Opinion guest column

Fear and loathing at Pig Roast

Observations on the ongoing erasure of college countercultures

If you happened to be in one of the South Hovses at Caltech on the night of Jan. 26, you would find yourself listening to strange and interesting noises: sound checks, indiscriminate chatter, people horsing around. You would search for the source of this infernal racket and discover a large crowd of students dancing in the Ricketts Hovse courtyard. This was the situation in which I found myself.

I was invited to tag along with several Senior Haus refugees on a trip to the West Coast, where some Caltech students and alums had organized an event called Pig Roast because they sympathized with Senior Haus students after the dorm closed down last summer. Pig Roast was a giant feast in which Senior Haus students, alums, and Caltech students came together to celebrate the legendary dorm. Since I had missed out on experiencing Steer Roast, I was excited to attend this bacchanal, though I went under the condition of writing about my experience. And write I shall!

We arrived at Caltech on the night that Ricketts hosted an open mic night. The event started off with a student rapping about polymers, organic chemistry, and quantum mechanics among other things, never straying from his flow or cadence. This was followed by two students reading erotic poetry while eating tubs of oatmeal. Throughout the night, the air was saturated with ear-splitting rock music, youthful exuberance, and humidity. Event organizers distributed Sport Death shirts for all to wear, and with the occasional moshing, the bumping into strangers and forging new friendships, I felt right at home.

The next day, still in a daze from the night before, I woke up just in time for the actual roast. Several Sport Death banners hung over our heads as the alums eagerly told stories about their time in the anarchic community. After the alums left, the Senior Haus students reminisced about their time as well, telling stories with such clarity they seemed to have happened the day before. In that moment, I was finally able to understand where their sense of camaraderie came from: though they each came from different walks of life, they found a nurturing and accepting community that celebrated them for who they were in Senior Haus.

Though the weekend was filled with immense fun, I noticed subtle hints of unease in a few Caltech students. On the last night, I decided to walk around campus with Caltech students so that I could get to know the place better. During the walk, we came across Bechtel, the newest addition to the Caltech Hovses. One of the students explained their current situation to me: how they were worried it would become an all-freshman dorm given the large capacity of beds. He had a solemn look on his face as he said he heard from the grapevine that Joe Shepard, the Vice President of Student Affairs, was going to drop a bombshell that coming Thursday. He quickly laughed it off and led me back to Ricketts, but I could tell he and the others were nervous about what might happen.

I don’t think anyone was aware of it at the time, but Pig Roast was a sort of calm before the proverbial storm. On Feb. 1, several days after Pig Roast, Joe Shepard released the Bechtel Plan to the Caltech community. Among the proposals in the plan are drastic changes to Caltech’s residential life. According to the Bechtel Plan, upperclassmen no longer have a say in which frosh they take into their Houses. Without input from current students, it is possible freshmen placement can be overly influenced by stereotypes, misconceptions, and gossip that could quickly be rectified by upperclassmen. Moreover, the plan’s requirement that undergrads live on campus for four years is cause for concern, as every dorm has a mandatory meal plan, which some students cite as the reason they choose to live off campus. This new requirement, however, along with the changing of off campus options into graduate housing, will impair student choice and strand financially-struggling students.

Following the release of the Bechtel plan, Caltech students held demonstrations against the structure of Shepard’s decision-making. Shepard initially tasked the House presidents with forming committees, each focusing on a different proposal. The Committee on Undergraduate Housing (COUCH) released their findings in a document known as the Polaris Plan. In the Bechtel Plan, Shepard cites the Polaris Plan as a source for his key decisions, but the report misquotes the COUCH committee findings and misconstrues it to fit an alternative narrative. The language in the Bechtel Plan makes it seem like students wanted these sweeping changes to the Hovse system the entire time. Unless the contentious portions of the plan are rescinded, this may be the end of the current Hovse system, and Caltech will never again have strong cultures and countercultures.

There are sanitization movements occurring at college campuses around the U.S. This has been occurring at MIT over the past few years with Bexley and Senior Haus, and now it looks like Caltech may be next. Though MIT and Caltech are 3,000 miles miles apart, the two schools have somehow become entangled in similar dilemmas due to the decisions of their respective administrations. The dismissal of work done by student committees; the fragmentation of undergraduate living groups; the need to repair student-admin relations — both MIT and Caltech have this issue where they’re ignoring the views of students and reforming the residential life system in a way that hurts minorities and erases countercultures. Although it’s only been about four years since the closing of Bexley and less than a year since the closing of Senior House, their tales are already just becoming part of MIT folklore, passed through the generations by word of mouth. This time, with Caltech, the setting is different and the actors have changed. Does it matter though? Students at both schools are uncertain about the future — worried that even if they shout their concerns, frustrations, and experiences, it will only fall on deaf ears. Sure, MIT may be teeming with mental health services, S^3, deans, chancellors, and other members of the humanitarian establishment, all of whom have the students’ best interests at heart. Somehow, nothing has changed. I’ve met people who have been affected by the decisions of “well-meaning” individuals, the anguish of knowing they don’t have a home to come back to after a rough day, all struggling to hang in there for another year with what must seem to be a terrible vitality — not that you’d ever know. Among other decisions, the closings of Bexley and Senior Haus demonstrate that even though these administrators have good intentions, the ways in which changes get carried out in practice is harmful. In order to truly help students, these administrators need to really listen to what the students want instead of projecting their ideas of what students should want.

But this is exactly why I think having Pig Roast was necessary. The roast demonstrated the far-reaching influence that Senior Haus culture has on a school as great as ours. While Senior House was simply the dorm sitting in front of the Media Lab, Senior Haus was the strong culture within the dorm — the community that never judged and the artistic outlet for youths critical of the mainstream world. Pig Roast served as a testament to the counterculture attitude of Senior Haus and its prolonged existence through the South Hovses in Caltech. The need to preserve Senior Haus culture is more crucial now than it has ever been, especially since there are no remnants of Bexley on campus. The death of a culture doesn’t occur through the loss of its residential space, but rather through the collective social amnesia that follows. If we want to save Senior Haus from Bexley’s fate, we need to share our experiences with the next generation, and the next, and so on, whether it be through more Roasts or continued traditions.

I want to share a quote from Hunter S. Thompson in which he reminisces about San Francisco in the mid-’60s:

“And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave....

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

For better or worse, the wave has broken and receded for us as well. Sometimes on the walk back to East Campus, I look up towards 70 Amherst St., and I can still see the high-water mark, right around where the Sport Death flag would be hanging. I can’t help but think that in the far-out future, we’ll look back as crusty alums at this special time and place that we were fortunate to be a part of. The isotropic madness in Senior Haus that told us that no matter which direction we went, we would come to a place filled with people as wild as us. Nothing, not even these words, can express how lucky we are to know that we were there and alive during its long run.

Who knows? Maybe, after a few years, Senior Haus will become an ancient MIT myth; the recent ex-denizens and alums its faithful bards, reciting epic stories and poems to all who wish to lend an ear. Portions of its century-long history are stored on the walls of Senior Haus, with murals that scream “I WAS HERE! I WAS ALIVE!” My class ring, in fact, has memorialized the floorplan of Senior Haus on our Hacker’s Map as a symbol of the community’s significance to the student body.

All this and more lays the foundation for the preservation of a culture that, despite the loss of the physical place that it called home, will continue kicking and screaming for eons to come. After all, with a motto like “Sport Death, Only life can kill you,” it’s hard to imagine that Senior Haus’s punk rock ethos will fade so long as there is a single creative misfit to shake up the community to its core.

“Senior House is dead, long live Senior Haus!”