Saving the System
The Institute outlines its plan for strengthening FSILGs
By Sally Atwood
Ever since the Institute decided in 1998 to house all freshmen in dormitories, MITs fraternities, sororities, and independent living groups (FSILGs) have been concerned about their systems ability to survive. Now MIT has published a plan to support and restore the ailing FSILGs. Project Aurora, the initiative described in the plan, would introduce immediate changes aimed at rebuilding FSILGs membership and restoring their fiscal stability; it also includes long-term strategies for strengthening the living groups in the future.
The plan is set out in the report of the Task Force on Fraternities, Sororities, and Independent Living Groups, which President Charles M. Vest HM convened in spring 2003. The 16-member group of alumni, students, faculty, and staff writes bluntly that the FSILG system must be embraced with enthusiasm or shut down; mere toleration is not a viable option. The report acknowledges the hostility surrounding the Institutes decision to house freshmen on campus and calls for MIT administrators, students, and alumni to work together in an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect. It also affirms the value of the FSILGs to students and to MIT.
The reports action plan, which focuses heavily on fraternities, calls for continued transitional financial assistance from the Institute and changes in the rush process to increase the chances of attracting members who will bolster the fraternities financially. The plan calls for improved communication between senior administrators, alumni, and students and includes a strategy for building replacement FSILG houses on campus. It also recommends that a council of students, house corporation members, alumni, and MIT administrators develop standards and expectations for the 37 living groups.
Based on the report and initiatives already under way, alumni are optimistic about the future. MIT is taking some positive steps, says Stan Wulf 65, president of Phi Delta Thetas house corporation. Were encouraged.
Balancing the Checkbook
Fiscal health is foremost in the minds of alumni and student FSILG members. It has declined precipitously in the last two years, as houses have lost their income from freshmen residents and as the number of new members coming into the system has dropped by about 30 percent. MIT has distributed $1.5 million in transitional support since the fall of 2001, but the task force says thats not enough. Its detailed financial study of the system concluded that it will take another $10.7 million over the next six years to support the FSILGs until they are fiscally healthy. Now the team that distributed the initial funds is studying the task force report and will recommend how much more the Institute should contribute and how those funds should be distributed.
Although handouts have provided some relief, they will not fix the underlying problems. But they will stop the hemorrhaging until other pieces of the plan begin to stabilize the system.
One of the biggest pieces is an effort to increase the number of new FSILG members, who will provide the foundation for future fiscal stability. The task force recognized that the timing of rush is critical. It has recommended that rush be held between orientation and the start of classes. This happened last fall, and the switch worked well: fraternities (sororities rush in the spring) welcomed 301 new members, only about 30 shy of the number in 2000, the last year freshmen could live in the houses. Although 2004 was the most successful rush in the last three years, Dan Daneshvar 05, president of the Interfraternity Council last year, says FSILGs would fare even better if rush could have two extra days before classes start.
In the meantime, two other fiscal programs initiated this year will help houses augment their operating budgets. The first is based on recent changes in IRS regulations. MITs long-standing Independent Residence Development Fund can now offer operating grants for the portions of houses that are used for educational purposes, so last summer the MIT facilities office measured each house and determined the percentage devoted to educational uses. According to Bob Ferrara 67, who as the newly created director of FSILG alumni relations runs the program, the numbers range from 14 to 35 percent. Encouraging, says Ferrara, but alums are going to have to step up to the plate if [this program] is going to keep going.
A second fiscal program will leverage the buying power of the FSILG system. It works through the FSILG Coöperative, an independent organization founded in 2003 that negotiates discount contracts with vendors and pays the bills for its members. MIT gave the organization $80,000 in startup funds. Christopher R. Rezek 99, executive director, says last year members received up-front discounts ranging from 5 to 20 percent on most services or commodities they needed to purchase. Houses saved between $1,000 and $3,000 each and an average of $1,200 in up-front expenses, and Rezek expects that the savings will increase as houses make more purchases through the coöperative.
Beyond the Dollar
Steve Immerman, cochair of the task force and transition manager of the plan, is determining what other kinds of help individual houses need. Governance, communications, education, and training are all pressing needs, and programs to address them are in the works. Two classes taught by MIT staffers are already in place, one for treasurers and another for house managers. The Alumni Association and the Office of Resource Development are developing fund-raising tool kits to help houses jump-start campaigns. The facilities department is studying where FSILG housing could be built on campus. The Interfraternity Council has convened a group to study its risk management practices and determine how to further reduce excessive drinking in the houses. And alumni are developing an accreditation system that will gather best practices and help identify problems early.
David Burmaster 69, who has been involved on and off as an alumni advisor with his house since graduation, cautions that there is no silver bullet. Alumni need to get involved with their houses to ensure success, he says. But he is also heartened by the current climate on campus. This is the most fertile and energetic time in 35 years, he says. Many believe that with the plan outlined by the task force and the continued dedication of alumni, students, and administrators, MIT will one day have the best FSILG system in the country.
The complete report of the FSILG task force can be found at web.mit.edu/dsl/aurora/report.html.
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