Lis Drake <email@example.com>
Adulthood is a time of responsibility and privilege where issues such as finance, health and balance, shelter, citizenship, and values system definition are largely left to the individual to establish. Which responsibilities and privileges of adulthood should be expected of all members of the MIT community, and which should be developed over time for one or more segments? What must occur within the residential system to foster that development?
MIT tends to be an intense, work- and excellence-driven, competitive environment where concentration on work builds stress and often interferes with the development of social skills and a real sense of community. Faculty and staff often sacrifice personal and family time to work demands. Some faculty are also very committed to students -- either through advising, mentoring, or interactions with the residence system, but these are juggled into already too busy schedules. When untenured faculty spend a lot of time this way, they often jeopardize their careers.
Faculty and staff tend to focus on work achievements, most are in touch with professional values, financial responsibility, etc. However, many put health and balance as lower priorities. Student interactions seem to focus mainly on the academic.
The students reflect this same work and competitive culture -- and tend also to get involved in intense extracurricular activities whether they be music, athletics, publications, etc. Parties are also high energy. Some students find alcohol and drugs a convenient way of relieving stress and getting out of the rat race for a while. A subpopulation of this group, probably driven by cravings associated with incipient addiction tendencies, get into excessive use leading to antisocial behaviors. These subgroups tend to seek each other out and create pockets of dangerous behaviors in both dorms and independent living groups. They draw in other students who are seeking the excitement, but these students are probably not the ringleaders.
Educational and judicial responses to drug and alcohol excesses will not reach the group that is already caught up in the culture. The great thing about drugs and heavy alcohol use is that they shut down our rational functions and when we are "high" we don't remember any rational advice, nor do we fear any consequences. Thus, it is key to have a community which is outside of the excess use group that will provide some brakes on the behaviors and get students who are getting in increasing trouble to the social work department or other help services at MIT. This can apply not only to drugs and alcohol, but to a whole spectrum of antisocial behaviors as well. One of these behaviors is "work addiction" (which often goes hand in hand with other addictive behaviors) and which is presently a valued asset in the MIT culture. However, this, too, is unhealthy and gets in the way of both students and faculty relating well to others and to a community. Learning the balance between hard work, social interactions, relaxation, hobbies, etc. is part of the education we owe our students.
The challenge is to create a community culture that will allow students to take responsibility for their residential group behavior. Our bright and talented students are perfectly capable of learning to do this, but we rarely ask them to do so. Freshmen arriving at MIT come from diverse situations, but most have been living under some sort of parental supervision. Some are already into the active drug/alcohol culture. MIT presently does not have a good system for encouraging students throughout the community to seriously consider social responsibility and culture within their living groups.
Dorms, with the faculty resident and tutor system, are large groups that are not particularly designed to create socially responsible living environments. Behaviors are spread among suites or halls -- and unhealthy ones are tolerated until some accident or major breach of conduct occurs. The guilty are punished or chastised and the culture goes on.
Fraternities, sororities, and ILGs are sized so that they in fact can establish their own culture. However, there is little structure to promote the development of cultures that are socially responsible. This happens in some groups -- in others, the "party hearty" culture may prevail and attract members who are in the same mode. The cultures continue unless some accident or major breach of conduct occurs, at which time a punishment mode comes into play.
The model I would like to see for the future involves subdividing students into groups of 50 to 100 or so -- large enough to create a sense of community and small enough so that subcommunities do not thrive unnoticed. Then, some structure needs to be developed to provide the students in the community with the responsibility for thinking about the standards they and their group wish to live by. Here, positive interaction with faculty, alums, and student life professionals (aka Deans) are needed to provide a resource and some guidance. These groups would shift from the current "enforcement/punishment" mode to a more interactive and supportive mode. This will take more time commitment from faculty, staff, and alums -- but can have a very positive payoff.
My model for this new way of operating is WILG, where the students have taken full responsibility for setting their standards and operating the house. Frequent alum board meetings at the house with the student officers and others who are interested, allow trust and mutual respect to grow and issues that need to be addressed are discussed openly. One of the comments I hear frequently from WILG alums is that they got another whole education there as they took responsibility for various aspects of implementing their community. Those alums who remain in the area are truly connected to the house and are willing to participate fairly actively. WILG students do a variety of things that build community -- from group dining, to house meetings, to an annual retreat, to parties, and community service work.
WILG has had a harder time of getting connected to faculty and dean's office staff in other than a limited manner. One faculty member has been very supportive of the group -- but most are too busy to even accept a one-time dinner invitation. Likewise, the Dean's office provides some service on request, but also does not interact on a social basis.
If this model is to be developed on a larger scale, each of the student communities will need to have a committed group of mentors who are drawn from faculty, staff and alums. These mentors need to understand the MIT student environment and pressures, and need to be willing to spend time on a consistent basis working with the students. Two evening meetings a term would be a minimum -- and further interaction would be desirable. And perhaps student leaders in the different groups might meet together on a fairly regular basis to share views on issues, problems, successes, etc. The outcome would be a set of communities that have participants taking responsibility for each ones operations and culture -- including the upperclass students aiding freshmen in their introduction to MIT. Each group would also establish certain metrics that could be used to measure its adherence to the culture and would be responsible for intervening or taking disciplinary action against those with serious problematic behaviors.
Since MIT is a diverse community, each group will develop its own personality and standards. Individual rights need to be safeguarded as part of the process -- and diversity needs to become a shared value.
One radical idea would be to challenge living groups to develop these standards and cultures as a prerequisite to allowing freshmen to live in the group. I think there is a great advantage to having most students spend their time at MIT in one living group where they make friends and see each other grow. A dorm environment is no guarantee of healthy lifestyle unless someone works to make it so. Nor is an independent living group necessarily a dangerous environment. If a set of standards could be developed that could be shared with parents of freshmen about the MIT living environment that apply as a minimum to groups housing freshmen, I think this would be met positively.
A more ambitious endeavor would be to try to do something like this with other Boston area schools! They all are facing the same issues.
If we are building responsibility and group experience in our students, they will need to take the lead role in the process. There are a number of committed faculty who are willing to help. Getting faculty and staff engaged on a regular basis will be a real challenge -- some will be willing, but probably not enough to make this work. Perhaps getting more faculty living on campus might help. I don't think that "paying" people to do this is very productive. Alums may be a resource worth exploring. I wonder if the Deans Office might be able to reallocate resources and focus to allow many of their staff to become mentors rather that resource bureaucracy?
Perhaps we can be creative in designating time for constructive group activities. One approach might be to designate a homework-free weekend each semester for living group retreats. [Or how about a weekday with no schedulable activities for any faculty and students??] This might end with a supper with a "mentor group" where discussions are encouraged -- and then perhaps a big (alcohol-free) campus fun event for all students and mentors together. Maybe we could even show more serious faculty the benefits of occasionally having fun!
OK -- you get the idea! Thanks for reading this if you got this far!