Quiet Victories for Student Initiatives

2007 represented a year of quiet victories for student-led initiatives. Two examples merit particular attention — the first for confirming that partnership between students and administrators is possible, the second for demonstrating that sustained student pressure can change even the most entrenched of Institute policies.

Ongoing discussions between Next House’s student government, the Office of Undergraduate Advising and Academic Programming, and the Office of Housing reached fruition in December 2007 when it was announced that freshmen placed in that dormitory would be able to participate in Residence Exploration and enter the Housing Readjustment Lottery (The Tech, Dec. 4, 2007). This policy change could not have come sooner: 49 percent of the ’09s who were placed there ranked it as their first choice in the summer lottery. That figure decreased to 36 percent for the Class of 2010, and plummeted to 18 percent for the Class of 2011. This drop becomes even more pronounced when one examines the three-year trends for other dorms (The Tech, Aug. 27, 2007). Franklyn F. Lau ’08 deserves much of the credit for giving future Next House freshmen more choice.

MIT’s decision to divest selectively from companies that are operating in Sudan was another critical victory, especially considering its past record (The Tech, May 15, 2007). After all, it was one of the few institutions that did not divest from companies that were investing in apartheid South Africa during the 1980s. Harvard, Yale, and Stanford all established standing advisory committees on shareholder responsibility in the 1970s; the Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility that MIT established in 1971 was only ad hoc. For the past three decades, Harvard, Yale, and Stanford have led academia in responding to grave human rights crises; MIT’s ASCR did not even convene between 1999 and 2006. Although the Institute should have rendered a judgment on Sudan far earlier than it did (it announced its decision well after most schools had opted to divest), it deserves praise for responding at all. It was MIT Amnesty International’s tireless campaign that compelled MIT to reconsider its posture.

There were, of course, important setbacks. Notable among them was the announcement that W1 would have a dining hall and program (The Tech, Dec. 7, 2007). This decision was apparently made without input from the Blue Ribbon Committee, which outgoing Dean for Student Life Larry G. Benedict tasked with undertaking a complete reassessment of dining at MIT.

The W1 decision confirms that we — students, that is — are not going to win every time, and we should not expect to either. It also reminds us of the pressing challenges that we confront. Professor James L. Sherley’s hunger strike prompted another review of the Institute’s stance on matters of race. The felony charges against three students who set off a burglar alarm in the E52 Faculty Club renewed the discussion on hacking guidelines.

The most important issues, however, and the ones that will require our greatest thought this year, are those that involve MIT’s obligations to its students and to the outside of the world — obligations that can, and often do, conflict. Take the case of Star A. Simpson ’10. Did MIT speak too quickly? Should administrators have consulted with her before they issued their statement to the media? Was that statement’s use of the word “reckless” appropriate? In an open letter to President Susan Hockfield, Sarah F. Ackley ’08 stated that she was “appalled that MIT has failed to give Star its full support in this matter” (The Tech, Sept. 25, 2007) — so, too, were many other MIT students. There is a perception that the Institute has grown less supportive of its students.

A student protest letter published one day before Ackley’s opinion piece asked, “What happened to ‘All Tech men carry batteries’?”, a question that Professor Patrick H. Winston also invoked at a faculty meeting addressing the same issue. Whether or not the quote is real, the perception that MIT is less supportive of students than in years past certainly is.

This conviction strengthened when MIT did not defend 19 students who were subpoenaed by the Recording Industry Association of America for allegedly downloading music illegally. Erek R. Speed ’09 lambasted the Institute for “throwing its students to the dogs,” arguing that “appeasing the RIAA” has undermined students and further restricted informational flows (The Tech, Dec. 7, 2007). The RIAA case has been particularly damaging to MIT’s credibility in supporting its students because it pits a powerful corporation against disempowered students.

As 2008 unfolds, it is clear that we have much work to do. As always, it is uncertain how we will fare in addressing the myriad of important issues that we face. It is also clear, however, that we can make great progress if we galvanize and persevere — such should be our mantra for the new year.

Ali S. Wyne ’08 is the vice president of the Undergraduate Association.