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Vest discusses decision on freshman housing

President Charles M. Vest outlined plans at the September 16 faculty meeting for community-wide participation in planning and developing a new residential system.

"We need to create a much clearer vision of what a new residential system might be -- and to be really creative about envisioning alternatives," President Vest said in opening remarks at the meeting. He said advisory groups made up of faculty, students and alumni/ae would play key roles in establishing priorities for the new system. The new dormitory on Vassar Street, scheduled to open in 2001, will also be on the agenda of an open forum tomorrow.

"As we move forward, I hope we can all work together to create a more integrated residential system -- one that fosters a mutually supportive, academically oriented environment for all our students," President Vest said. "At this point, I want to reiterate that fraternities, sororities and independent living groups are and will be important elements of our campus life. We do not expect all the houses to go through this transition without some help, financial and otherwise, from the Institute. This is not a guarantee that every house will survive as it currently exists, but it is not at all clear that they would if we continued with the current system unchanged."

Chancellor Lawrence S. Bacow and Dean of Students and Undergraduate Education Rosalind H. Williams will lead discussions and coordinate the planning process. Dean of Architecture William J. Mitchell, the Planning Office staff and others have already started meeting with Dean Williams and Chancellor Bacow about the new dorm.

Discussions with Alumni Interfraternity Council President Steve Stuntz are also under way. The report of the Task Force on Student Life and Learning, the housing system and the new dormitory were discussed at length at the Alumni Leadership Conference on Saturday.

President Vest said former MIT President Paul Gray, now a professor in electrical engineering and computer science, and Professor Edward F. Crawley, head of aeronautics and astronautics, had agreed to serve on the faculty advisory group.

"The planning process will determine the details of the new residence system, but I would like to make one personal observation," President Vest said. "As we look to the future, I have heard much concern about two specific issues: random assignment of freshmen to campus residences and the creation of freshman residence halls. Personally I do not support either of these concepts, and it certainly is not what I have heard the community asking for during the last year."

He said he hoped to have a more substantive report on the planning process at the October faculty meeting.


President Vest opened the meeting by discussing the substance, process and timing involved in the decision to house all freshmen on campus in 2001. He acknowledged that "good people have differing views on each of these matters" and said he had pondered the issues and listened to arguments from all sides before making his decision.

"It is a major step in our commitment to enhancing our educational community, better integrating student life and learning, and improving the introduction and connection of our students to MIT," President Vest said. "In my vision, FSILGs are and will continue to be important elements of our campus life, but I believe we need a greater integration and spirit of community across our entire system. Indeed, the residence halls have much to learn from our FSILGs. I want to preserve the spirit of choice, variety and supportive networking among freshmen and upperclass members, yet give our students a more consistent initial experience on our campus."

He said the decision was made after extensive community dialogue for a year, which included "study, correspondence, discussion and debate in numerous settings, including faculty meetings, student meetings, community forums, committees, working groups and the opinions of my colleagues in the administration." He noted that The Working Group on Dangerous Drinking, the Committee on the Freshman Year, and the Task Force on Student Life and Learning all recommended that first-year students reside on campus.

"Over the past year, I listened to all the arguments, consulted with the various constituencies involved, and reviewed the faculty and student reports over the years," President Vest said. "I have also taken into account the intense public scrutiny and broader community concerns on this matter. That includes my testifying in a criminal hearing before the Suffolk County grand jury, where this topic was an explicit part of the questioning and line of inquiry."

He said announcing the new policy on the eve of Orientation was "gut-wrenching," describing it as "one of those important moments when the proverbial buck stops here.

"Frankly, one of my motivations on timing was that if anyone had asked me in the several weeks before the start of the term if I had arrived at a decision, I would have had to reply yes," he said. "This decision was not made lightly or without regard to the possible impact on Rush or on relations with students and faculty."

Dr. Vest also stressed that the circumstances surrounding this decision do not signal a new era in dealing with the faculty.

"Frankly, I hope never again to have to be in a position to make a decision that will be viewed by respected colleagues as being insufficiently consultative with faculty and students," he said. "I was well aware of this risk at the time I made the decision and weighed the consequences to the best of my ability, but I did see it not as something done on the spur of the moment but as the culmination of a year of work and discussion. These were extraordinary circumstances.

"Having said that, I want to repeat that this is not how I see our governance operating under normal circumstances. The special nature of the relations between faculty and administration at MIT is something to be cherished. There are very few institutions where the chair of the faculty then takes on senior positions in the administration: Walter Rosenblith, Art Smith, Sheila Widnall and now Larry Bacow are obvious examples.

"Indeed, much of my rationale for bringing Larry Bacow into the senior administration was my belief that the position of chancellor would help us do much more to integrate issues and build consensus within the Institute as we plan for our future. And I firmly believe that Larry is just the right person for this job."


The co-chairs of the Task Force on Student Life and Learning, Professors Robert J. Silbey of chemistry and R. John Hansman Jr. of aeronautics and astronautics, reviewed the findings of their group's two-year study and engaged in a discussion of key points with the audience.

They noted a key principle cited in the report -- that an MIT education "should prepare students for life through a triad composed of academics, research and community" -- provided the foundation for many of the recommendations.

Noting that the report calls for faculty to play a more active role in students' lives outside the classroom, Professor Silbey addressed the issue of increasing the demands on faculty members' time. "We don't expect every faculty member to do everything every year," he said.

Professor J. Kim Vandiver of ocean engineering, a member of the Task Force, observed that MIT does well in classroom instruction and research but less well in other areas, "like learning to speak well and learning to lead." A recurring phrase in the Task Force dialogue, "the education of the whole individual," should be an integral part of the MIT experience, he said.

Institute Professor Hermann A. Haus, also a member of the Task Force, urged faculty members to meet with their students in informal settings. "The triad is really the principle of learning from each other��������������������������� throughout my career, I've learned a lot from my students," he said, adding that his experience was not uncommon.

The entire Task Force report is available on line. Requests for a hard copy should be sent to Observations and reaction are invited and may be sent to the same e-mail address.

The report calls for the formation of a strategic planning group to make the triad a reality. The group will be led by President Vest, Provost Robert A. Brown and Chancellor Bacow.

Provost Brown urged departments and units to reevaluate priorities and develop an "interface of resources" in planning for the next five years. "We've got to try to get departments and units to step back and say, in effect, 'What do we want to be when we grow up?'" he said.


A proposal to introduce an interdisciplinary doctoral degree in archaeological materials in 1999 was made by Professor Linn W. Hobbs. The program, to be administered by the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, would involve the MIT departments of architecture; civil and environmental engineering; earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences; chemistry; biology; mechanical engineering, and Harvard University's anthropology department.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 23, 1998.

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