Opinion letter to the editor

Burton-Conner housemaster response to front page photo of ‘postering’

I write in my capacity as the Housemaster of Burton-Conner to respond to the campaign of retaliation that began on Sunday night Sept. 22 and was continued by your publication in The Tech on Friday, Sept. 27 of a poster indicating that Burton-Conner was “subject to legalese and scare tactics” because “Students [were] attempting to communicate.” This poster and related ones were posted throughout Burton-Conner and in buildings across campus on or about Sept. 22/23, by a group that identified itself as “Concerned Connerside,” but reportedly involved students from many parts of campus. “Legalese and scare tactics” must refer to my raising a Title IX concern, since that was the only rationale given, and repeatedly, by MIT for removing certain murals and graffiti from the walls of Burton-Conner.

By posting this image, in which the text of the poster can be clearly read and hence its message clearly communicated, but without any accompanying story to put the poster in context, or to offer another point of view, the Tech has effectively spread the postering effort to an even broader compass of the MIT community, including those who are not on campus regularly but do read The Tech, in its online version for example. This cannot be construed as a “neutral” news item when only the poster itself is allowed to speak to this wide forum. I was not interviewed about this poster.

This controversy began when we raised a concern to the Division of Student Life about a potentially harassing environment on one floor of Burton-Conner as evidenced by the totality of the wall art and permanent graffiti in its public spaces. (Once again, I will forbear from making public what was found on those walls, with the exception of two examples below, because it had not been my intention or role to publicly humiliate any residents of my dorm. Certain residents, not I, saw fit to take this matter beyond our dorm, and repeatedly so.) They agreed that the material on the walls and the décor of the lounge were inconsistent with the values espoused in the MIT Mind and Hand Book and likely to run afoul of Federal and State civil rights and anti-harassment legislation, which among other things highlight the well-established nexus between intoxication and sexual harassment/violence. The material at issue was removed, “immediately” as Federal Title IX guidance explicitly requires, and some students have been angry ever since.

I do not want here, however, to respond to the substantive issues of either U.S. civil rights law (more comprehensive than many in the community seem to realize), or First Amendment protections of free speech (more limited than many in the community seem to realize — it cannot be used as a shield for sexual harassment, for example). I am not an expert in this body of law, nor the person on this campus designated with being so. I will note that such experts and designees do exist. My colleague Professor Chris Capozzola is teaching a course this fall term titled, “Gender and the Law in U.S. History” (21H.320J/WGS.161J). He is an expert. Dean Barbara Baker is the MIT Title IX Coordinator for students. Her counterpart for employees is Alison Alden, Vice President for Human Resources, and as of Monday Sept. 30, MIT has a new Title IX Investigator, Sarah Rankin. They are all charged with the communication of these regulations to the MIT community, as well as the enforcement of them for the protection of all members of the community.

What I do want to do in this letter is to tell a story; a story which informs every aspect of the decision making I have engaged in since first discovering the harassing material on the walls of the residence hall that has been entrusted to my care by MIT.

In the twilight hours of Labor Day in 1979, my family, while driving home from a weekend backpacking trip, was struck by a drunk driver. Our car was hit broadside at considerable speed, rolled over twice, and crushed my brother who, as the driver had taken the brunt of the impact. My father, who had been sitting behind him, suffered a broken back and numerous internal injuries. I was lucky. I had been asleep, and when thrown from the car, I woke up only gradually with a broken collarbone and a series of relatively minor lacerations on my head. My mother, who had escaped from her seatbelt physically unscathed, suffered the much worse trauma of witnessing the carnage alert and in possession of her full faculties. Our beloved family dog ran off into the forest, blessedly emerging three days later at a Ranger Station, hungry and scared. We were later told that she was only lured home by an entire box of Oreo cookies.

Because this accident occurred in the mountains, and at the close of a holiday weekend, the nearest hospital was far away and ambulances were in scarce supply. My father was evacuated first as the person with the most serious injuries, and accompanied by my mother. I was left to ride to the hospital in a second ambulance alongside the intoxicated young woman who had driven into us, suffering a broken nose as a result. As the paramedics settled us into place she managed at some point to ask me casually if anyone had been hurt. Not one to mince words even then, I informed her that my brother was dead, and my father possibly dying. She became hysterical, so much so that she had to be sedated. And I was scolded by the paramedics — what I remember is being yelled at, but that is not a memory I fully trust — for having “upset” this woman, who through her own selfish indulgence had just changed our family forever. Those adults told me that I was supposed to ‘shield’ her from the consequences of her actions. I was 16 years old.

That would be experience enough to make me wince at expectations that in my role as Housemaster I “shield” students from the consequences of their behavior, as so many in the MIT community have suggested to me over the last two months. But there is more to this story of mine that further informs my actions this summer and fall. My brother had been born with only one kidney, and that one in near failure. He had been sick his entire life. His first surgery was conducted prior to his first birthday, and virtually every year after that saw at least one more, culminating in a failed kidney transplant when he was 13. He spent the last five years of his life on dialysis three days per week, dying at 18, from a cause none of us had anticipated. I cannot tell you how many (well-intentioned?) people told my parents after the accident that they should be grateful that it had been Paul who died and not me — after all, I had a future ahead of me and he was likely to have died soon anyway. The wrongful death settlement from the boyfriend’s father’s insurance company reflected the same thinking — it was modest, because the life lost had been of such limited economic value. My parents did not sue. They valued their sanity over money. And there was no justice, as the young woman, a foreign national, fled the country in anticipation of her court appearance. It was the money from this settlement that paid for my first two years of college tuition. Prior to our accident my parents had no savings, having had to declare bankruptcy a few years before on account of my brother’s escalating medical bills.

But let me say a bit more about my brother. His problems had not just been medical. As I suspect many of the readers of this story know all too well, there is something much worse than surgery: bullies. Without properly functioning kidneys my brother’s growth had been stunted, and his facial features were odd. He was covered in scars from years of dialysis needles and too many surgical incisions. For years he had been the butt of merciless jokes, pranks, taunts, and even physical assault. Most adults at the schools we attended then were sympathetic, but frankly useless. No special accommodations had been made for him in the PE locker room. His life must have been a kind of hell that even as his younger sister, I could not comprehend. Who would stand up for such a boy? I tried to all the time, but it was relentless. One day someone else did too; someone I had thought of up to that point as very clever, with a sharp and cutting wit, very tall, and terribly handsome – not someone kids dared to make fun of, but not someone I expected to be compassionate either. That person eventually became my husband, impressing me with his courage to abandon the path of least resistance, to stand up for someone it would have been so easy to either ignore or join in the sport of making fun of. He is still standing up for my brother, every day when he goes to work as a civil rights attorney.

I think one of the reasons I wanted to spend my life as a professor is because college was such a refuge for me: a refuge for my mind, away from the narrow confines of my beach-side, large, public high school; a refuge for my soul, far away from the bullying which had pervaded my childhood school experience; a refuge for my heart, (temporarily) away from my grieving parents who had to figure out how to be a partnership again in the wake of their great tragedy. I also have a debt to repay: a debt to my brother, who in the most literal sense possible paid for my college education. I do not feel this debt as a burden though. I feel it as a gift; as an opportunity to be someone who takes notice, who intervenes even if the cost is high, who holds people to account, but also helps them to restoration and a new way of being in this world.

So let me set the record straight from the many rumors circulating widely around our community. I am not opposed to alcohol consumption. But drunkenness to the point of interpreting a kiss from an underage female as consent and locking protesting freshmen in a trunk (two bits of removed graffiti I do share here) impresses me about as much as throwing stones at a puppy. I am not opposed to sex. But sex used as a weapon of power by the strong against the weak, I have no tolerance for. I am not in favor of censorship. But words and images that are used to intimidate or demean members of our community in ways that do not permit the possibility of dialog or rebuttal, have no place on the walls of this Institute. I will not apologize for defending the law. It is in place precisely to protect those who are vulnerable or fear the kind of retaliation I have been subjected to in these last few months. And I will not be intimidated by a campaign to tarnish my reputation or accuse me of small-mindedness. I have ridden in an ambulance with the intoxicated woman who killed my disabled brother. I will not be deterred in my responsibility to protect the entire Burton-Conner community from harassment by some anonymously authored posters that do not speak the truth.

Tracy Hall over 4 years ago

Ms. McCants;

Perhaps the fact that 2/3 of your response on an issue of Students, Student Expression and Student Housing is about traumatic events in your past might indicate that, as well-intentioned and sincere (even correct) your views are, perhaps they are too biasing to allow your to be an arbiter and decision-maker in this particular dispute.

To advocate for your passionate views is absolutely your right and duty - but shouldn't that be on a equal footing to the other parties - even if you "know" they're wrong?

Isaac Moses '02 G '05 over 4 years ago

You are an authority figure, and those over whom you and your colleagues have autocratic power have mounted a verbal protest against behaviors of yours to which they take exception. I have trouble with your applying the terms "retaliation" and, by implication, "bully" to these protesters. The remedy for speech you don't like is more speech, especially if you are the one who wields the rule of law.

I hope you and the rest of the administration manage to find a path forward that effectively demonstrates leadership, communication, and education. You have the most authority here; you have the most responsibility to lead.

Anonymous over 4 years ago

This response, though genuine and emotional, seems to completely miss the point of the discussion. Perhaps worse, though likely not intended by Professor McCants, it also borders on the fallacious argument technique of an argument by pity - a technique in which the author attempts to garner substantial emotional support from the reader by advancing an either tangential or nonsequitur argument in attempts to pass off or avoid the burden of rational argument. If unintentional, I find it only embarrassing that a professor at MIT would resort to this approach. If rather Ms. McCants' appeal to her past as a character reference was intentionally done to artificially increase the gravity of the discussion, then she should truly be ashamed for taking part in the same kind of rhetorical anti-intellectual back and forth that educated individuals, like those from MIT, fight so hard against.

In either case, Ms. McCants appears to completely miss the point here - though there are students who are upset by an apparent infringement of free speech, the more substantive point is the deeply flawed process that belittles the maturity of MIT's young adult population and advances the alarming trend of acting hastily and without true legitimate process when issues of liability or local interpretation of US federal law are concerned. Certainly a clear violation of something like Title IX requires reparative action, however the determination of whether something is harassing (note: MIT students do not have the right to not be offended) offending and being offended are not a crime) is a highly subjective one, one that requires serious and frank conversation amongst all those involved. Obviously, this is not necessarily a democratic process as such a path would result in the majority always imposing their comfort zones on the rest. However, it is important that time and diligence be spent understanding the perspective of the entire dorm/organization/group before exercising such executive authority. This is how true leadership looks, how we want our MIT students to behave when they leave this place, and probably how Ms. McCants failed to act in her privileged position as a role model as BC.

Anonymous over 4 years ago

The tl;dr I'm getting from this, beyond that Anne McCants doesn't believe students deserve to have opinions, is that Anne McCants has no idea what Title IX is or means. Only 2 of the many murals she had taken down were even vaguely construable as Title IX violations, and the rest were of no national interest and instead were violations of the Mind Hand book.

Alongside the complaints everyone else here has made, everything Anne McCants says about how Title IX should be handled is completed voided in the face of this information, and her one and only excuse for completely sidestepping the opportunity to open a discussion with the affected students becomes one giant lie.

Good job, Anne McCants. Please quit your job forever.

Socialist Worker over 4 years ago

Is the Mind and Hand book a guide to student life at MIT or is it a legal cover you ass book to shield MIT from any and all possible lawsuits?

One only need to read the Mind and Hand book section on dangerous objects and hazards to discover that MIT essentially bands all barbeques without a licensed plumber and a detail from the Cambridge fire department standing by. Other than fire department fund raisers when was the last time you went to a barbeque with a licensed plumber and fire department detail standing by?

I fail to see how your personal tragedy has anything to do with the issues at hand. Defending your brother was commendable yet who wouldn't defend a sibling from attack. If you were really a leader in issues concerning women's rights you would have been able to write something about that. You would be able to explain why and how the majority Democratic Party lost the Equal Rights amendment.

Laws are written to protect ruling class interests not to defend the weak. Censuring history out of art is censorship done by those who white wash the past.

Anonymous over 4 years ago

Some students post a satirical poster with about six words on it and this woman responds with a long diatribe about tragic events that happened to her decades ago and accusing the students (and The Tech) of a "campaign of retaliation" against her when all they were doing was exercising their free speech rights (which had already been trampled upon) in a humorous way. Something is not right here and I question whether someone who reacts in this way should be a housemaster at a university. I hope and pray that someone in the MIT administration reads this and gives some serious thought to that question. Maybe the mural incident has triggered post-traumatic stress? Dr. McCants and the administration should consider having her concentrate on her research and teaching duties and let someone else act as the housemaster of BC.

Anonymous over 4 years ago

This was a rather brilliant response. The hostile commenters don't seem to know how to read, but, then again, this is MIT. The B-C haters just got pwned.

Anonymous over 4 years ago

A little bit of knowledge is a terrible thing. 'If I accuse them of a fallacy, all my views become right!', isn't that how it works, comment 3? Because no matter how many times you're reminded you don't, you still have free speech rights on campus if you say so, right number 6? Because you're the weak, aren't you number 5?

God, I'd hate to have ended up with these people through some bad luck in floor rush, look at the shit you get when you don't accept that they can do no wrong. That'd be a hostile environment if ever I saw one. I don't doubt there's people who are happy about this but not willing to say so publicly.

Anonymous over 4 years ago

Anon #6 has it right. For an older alum like myself, this whole debacle is just another example of autocratic decision-making and failure to compromise with current students, since they'll be gone in four years anyway.

If two murals are "bad", paint those over after alerting the students and having a rational discussion of how to go forward.

As for the writer's past - sorry to be blunt, but trying to relate multiple deaths and bullying to the issues I've listed above both blows the poster out of proportion and trivializes both situations.