Opinion letter to the editor

The posters regarding BC murals are troubling

The recent postering campaign, prominent in the building where the Concourse program is located and highlighted in a front-page Tech photograph last week, is deeply troubling. This campaign, which targets those who removed murals and graffiti at Burton-Conner which were inconsistent with the Title IX prohibition against sexually harassing environments, is fueled by a knee-jerk outrage that fails to understand how problematic the murals and graffiti were under Title IX. The effect has been to undermine the free speech the campaign purports to honor by fostering an environment in which open discussion of the grounds for covering over the mural is inhibited.

Two issues are preoccupying a small but vocal group of students. First, they claim that MIT does not consistently enforce the requirements of Title IX and its own Mind and Hand Book and that it unfairly targeted Burton-Conner for violating them. Second, they claim that these requirements of the law, however inconsistently applied, violate free speech. These two issues are unrelated and must be discussed and addressed separately.

If, on the one hand, students are concerned that MIT is not enforcing Title IX and its own policies equitably, they should press the administration to do so. The Burton-Conner housemasters are responsible for ensuring a welcoming and non-harassing environment only within Burton-Conner, not campus-wide. If, on the other hand, these students are concerned that Title IX is misguided in its requirements, this is a separate issue altogether. The question of the basis of and limits to the American principle of free speech is undoubtedly important, even essential, for any serious citizen. But it is well settled that free speech must be balanced against other concerns, and, at least with respect to the murals and graffiti at Burton-Conner, Title IX has supplied an answer, which is the appropriate business of every political community. A university education is absolutely the opportunity to think through the proper meaning and scope of principles like free speech, and we encourage students to seek out some of the excellent humanities and social science classes on campus where they are explored. Students should take advantage of these opportunities to hone their understandings, and even to get involved in politics if they ultimately believe our current answers to policy questions need to be revised.

At Burton-Conner, a small fee may now be incurred for painting one’s interior dorm room ($40 or $50 to cover the cost of repainting the room when the student leaves, if the student fails to repaint it himself or herself). The claim of at least one student that this fee will stifle residents’ creativity is hard to take seriously — especially since MIT owns the dorm rooms and, as landlord, could prohibit painting the walls altogether. If students leave MIT with the lesson that it is unnecessary to assume some responsibility for one’s creative or other expression, they will have failed to learn a crucial lesson about what it means to live as a responsible adult in a free society.

There are plenty of opportunities on campus to express one’s ideas and, even better, plenty of places on campus to learn to refine those ideas so that their expression is clear, meaningful, and rigorous. The one certain way to stifle genuine discourse and reflection is to target those who uphold federal laws and MIT codes with a campaign of intimidation. If there is one example in this whole episode of intellectual dogmatism and bullying, that is it.

Lee David Perlman is a Senior Lecturer and is writing on behalf of the Concourse Program staff.

Anonymous over 10 years ago

So expressing one's ideas should be done in prescribed places rather than our homes, and any mural the administration dislikes can be said to go against Title IX despite having no genderedness in the slightest. Got it.

David Tyler Hunt '04 over 10 years ago

This piece has not explained why the mural in question was in violation of Title IX, nor does it provide context as to the status of other murals that were not pictured in The Tech.

Being half a world away, I am thus no better informed about whether I should read into these events a pattern of elimination of student expression, ordinary risk management behavior followed by a mistake, or nothing out of the ordinary.

It is important to have the right information at ones disposal. In particular, those who are offended by the takedown of the PA-inspired mural should read justice.gov's legal manual for Title IX, which should provide some meaningful insight into the pressures of risk management in this scenario and (if there can be hard facts learned about the other murals) what forces may have led a good person to do something that offended so many people.

The silver bullet that evolves this debate into something more productive is not difficult to imagine.

It's a 4 sentence summary from someone in MIT Legal explaining the role of risk management with respect to Title IX, followed by a concise, factual description of what has gone on here without the life stories and grandstanding, and either a convincing explanation of howTitle IX justified the (apparently) egregious takedown, or an acknowledgement that it probably didn't, and an invitation to BC to help draft some guidelines that they can show their support for with a binding vote.

Anonymous over 10 years ago

To Professor McCants, Director of Concourse: if you have something to say, kindly say it yourself.

Anonymous over 10 years ago

This article seems to miss the point. The main issue many students are concerned with has nothing to do with Title IX violations or free speech. Rather the issue is the manner in which the administration, and specifically the housemasters, have dealt with this situation. The lack of communication and transparency.

Although this issue has repeatedly been brought up by students, I have yet to see a response from the administration. Instead the housemasters have seemed to focus on the legal validity of their decision. Requests for better communication and attempts to highlight the lack of transparency in dealing with the removal of the murals have been met with non sequiturs about legal concerns and the terrible consequences for those who violate Title IX. I imagine this is what the poster refers to as "legalese and scare tactics." Obviously the legal concerns are a very serious issue, but they are certainly not the only one. Despite this the administration is acting as though the legal issues invalidate the others and they are the only thing they seem willing to acknowledge or address.

Considering the time that has passed since the removal of the murals, it seems illogical to consider this poster the result of "knee-jerk outrage" to potential suppression of free speech. Rather is it a response to the continuing lack of open communication between students and housemasters. This has gotten to the point that students are not even supposed to discuss the matter with McCants. "So from now on, at the request of MIT, all student inquiries regarding this matter that cannot be handled through GRT-student discussions at the floor level, should be referred to Dean Baker, not to Anne." http://tech.mit.edu/V133/N42/murals.html

The poster isn't about free speech. It isn't about contesting Title IX complaints or a "campaign of intimidation" against those who made them. It's about about highlighting the breakdown of communication between McCants and students. It points out an environment in which open discussion is already inhibited. Perhaps the manner in which it does so contributes to this environment, but it is certainly not the root cause.

Ultimately, this environment is not going to work for anyone. For the sake of everyone involved, there needs to be some way for open communication to take place going forward. This isn't going to happen if any student debate is written off as retaliation against McCants for invoking Title IX.

Anonymous over 10 years ago

As a resident of Burton-Conner who has not been involved in any of the political mayhem around murals, this article made me very upset.

Mr. Perlman constructs a strawman, blindly asserting what the students' opinions are with absolutely no evidence to back up those assertions.

None of us think that we should be exempt from Title IX. What we do think is that the McCants could have done better if they actually cared about improving the Burton-Conner community.

When you eviscerate this strawman, Mr. Perlman, you fail to address any of our real concerns -- the lack of respect shown to Burton-Conner residents -- failing to address any of our actual concerns, and you leave us feeling as if our attempts to communicate are, once again, being belittled and ignored by the administration.

This is the problem with this conflict, and this is why this article upsets me; you're making it worse! The idea we want to communicate is that we AREN'T this strawman you paint us to be. We just want the house team to communicate with us, to consult our opinions. We want to cooperate, but what we are getting instead is dismissal of our opinions, over and over again.

Cooperation is a good thing. To the housemasters, have you considered that we, the students, want to improve our community? We would have preferred, for example, for the housemasters, upon realizing an issue, to bring the issue to the attention of the students. We could then lead a conversation (fancy that!) about how the murals could be fixed to better reflect a community free from sexual harassment. Perhaps the students themselves (fancy that!) could have modified the murals.

Instead, what we have is an administration that discards our concerns instead of going the extra mile to actually attempt to improve the Burton-Conner community that we all inhabit.

We are adults, we care about our community, and we want to cooperate -- but you clearly don't care about listening to what we think, as this strawman of an article demonstrates. It's no wonder we feel disrespected.

Expect maturity, show maturity, and you will get maturity back.

I'm sorry, Mr. Perlman, but we aren't your strawmen.