Let’s Regulate the Freshmen in FSILGs.

An unknown number of second-semester freshmen choose to live in their fraternities, technically breaking MIT rules, and the Institute does not regulate the practice. Everyone knows about it. Regulating the practice, rather than pretending it does not exist, would protect MIT students from whatever risks it may incur.

I propose that for a two-year trial, MIT should let freshmen opt out of spring semester housing and move into a recognized fraternity, sorority, or independent living group. I’ll say “FSILG” for conciseness, although it is very likely that the illicit practice today largely consists of freshmen men moving into fraternities.

The program should exclude FSILGs which are unsafe (for example, any which get freshmen dangerously drunk), which compromise freshmen’s schoolwork (so much that the freshmen see formal action from the Committee on Academic Performance), or which try to force any pledge to move in. And MIT should promise students a “get-out-of-FSILG-free card” in the form of a guaranteed space in a dormitory in students’ sophomore fall.

By “exclude” I mean that FSILGs who didn’t qualify for the program would face really big problems, like suspension, if anyone found out they were illicitly letting freshmen move in. Competition between houses and pressure from administrators would give these rules teeth.

For years MIT has required that freshmen pay for two semesters of dorm housing but quietly ignored students who break the rule and move out. (See the Nov. 1, 2002 Tech article “Some Frosh Live in Fraternities.”) This is no surprise: you can’t really stop adults from doing what they want.

The rule, meant to keep freshmen in dormitories, probably keeps some freshmen closer to dorms because they don’t enjoy feeling like they wasted their money. Even so, some students move out but continue to pay for a non-service. This proposal would correct that unfairness and help fill every dorm with people who really wanted to be there.

Empty beds contribute little to dorm culture. But those same beds could house students returning from medical or academic leaves of absence, entering their ninth semesters of undergraduate study, or coming back to the dorms after living elsewhere. Those students actually want to live in an MIT dorm.

I don’t know how many freshmen — call them “movers” — spend the spring with their FSILG. But I’ve talked to many students who know someone whose freshman roommate wasn’t around much during the fall and disappeared in the spring (some move all their possessions out of the room before the spring starts).

Because movers spend so little time in their nominal dorm — at most, only their first semester — halls which participate in “in-house rush” and value their culture have an incentive to avoid students who might join a FSILG. Halls that play the game poorly are penalized by a conspicuous absence of freshman boys in their lounges.

My proposal might not save movers money — they could end up paying a FSILG’s house tax instead of an empty room’s rent. But MIT would lose little money despite the move-outs because dorm space is in high demand. (A caveat: MIT might lose the revenue it gets from crowding — filling dorm rooms beyond their official capacity, an unpopular and uncomfortable result of unexpectedly high freshman yields — if crowded students move out and can’t be replaced.)

Dorm residents would see few downsides. Rents could go up slightly, if it turns out that actually living in a room costs more than renting an empty bed. House taxes wouldn’t go as far if more people came to dorm events. And students counting on AWOL roommates to give them a little more breathing room would simply lose. (I enjoyed a Bexley “freshman double” to myself in spring 2005. It was OK.)

To be sure, more than today’s illicit “movers” might leave. Today, some freshmen split time between the dorm and their FSILG and ultimately decide to stay in the dorm. Given a choice in the spring, they might leave, depriving the dorm of their companionship and further widening the dorm-FSILG divide. Dorms would lose some of these people in this proposal. I can only hope that given a choice, free of unfair coercion, most students truly interested in the dorm lifestyle would continue to try it out.

Tracking and regulating freshman move-outs would rid MIT of the embarrassment of seeing newspaper columns that say “an unknown number of second-semester freshmen choose to live in their fraternities, technically breaking MIT rules, and the Institute does not regulate the practice.”

This proposal would be an enormous change to a dictum President Emeritus Charles M. Vest announced in 1998, that all freshmen must live in dormitories beginning fall 2001 (later “fall 2002” after Simmons Hall construction delays). This followed the September 1997 alcohol poisoning death of freshman Phi Gamma Delta pledge Scott S. Krueger; in 2000, MIT apologized for its lax alcohol policies and gave the Krueger family $4.75 million.

How could MIT change its president emeritus’s freshmen-in-dormitories rule without seeming historically insensitive or losing political capital? Well, by ignoring the status quo since 2002, MIT has deliberately missed the point. If Vest had meant “freshmen must pay for dormitories,” not “freshmen must live in dormitories,” surely he would have said so.

Further, if freshmen in FSILG houses face safety hazards, shouldn’t MIT be regulating the practice? A blanket rule that everyone breaks is pointless. A nuanced rule that does not outright ban status quo but gives houses an incentive to comply would do a better job of achieving Vest’s goal, making fraternity culture safer.

I’m thinking about this issue now because Brian Neltner G wrote to many dorm mailing lists with a proposal to let second-semester freshmen live in FSILGs, visible online at http://fsilg-housing.org/. He sparked thoughtful discussion on many of those lists. Although his proposal felt unconvincing, as though it were trying to say “we promise FSILGs won’t hurt freshmen,” I may have missed some nuance since I’m an outsider to the FSILG community.

Plenty of people at MIT know more about what’s going on in FSILG-land than I do. We deserve to understand why administrators and FSILG leaders are satisfied with the status quo, an unenforced rule barring an unregulated practice that happens all the time. Let us know what’s going on — write to letters@tech.mit.edu.

Michael McGraw-Herdeg is The Tech’s executive editor.