, when we can announce that after detailed consideration and democratic involvement, better ways have been found to address dangerous drinking than making all freshmen live in dorms.
I hope you will recognize that it has required some courage and commitment for me to assemble and present my proposals for such an august group as yourselves. I have paid a real price in time & opportunity to devote myself to this issue, because I believe that the precedent and course set by this process will dramatically affect the lives of those who come after, the greatness of MIT, and ultimately the quality of our countryís future.
Due to time constraints I havenít attempted to assemble a team effort, but over the past several months Iíve discussed these issues with many people, and I feel my effort represents their contributions along with my own.
Analysis of the problem
Let me begin by offering a broad analysis of the sense of Community at MIT, from my perspective as a former undergraduate.
With dozens of robust independent living groups, strong cohesion and identity on numerous dorm floors, hundreds of clubs, teams, and interest groups often involving family members and faculty, unparalleled levels of student satisfaction, worldwide recognition and respect, and alumni who maintain contact with their classmates and their living groups far into their lives, the state of our Community is STRONG.
However, the Task Force has identified a lack of school-wide community feeling and involvement, and they have put their finger on an important point. Most students I have known maintain a Love/Hate relationship with MIT as an institution, and have fewer friendships among their classmates than they could.
First and foremost, students come to MIT to learn.
Socializing, networking and the credential come second. This is a
major distinction from other undergraduate colleges. It is an unadulterated blessing, but it has the consequence that students here put their studies first, sometimes to the detriment of their social experience.
Also we have hazards of hazing and alcohol abuse within some of our living groups.
The latter problems can be straightforwardly addressed,
but the Love/Hate relationship bears deeper inquiry. My observation
is that most students feel they succeed at MIT in spite of the Institute,
not with help from it.
Hereís a list of things I think students love and hate about MIT:
· the tremendous constructive energy of the students and faculty
· the atmosphere of learning and discovery
· presence of top-notch ideas and intellects
· great lectures (sometimes)
· the strength and enjoyment of communities
· challenge of doing well
· the comraderie of shared struggle
· the freedom to organize their own lives
· bureaucratic inflexibility
· intrusive administrative requirements
· the distance and condescension of many faculty
· excessive pressure and unmeetable demands
· lack of sympathy for the struggle of academic survival
· scarcity of invitations for meaningful policy participation
· lackluster commitment to excellent teachers
· treatment of symptoms rather than causes of campus problems
· the lack of support for fun and relaxing activities and events
· the remoteness and mystery of the Corporation
While I havenít studied last yearís reorganization of the offices of undergraduate support, I gather that it was intended to address some of these issues; I hope itís succeeding.
The point I want to make, though, is that all of these items are fundamentally people and policy issues, not money issues. MIT is in the enviable position of being financially sound and able to spend. But buildings and facilities or even staff are not the key to quality of life. Theyíre important, but the key is what you make of what youíve got. As we say in hi-tech, "people are your greatest asset".
Unfortunately, I think the Love/Hate aspect of the MIT experience can never be completely erased. Part of what we love is overcoming what we hate. If MIT werenít so hard, weíd have less of a common bond.
Also, I think the primary job of the faculty is to advance human knowledge, not to coddle undergraduates. Having a nice personality is not a job requirement, although fortunately it usually comes along for free.
Nevertheless, much can be improved, particularly in the area of administration and governance.
In particular, when considering these matters, the faculty should remember that they are the anointed ones and have some compassion for mere mortals: even at MIT not all undergraduates are as singularly focused on academics or as brilliant as they were and are.
NOT a problem is the fact that life-education outside the classroom is un-orchestrated by the Deans or un-integrated with the curriculum.. Notwithstanding the call of the Task Force, students need an escape from academic pressure. MIT is already a pressure cooker - screwing down the safety valve is bound to have disastrous and unpredictable effects. Management of extracurricular life should be like management of traffic: decide on the rules of the road and then just let it flow.
Also not a problem is the emergence of the Net. The Task Force anticipates competition for students in a wired world from the Net itself. I say, let MIT grow with the Net to become more effective; donít let it intimidate us into curling inward. There will always be value in shared experience and face-to-face collaboration among students and faculty.
Critique of alternate plans
Before expanding on my own proposals, I want to go over my reasons for rejecting other plans that have come to my attention. Iíll start by examining the likely alternatives if freshmen are required to live on campus.
The idea of housing all freshmen in one set of dorms the way Harvard does seems to have virtually no advocates, so I wonít go into it any further, other than to say that not being the same as them is a joyful distinction.
That leaves us with students moving into ILGís either in the middle of freshman year or the beginning of sophomore year. The first option is exceedingly wasteful of housing resources: hundreds of fraternity rooms would be vacant in the fall, and hundreds of dorm rooms in the spring. One might argue that this is an acceptable price to pay to support the ILG's, but this is clearly not an ĎA+í solution for a housing system, to paraphrase Mr. Hecht.
The second option (having freshmen live in the dorms all year) avoids at least this difficulty, but leaves the ILGís in the position of having to attract 30% more members every year to fill the same number of rooms, or 60% rather than 44% of the incoming males, based on current ratios. This seems an unrealistic expectation. Calculations based on the reasonable assumption that fraternities will achieve only 80% of their former recruitment level due to inertia (Appendix A), show that at the end of a 4-year transient period, the fraternities would be reduced to 60% of their former numbers, while the dorm population would be 22% higher. The resulting dorm overcrowding and waste of fraternity beds is also clearly not an ĎA+í solution. The problem is only compounded if admission levels are forced to drop because of dorm overcrowding.
There are also social and psychological disadvantages to keeping all freshmen on campus: all freshmen considering joining ILGís will be distracted from the many extracurricular activities that would otherwise have the benefit of their attention. And the ILGís upperclassmen will be similarly distracted, with added pressure to go to extreme lengths to recruit the freshmen, both because of the lengthy period of competition with other houses, and to overcome the competing academic and extracurricular demands on the freshmenís time.
MITís current system has the wonderful advantage that for most freshmen, Rush and housing decisions are over and done with before classes even start. As Mr. Hecht himself pointed out to me, freshmen are understandably daunted going into Rush, but afterward they have forgotten it and focused on the future.
· freshmen often experience disorientation and pressure on their arrival, and
· a degree of intimidation is to be expected when arriving at such a fabled institution, and
a gentler and more comprehensive introduction to MIT is desirable,
the Freshman Orientation period will be extended as follows:
The freshman picnic and the start of rush take place on the first Friday after Labor Day, similar to the way they traditionally have.
The freshmen are invited to arrive on the Tuesday before
(the day after Labor Day), when orientation sessions are held in groups
of 10 at various pre-arranged places around the Institute at 3:00 in the
1.1.1 Monday (Labor Day)
Temporary dorm assignments will be issued in advance by mail, and some rooms will be available from Monday evening, to allow for freshmen to arrive a day early in case they canít get a flight that arrives Tuesday morning.
Session leaders will be volunteers from within the Staff and Faculty.
Freshmen, if they have indicated they will attend, will have been randomly assigned to an orientation session.
They will be provided with a standard hour-long curriculum around which they can elaborate. The curriculum will cover the layout of the campus and environs, the numbering system and structure of the various departments, the athletic facilities, registration procedures, the residential system, etc.
After that, the session leader will take the whole group out for dinner at a local Dining establishment, with MIT picking up the tab, and deliver them back to campus afterwards, providing transportation if they choose to.
Tuesday night, two or three big performance or lecture
presentations will be available for freshmen to attend, arranged by LSC
and sponsored by MIT. The performances will be arranged to allow the freshmen
to interact with each other, and whatever other MIT community members may
be in attendance.
1.1.3 Wednesday & Thursday
Freshmen attend group activities which they have signed up for in advance by mail. Two days are provided for these activities so that they may involve overnight trips, such as going camping or visiting Cape Cod. The activities are organized and led by volunteers from the MIT Community and student groups, and are underwritten by MIT.
1.1.4 Thursday Night
Activities night in the student center, like the one held this year. Freshmen only.
1.2 Rush and Traditional Orientation
· living group choice is a core value of MIT, and
· fraternities, Sororities and other Independent Living Groups are an essential part of MITís residence system, and
· this part of the housing system can only be sensibly maintained with the full participation of freshmen, and
· choosing their living arrangements before embarking on their academic and extracurricular pursuits is the most satisfactory system yet discovered,
freshman rush for both dorm and ILG residences will be conducted before the start of the fall term.
Freshman Picnic at noon, Rush beginning at the end of it.
1.2.2 Saturday, Sunday
Rush Activities as customary
1.2.3 Monday onward
Rush continues as customary, along with customary orientation activities such as Activities and Athletic Midways, Parents Weekend, and then the term begins.
the following activities will be supported:
2.1 For-credit activities
2.1.1 Freshman Design Contest
A multidisciplinary design contest seminar for freshmen will be offered each Spring semester, in two parts. The seminar will be organized and sponsored jointly by the departments of Mechanical Engineering, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Aeronautics and Astronautics, and Materials Science.
It will be called the Micro Games seminar and will attempt each year to use a smaller arena and entry dimensions than the previous year.
184.108.40.206 Freshman Design Contest Introductory Seminar
A two-week introductory seminar will be offered for 3 general academic credits in which participating freshmen are introduced to the design parameters of the yearís contest, and research design ideas and background information, and become familiar with the components in the box of parts each team will receive.
220.127.116.11 Freshman Design Contest Competition Seminar
For the remainder of the term, freshmen who choose to continue participating will be assigned to teams using a randomizing algorithm to assure a broad distribution of gender, residence and home state within each team.
Each team will then construct from its box of parts a device which will be entered in the final competition, to be held near the end of the term. This phase of the seminar will be worth 6 credits. Pizza will be served at weekly team lab meetings.
2.1.2 Design of the Freshman Design Contest
Each fall semester, a contest design seminar open to all students will be offered. The first assignment of the seminar will be to invent the contest parameters for the following yearís Spring Micro Games. From the submissions of all the students, a contest design will be chosen or synthesized. The remainder of the term will be devoted to producing the components and arena to be used in the next Springís freshman design contest, with students working in teams of their own choosing. This seminar will be worth 9 credits.
2.1.3 Community Service Volunteer Work
6 humanities credits will be awarded to each student who completes 60 hours of work in a term for an approved community service organization.
2.2 Not-for-credit activities
While students will undoubtedly continue their vigorous participation in Varsity and Intramural athletics, clubs, service organizations and other student associations, and IAP, MIT will actively encourage student participation in campus-wide events such as the following:
2.2.1 Performance Presentations
18.104.22.168 Rock Concert
Each semester LSC will organize and MIT will subsidize a performance by a popular music group and at MIT, with free soft drinks provided for all attending.
22.214.171.124 Dance Concert
Each semester LSC will organize and MIT will subsidize a performance by a popular dance group and at MIT.
126.96.36.199 Student Music Competition
Each year MIT will host a "Battle of the Bands" style competition among bands containing at least one MIT student, with free soft drinks provided for all attending.
2.2.2 MIT Olympics
Each semester the Athletic Department will organize a competition among self-selected teams of MIT students in traditional and whimsical team athletic events. Free food and soft drinks will be provided for participants and spectators.
2.2.3 Varsity Games
Free food and soft drinks will be provided for spectators at suitable Varsity sports home games.
2.3 Independent Activities Period (IAP)
· IAP is a cherished part of MITís tradition, and
· IAP is the venue for innumerable community-building events, and
· IAPís usefulness in this regard is diminished when students are tempted or required to take courses for credit during the period,
Academic courses for credit will be prohibited during IAP.
Each Spring before Commencement, the Graduate Studentís Council will undertake a survey of graduate students, which will attempt to determine levels of satisfaction with their MIT experience, areas of satisfaction and dissatisfaction, degrees of community involvement and belonging. The results of this survey will be presented to the office of the Student Life and to the Alumni Association, which will publish them for the Alumni.
13.2 5-year Reviews
Every 5 years, the Alumni Association will arrange an
IAP Design Contest for the Undergraduate Experience similar to this one.
Participants and committee members from previous contests will be invited
to present their stories to the new participants and committee members.
The resulting ideas will be synthesized and implemented according to the
above procedures for implementation, as they may be revised..