Students concerned that radical changes in the housing system were on the horizon peppered President Charles Vest with questions at his fifth town meeting at Kresge Auditorium last Friday.
The session was 90 minutes old before a question regarding alcohol policy was posed by sophomore Sarah McDougal, who apologized if the subject had been covered before she arrived.
"To my utter amazement, you are the first person to ask about this topic today," said President Vest. "Indeed, while I fully understand the reason the campus debate has moved over so heavily into housing and orientation and while I accept some mild coupling between the two issues, I really want to make sure that we do not get defocused from our need to exert greater leadership on the issue of alcohol on campus and particularly the issue of binge drinking." He promised to issue a statement on the subject.
Students representing a cross-section of the community -- including fraternity members, dormitory residents, freshmen and upperclassmen, gays and members of the Black Students Union (BSU) -- expressed their concerns about proposed changes in the housing policy. Unlike at earlier town meetings, the majority of the 500 audience members were students.
Responding to a question from Joaquin Terrones of the BSU, President Vest said that compatible living situations and peer support were important considerations, and that a "reasonable degree of freedom of choice" would be maintained. Any decisions will "be taken in the best interests of all students, including you," he said.
Stephanie Miller, a senior in biology, read a petition signed by 67 members of GAMIT (Gays at MIT) that warned randomized housing would expose gay students to harassment. "MIT has worked very hard" to make gay and lesbian students comfortable and would continue to do so, President Vest said.
He assured a graduate student that new graduate housing would not be allocated to undergraduates if freshmen are required to live on campus. When a female student urged preservation of "the strong brotherhood" she observed among fraternity brothers, he said, "I cannot say that if we change things, FSILGs will automatically die."
A freshman from Nu Delta noted that his fraternity offered him the support and mentoring of MIT veterans and wondered how that would be replaced if he were required to live in a dormitory. President Vest invited a dormitory resident to respond. "As much as this might shock you, we actually talk to each other in the dormitories," said a male student who lives in a dorm.
A female student urged the administration to move slowly on housing policy reforms. "These are our homes you're changing," she said.
Members of the BSU asked President Vest to address several non-housing concerns, among them the dwindling percentage of black students in the freshman class, representation on committees, and campus race relations.
"We must stay the course and strengthen what we do," President Vest said, reiterating MIT's commitment to maintaining a diverse student body. While not promising representation on all committees, he promised "reasonable diversity." As for campus race relations, inflamed by the Extropians' prejudicial statements last summer, he said he was committed to racial harmony but would not censor speech on campus. "Just because their opinion is abhorrent to me does not mean they should not be allowed to express that opinion," he said.
A representative of Local 254 wondered whether parking fees would be increased in the near future. "We have no plan to make any change next year," said Senior Vice President William Dickson, noting that any future increase would be about 20 percent (raising the fee to $350), not in the 50 to 100 percent range.
VEST TO ANSWER E-MAIL QUESTIONS
President Charles Vest promised at Friday's town meeting to answer all questions submitted to him via e-mail and to keep the mailbox open for future inquiries. Any questions not answered during the meeting will be responded to in future editions of MIT Tech Talk. Questions may be sent to the anonymous e-mail box at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 5, 1997.