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Make Room for the Freshmen

For the first time ever, all freshmen will live in MIT housing, a decision that has precipitated significant change on campus.
September 1, 2002

Where should freshmen lay their heads at night? That has been a contentious issue on campus since 1998, when President Charles M. Vest HM announced his decision to overhaul the Institute’s housing strategy and require all first-year students to live on campus. For the last two years, the residential-system implementation team, a group of students, housemasters, administrators and housing office staff, has been hammering out transition details. The results of its efforts take effect this fall and will significantly alter the character of MIT’s undergraduate residences.

For starters, more than 300 first-year men-about half of the men in the class-who would normally have lived in fraternities or independent living groups will move into on-campus housing this fall. (Sororities do not house freshman women.) To accommodate this influx, the Institute is opening its first new undergraduate residence hall in 22 years (see “The New Look of Living at MIT”), which precipitated a new method for upperclassmen to change their residence halls. And the Institute is adopting a new system of assigning housing for freshmen. Gone is the traditional late-August orientation rush and residence hall lottery. Students will instead choose their residences during a July lottery. If that weren’t enough, several years of larger-than-normal incoming classes have created overcrowding in undergraduate residence halls. The Institute has reached a short-term solution by moving about 100 undergraduate students, mostly seniors, into graduate student residences-a shift that some fear may not be as temporary as is hoped.

While much debate has preceded these changes, the course is set. Now the Institute is focused on supporting the evolution, working with those most affected by change.

The Transition Plan

By far the most controversial change to take effect this fall is the exclusion of freshmen from living in fraternities and independent living groups, which historically have housed about one-third of the Institute’s undergraduates. This fall, however, the houses will be unable to fill the empty beds left by departing seniors; the resulting drop-off in income, students and alumni have argued, will threaten the survival of some groups.

To help provide fiscal stability, the Institute has guaranteed the groups anywhere from $1 million to $1.5 million over the next three academic years, while they adjust their budgets and recruitment strategies. A committee of students, staff and alumni came up with the plan that distributes the money; it developed a formula that takes into account the houses’ fixed costs (such as mortgage and utilities) per student. Houses will receive compensation based on those costs and the average number of first-year members each took in over the last three years.

Larry Benedict, who as dean for student life is responsible for student housing at MIT, says he expects to distribute about $750,000 this year to fraternities, sororities and independent living groups through the financial transition plan. This commitment has eased the fears of students and alumni, who were afraid the decision would undermine the Greek system.

“It was a really good thing for MIT to do,” says Josh Yardley ‘04, Interfraternity Council recruitment chair, who helped devise the plan. “It helped houses say, Maybe they really are on our team. Let’s try and do this together.’” But, Yardley confesses, there’s still tension between the houses and the Institute, and he worries how it will all play out-particularly in what he describes as the “worst-case scenario: everyone has a terrible recruitment year, and houses are going to be hurting the next year.”

From Rush to Recruitment

With the financial picture settled, students and staff tackled how to assure successful recruitment as well as provide new services and programs that would strengthen the Greek system. In the past, “rush” happened over three days during orientation in August. Aptly named, its focus was on students’ quickly finding places to live. Now “recruitment” will be held in late September for fraternities and independent living groups and in late January or early February for sororities.

Sororities decided to delay recruitment to avoid conflicting with academics. “Sororities have more members than they have beds,” says Panhellenic Council president Naomi Schmelzer ‘03, “so this change is not going to affect us tremendously.”

All groups will tap new members again in the spring in a new formal recruitment period. David Rogers, assistant dean and director of fraternities, sororities and independent living groups, says recruitment needs to become a year-round process. “We’d like to move toward a structure where chapters are free to give out bids whenever they want,” he says.

But fraternities worry that by the time students can be recruited, they will no longer be interested in the Greek system because their housing needs will have been met. Since MIT students have traditionally lived all four years in the same residences they chose as freshmen, the fraternities have reason for concern. They are thus under pressure to change the way they attract potential new members. “For a long time, our strategy as a system has been to sell’ our house,” says Yardley. “A lot of houses are nervous about veering from that game plan, but I think most of them realize now they have to. They need to market themselves as a fraternity that has ideals and a brotherhood and not just a nice place to live.”

What will constitute a successful recruitment this fall depends on whom you ask. Yardley says it means bringing the same number of new students into the Greek system as in the past. Rogers says he hopes that the system adds about 150 new members, slightly less than half of the normal take. Both predictions are ambitious, though, given that Greek membership on college campuses nationally averages between 10 and 15 percent of the student population. If that average were to hold at MIT, it would mean that, this fall, the number of freshmen pledging could plummet from around 300 to 90 or fewer in a system that includes 27 fraternities, five sororities and five independent living groups. (MIT’s system is as large as that of the University of Missouri, which has 23,000 undergraduate students.)

One obstacle to a successful fall recruitment is the frosty relationship between fraternities and residence halls. Since the groups have always viewed each other as competitors for first-year members, there has been no cooperation or even understanding between them. “Fraternities badmouth dorms, and dorms badmouth fraternities,” says Yardley. “The ignorance that exists between us is oftentimes the catalyst for the nasty things that are said.” And the groups have never had to work together.

But this year student leaders on both sides realize change is needed. Fraternity members will need access to freshmen in the residence halls during recruitment, and afterward their new pledges will still be living in the halls. So developing relationships between fraternities and residence halls has taken on an urgency both acknowledge. Last year fraternities and residence halls held joint activities to begin developing relationships. Over the summer, Interfraternity Council members met with Dormitory Council leaders to set guidelines about how fraternities can conduct recruitment in the residence halls.

“Dorm leaders can see the bigger picture,” says Yardley. “They know if we don’t have a good recruitment, it’s going to be awful to live in their dorms because they’ll be so crowded.”

In addition to financial support, the Institute is providing new programs and workshops for the fraternities, sororities and living groups, including strategicplanning sessions, special training on recruitment, leadership retreats and self-assessment measures. Chancellor Phillip Clay, PhD ‘75, says the Institute will also help fraternities raise funds from alumni or offer loans to help chapters repair their houses.

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