The view from Phi Beta Epsilon

At the beginning of this year’s Rush Week, an anonymous party provided the IFC Judicial Committee (JudComm) with circumstantial evidence stolen from our fraternity house of a violation of the IFC Risk Management policies connected with Phi Beta Epsilon’s 2010 initiation last January. Although the 60 day statute of limitations on JudComm complaints had long since passed since the alleged violation took place, and even though this complaint was apparently intentionally released at a moment when it would do maximum damage to the fraternity, a hearing was held. In that hearing, it was clear that: No one was hurt in that event. No one has ever publicly registered a complaint against PBE. No first hand witnesses to this event were ever called for testimony or allowed to be cross examined. And, as reported in The Tech, the IFC has kept the identity of this anonymous party a secret. Within twelve hours of being notified of this complaint, Phi Beta Epsilon was expelled from the IFC. In less than two weeks, our appeal review was final, resulting in a four year suspension. Why such a decision was reached in such a hurried manner with such a narrow scope of evidence and testimony is inexplicable.

The purpose of Phi Beta Epsilon Corporation is to provide a legal and physical framework for an exceptional living and social experience for our undergraduate members while they are at MIT. Over the years we believe the record of our alumni suggests that we have been successful in that regard. Whatever our shortcomings, our focus must always remain on the quality of our undergraduates’ living experience. To that end, the PBE Corporation has urged its undergraduates to refocus on their studies so that their academic and professional objectives are not compromised any more than they already have been by these events. It serves no purpose for them bear the burden of defending PBE, so my colleagues and I on the Corporation must communicate with the MIT community and work to redress the malicious damage done to the fraternity.

Were our undergraduates and recent alumni the sort of students who engaged in “fraternity” activities rather than in the serious purposes of undergraduate education, I might be less vehement in their defense. However, they are among the highest performing students, athletes, and leaders in the undergraduate community. Whatever is going on at Phi Beta Epsilon, it is attracting and/or producing such students.

Notwithstanding the fact that no individual has come forth to back these allegations, we did not contest that certain violations of risk management policy may have occurred. We highly value our relationship with MIT, and have no interest in operating outside the range of values shared by that community. Hazing is another matter. Massachusetts law defines hazing as willful and reckless endangerment of mental and physical health. Phi Beta Epsilon has never conducted activities fitting or even approaching this definition. Beyond the relatively concrete definitions of Massachusetts law, however, Institute policy definitions of hazing have over the years extended into gray areas of physical and mental stress so amorphous as to be unenforceable. Did you know that public stunts are officially considered to be hazing? Better ban the hacking culture. Did you know that “road trips” are hazing? Visits to Wellesley are banned too. So are scavenger hunts. Did you know that throwing someone in a shower is officially considered to be hazing? Better expel all the athletic teams and dorms. Mental discomfort? Better stop giving finals. We believe that many programs sponsored by the Institute produce more stress than anything ever done by Phi Beta Epsilon. It is in this realm where our alleged violations occurred. Whoever among the Institute community has never broken the letter of a regulation in a private and victimless setting is invited to cast the first stone at Phi Beta Epsilon.

The Phi Beta Epsilon Corporation has attempted throughout this process to produce some sort of constructive outcome from this unfortunate situation, a teaching moment for all concerned. We have had little impact. Alumni bodies have no standing within the IFC judicial process, and to the extent that Dean’s offices will speak to alumni, it is always with the premise that our input must not affect the judicial process. To demonstrate our willingness to eliminate any practices with even the appearance of violating regulations, we proposed to abolish our existing initiation process and replace it with highly challenging emotional and physical experiences from the professionally documented open sources (Outward Bound, National Training Lab T Groups, ropes courses, corporate team building exercises). This attempt to achieve our goals of group bonding and emotional intensity without any objectionable appearances of traditional fraternity initiations was included in our appeal but ignored in the appeal decision.

In every culture and every age, our best young men seek out challenge, adventure, and bonding. The challenge to the elders in any institution for young adults is to provide these opportunities for growth in a fashion in which they will not harm themselves or others. Despite the best intentions of all concerned, I am left with the sense that the Institute’s culture in these matters is so over constrained that this balance is no longer possible. Here is my sense of the tasks before those of us who share an abiding concern with the welfare of undergraduates in MIT residences:

For Independent Living Groups: The IFC Judicial process is so flimsy that anonymous complaints regarding high risk activities can lead almost overnight to your suspension or expulsion. The IFC’s disregard of its own bylaws on the timeliness of complaints means that hostile individuals can gather or even steal information from emails you send, servers you maintain, or telephone camera shots taken at parties and provide them to judicial authorities at a time of their choosing. You have no zone of privacy in this world of electronic data gathering combined with a hair triggered judiciary. If your living group can withstand 24/7 scrutiny of this sort, you are a different species of human being than we have at PBE.

For Alumni of Independent Living Groups: In light of the above, any long term projects such as fund raising to build or renew your structure such as we are conducting can be rendered nonviable within a day by the IFC Judicial System. Be further advised that if your group comes into serious difficulties with the Judicial System, you as alumni have no standing to contribute to reasonable resolution. I urge you to study the procedural record of our case to prevent its recurrence in your circumstances.

For residential deans: The ever expanding definitions of hazing beyond the basics of Massachusetts law are hypocritical and confusing. They are applied with a vengeance to fraternities, while MIT itself and many dormitories and sports teams have activities which are indefensible within this broad penumbra of “hazing.” If this event sparks a campus-wide review of all of these activities — and it should — you may be surprised at what you find.

The Institute is deeply and properly concerned about the life and death decisions which can be made by the young adults attending MIT. It is also properly concerned about its potential legal liabilities in the event of a mishap. As an alumni volunteer, I am no less concerned about these matters. Yet I have a further concern: building a vibrant living group. The Phi Beta Epsilon Corporation has tried and perhaps failed to maintain an emotionally intense living experience for our undergraduates which is, and is perceived to be, consistent with the values of the broader MIT community. Successful communities are hard to create but easily destroyed. Somehow the value of vital if imperfect (and perhaps perfectible) independent living groups must be weighed against the impulse to stamp out every perceived shortcoming, or we will have no emotionally vibrant ILG’s.

The tragic death of Scott Krueger in a 1997 incident at another MIT fraternity shocked MIT and the ILG community. All of us undertook a searching reappraisal of residential policy. Since that time, the culture of MIT regarding these matters has become ever more liability averse, politically correct, and hair triggered with respect to any real or imagined undesirable fraternity activity. Sadly, I fear that the Institute’s culture in these matters has come full circle from a time when a thoughtless fraternity could kill a fine young man to a day when a malicious individual can kill a fine old fraternity.

Steve Carhart is president of the Phi Beta Epsilon Corporation and a member of Class of 1970.