Chushingura and Catastrophe

In an excerpt from his new book on MIT, Samuel Jay Keyser talks about why commissions and task forces may be ignored, but certain events can lead to real change at a university.

June 2, 2011

Whenever people asked me how shifts in the prevailing culture are effected at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I looked wisely at them, tapped the side of my nose with my index finger, and whispered, “Chushingura.”

They would look puzzled, as I knew they would. I gleefully launched into my explanation.

Chushingura is the name of a historical event in Japanese history depicted in all sorts of genres — bunraku, kabuki, films, novels, ballet. It is a long, long story that can take several days to perform on stage. I’ll put it into a nutshell. The evil senior lord Ko no Moronao goads the good daimyo Enya Hangan into drawing his sword in the shogun’s palace. Decorum seals Hangan’s fate. He must kill himself. He gathers his retainers — 47 ronin — around him, lowers himself onto two tatami mats covered in white cloth, and just before slitting himself open from left to right with a slight uptick of the sword at the right end of the gash as called for by tradition, he looks at his chief retainer and says, "I resent this." That’s all he says. Not a long diatribe about what a bastard Moronao is and how he tricked me and how I should have known better, but there it is, and I hope you aren’t going to let the lowlife scumbag get away with this. Nothing like that. Just three little words: "I resent this."

That’s how important changes are often made at MIT. People who are highly respected in the community simply have to say, "I resent this." Lo and behold, something happens.

Here is an example. Somewhere in the mid-1980s Edwin Land, the inventor of the Polaroid camera, came to MIT to give a talk on his retinex theory of color. The room in which the talk was held, 26-100, was packed to overflowing. I had managed to squeeze my way into standing room at the very back. About this time MIT was rethinking the kind of student it wanted to admit. There was a view that the institute should move away from highly specialized students in favor of generalists with a broad range of interests. Land had obviously gotten wind of this.

He didn’t like it. He began his talk that afternoon, not with a general introduction to retinex theory, but with a disparaging comment to the effect that generalists were people who knew very little about quite a lot, jacks of all trades and masters of none. Science, he said in so many words, does not move forward on the shoulders of generalists. Shortly thereafter MIT was no longer looking for generalists.

Here is another example. The Committee on Sexual Harassment made its report to the Academic Council in 1990. The next year I started an annual survey. I sent it out to MIT’s complaint handlers, to all the faculty and supervisory staff. In it I asked the respondents to report on the number of incidents of sexual harassment they had to deal with in one year. In 1991 that number was 68. The following year it was 27. By 2001 it was 18. This was chÅ«shingura. Why? As far as I was concerned, the point of the survey was not to collect numbers — though that was a desirable side effect.

The point of the survey was to let faculty and supervisors know that MIT was taking zero tolerance of sexual harassment extremely seriously. The survey didn’t say that explicitly. What it said was, "I resent this."

Chushingura is one way culture shifts at the Institute. The other, more dramatic way is catastrophe. It is extraordinary how catastrophes move people off their assumptions. When I first became associate provost, I worried quite a bit about how MIT chose to house its incoming freshman class. The process had a name, R/O, where R stood for "residence" and O for "orientation."

The emphasis was overwhelmingly on the R. For a week or so students would be temporarily housed in dorms while they roamed around the campus sampling every kind of living group MIT had to offer: the dormitories themselves, the special interest houses like Russian House and German House, the so-called independent living groups, the fraternities and the sororities. Students who were interested in fraternities or sororities had to pledge one of those groups. Students who were interested in dorms had to state their preferences and every attempt was made to give them their first choice.

The students loved this process because it made them feel as if MIT was treating them like adults. In 1996 a survey showed that 87 percent of the students were happy with this system, more than any other freshman housing system in the country. What was at the heart of the system was choice. Nobody told you where to live. You decided for yourself.

Why was I against this system despite its obvious popularity with the student body? There were two main reasons, neither of which cut any ice with the students. The first was that the way the system worked, a student would essentially stay in the same dorm room for four years. That meant students would see the same faces for their entire undergraduate experience. From the point of view of an administrator interested in encouraging diversity, this kind of insularity seemed counterproductive. From the point of view of the students, it meant that strong and lasting friendships could be forged.

The logic of the living group connection is really very simple. The students like where they live because they get to choose where they live. But I think there is something else going on. It came to me when I recalled walking up a hill on Professors Row at Tufts University maybe a quarter of a century ago.

It was close to midnight, graduation eve, in fact. I was playing the trombone at the time, along with a banjo player and a trumpeter. We were leading the senior class to the top of the hill where they were about to be addressed by the head of the Alumni Association. We were playing Dixieland tunes — "When the Saints Go Marching In," "Bill Bailey," "Cakewalkin’ Babies," that sort of thing. Each student held a cup with a candle burning inside. It was an impressive candlelight parade winding its way to the top of the hill — a rite of passage. It was also a ritual meant to bind the class not to where they lived but to Tufts University. The next day they were going to graduate. Tonight the head of the Alumni Association was welcoming them into a new relationship. Tufts hadn’t missed a beat.

It occurred to me that nothing like that happens at MIT, no parading with lit candles à la Tufts, no marching through campus the way Princeton University’s P-rade does, the oldest graduates at the head, and each subsequent class falling in behind after applauding its predecessors until the youngest takes up the rear. MIT has no such binding ritual. Well, that isn’t exactly right. R/O is MIT’s ritual, a weeklong ritual with elaborate rules for finding and choosing and being absorbed into a living group. The problem with the R/O ritual is that it binds the student, not to MIT, but to where the student lives. For a smart place that is, well, not so smart! No wonder graduates have always been on the short end of contributions to the alumni fund.

But ritual or no, it was the second reason that was the stronger negative for me as associate provost. During R/O week students visited not only dormitories but fraternities as well. Roughly a third of the student body ended up in fraternities. But the problem was that it wasn’t enough that you chose a fraternity — the fraternity had to choose you. If you pledged a particular fraternity and they didn’t like you, you were "flushed." The metaphor was especially opprobrious. Think what is normally flushed.

When I pointed this out to student leaders, I was met with indifference or else with rationalizations about why it wasn’t all that harmful. One argument especially galled me: life has its disappointments and this is a good life lesson. I was supposed to swallow the argument that the students were doing good by doing bad. The system was a foreshadowing of reality TV shows like "Survivor." I might even have been convinced had I not made it my business to talk to students who had been flushed and who seemed quite content with the dormitories they finally settled into. They were hard to find. They didn’t want to be reminded. But those who owned up to having been rejected admitted that it was a bitter pill to swallow, especially in their first week at MIT.

Perhaps to stop me from harping continually on the unsatisfactory nature of R/O, John Deutch [then the provost], much to his credit, formed the Freshman Housing Committee in 1989 to review how MIT accommodated each new class. That committee validated all of the concerns I raised and more. In October 1989 they wrote their report. The very first recommendation was: "For the freshman year, it is recommended that all students be housed on campus."

The recommendation went on to specify that freshmen would live on campus and be distributed throughout the dormitories. Fraternity and sorority rush would be postponed to the spring. In other words, R/O week would be changed completely — and in my view for the better.

On November 15, 1989, the report was presented to the faculty. Faculty members were split in their support. Those who had been through MIT themselves or who were involved in undergraduate housing touted R/O as a positive experience, lauding the "strong bonds established in student residence." Choice was also high on the list of positive arguments. Others supported the committee recommendations. One faculty member (as I recall, it was Lester Thurow, the dean of MIT’s Sloan School of Management) commented that other universities commonly housed their freshmen on campus for the first year. This exchange is recorded in the faculty minutes:

"Could the other universities all be wrong?" he asked.

"Yes," came a faculty reply.

Sometime after the November faculty meeting, John Deutch sponsored an open forum on the Potter Committee report, as it came to be called. It was held in 6-120, a lecture hall that seats 154. It felt like 400, the room was so full. There was a brief description of the report’s recommendations and then the floor was opened to discussion. Overwhelmingly, the students present — those attending were mostly students — objected to any change in the system.

John chaired the meeting and listened intently to two full hours of rejection. At the end of the meeting, out of curiosity I asked for a straw vote. "How many of you are against the recommendations of the Potter report?"

Every hand in the room went up, but one. That led me to ask, "How many are for it?"

Way in the back of the room, in the very last row, at the very top, on the right, a single hand went up.

I was intrigued. “Why are you in favor of the report? Do you mind telling us?”

The lone voter said, "I’m not in favor of the report. I always vote against the majority as a matter of principle."

I think John and President Paul Gray saw that there was simply too much opposition. Not only was the opposition from students and faculty on campus too strong, but there was significant opposition from alumni who had gotten wind of the report and waded in with e-mails, letters, and irate phone calls. Consequently, for the next eight years, nothing happened. The report was shelved.

For almost eight years after the Potter Committee report — nothing happened. It was business as usual. Then, on Saturday, September 27, 1997, came the catastrophe. During an initiation event run by the fraternity he had pledged, Phi Gamma Delta, a freshman, Scott Krueger, died. Here is an excerpt from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’s statement of the case authored by assistant district attorney Pamela J. Wechsler:

On Wednesday, September 24, 1997, Krueger and the rest of his 12-member "pledge group" were told by their fraternity’s elected "pledge trainer" that an event, traditionally called "Animal House Night," would be held on the evening of Friday, September 26, 1997. The pledge trainer advised these 12 freshmen pledges that their attendance was mandatory and that they would meet their fraternity "big brothers" at the end of the night. The pledges were told that they were to gather together that night at 8:30 p.m. in a designated room at the fraternity, watch the movie "Animal House," and collectively drink a certain prescribed amount of alcohol. Scott Krueger expressed anxiety about the event to his twin sister and to fellow pledges at MIT. Like most 18-year-olds fresh out of high school, Krueger had limited experience with alcohol before arriving at MIT and moving into an MIT fraternity.

During the first part of the event on the night of September 26, 1997, the Phi Gamma Delta "pledge trainer" provided the group of pledges with beer and a bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey that he had purchased earlier. The pledges consumed all of the alcohol. At about 11:00 p.m., the fraternity “big brothers” entered the “Animal House” room and the pledge trainer ordered the pledges to line-up. The "big brothers" were introduced and then the whole group sang a Phi Gamma Delta drinking song that ended with the words "drink her down, drink her down, drink her down, down, down."

Each "big brother" had an additional bottle of hard liquor to share with his "little brother." Scott Krueger’s "big brother" presented him with a bottle of Bacardi spiced rum. As the event wore on, Krueger began complaining of nausea, and lay down on a couch. Within minutes he began to lose consciousness. Two "big brothers" of the fraternity then carried Krueger to his new bedroom in the fraternity, placed him on his stomach, and positioned a trash can nearby. Approximately ten minutes later Krueger was unconscious and covered with vomit. Instead of immediately calling 911, a fraternity member dialed the MIT campus police who in turn transferred the call to 911. Emergency medical technicians responded quickly and discovered that Scott Krueger was not breathing, his face was blue, and he had choked on his own vomit. He was rushed by ambulance to Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Boston, where he remained in a coma for some 40 hours until he was ultimately pronounced dead on Monday, September 29, 1997.

That was what it took to get MIT to revisit the recommendations of the Potter Committee report of 1989.

The death of Scott Krueger put freshman housing back on the institute’s agenda. In August 1998 Chuck Vest [then the president] announced that as of the fall of 2001 all freshmen would be housed in campus residence halls. That was one year after Krueger’s death. There had been a lot of discussion during that year, much of it with faculty and students, but much of it with a “hidden” constituency, the alumni. Many of them were angry as bulls at a May Day parade. I suspect they put the same pressure on Chuck that they did on Paul Gray and John Deutch in 1989 when the Potter Committee report appeared.

I can only speculate why Chuck finally made the decision that he did. For the five years before Krueger’s death, I had been, as a colleague once put it, "a telephone off the hook." That is to say, having stepped down as associate provost in 1993, I had been out of the line of fire. Still, I knew Chuck well enough to know from a distance that the Krueger death hit him very close to home. He met with Scott Krueger’s parents personally. That was probably the hardest thing he had to do as a university president.

There was no way that he wasn’t going to resolve what, in remarks to the MIT faculty at a meeting on September 16, 1998, he called the “unresolved” business of the Potter Committee report. Strengthened by the catastrophe of a freshman’s death, Chuck was able to do what had been undoable at least for the past decade. He changed the way MIT freshmen were married to their rooms. It is significant that the president who made that important change should have been an outsider. His distance from the MIT student culture that that entailed may have added just the right dash of objectivity needed to do "the right thing."

How big a change was it? The biggest change in my view was that the week when freshmen came onto campus and settled into their accommodations was now a dry week. No more alcohol-soaked bacchanalias. That was a very good thing. Binge drinking is a form of sporting death, I suppose. That is what the Phi Gamma Deltas were doing to a fare-thee-well.

Binge drinking happens at almost every institution of higher learning in the United States. I read one report that said that 42 percent of all college students admit to binge drinking at one time or another during their undergraduate years. At MIT the figure is almost half that — 24 percent. Why should that be? My own street-corner diagnosis is that MIT pre-selects for students who engage in addictive behavior. What MIT has managed to do is to channel that addictive compulsion into a nondestructive groove — namely, mastering a curriculum that is basically unmasterable.

My advice to universities interested in cutting down on binge drinking would be to ratchet up the demands of the curriculum. I’m sure that advice would go over like a lead balloon. What happened to the question of choice once freshmen were required to live in dormitory space on campus? As far as I can tell, they have the same amount of choice they had before, only it has been stretched out over a longer period of time. This is a crucial (and clever) property of the new system. The students choose where they live for the first year, so long as it is on campus and in residential dormitories. Sometime during the year they can choose to go into independent living groups in their second year or stay put. As of this writing, 50 percent of the male students opt for fraternity affiliation of one sort or another.

What about the culture of the dorms? Judging from my 2010 conversation with the young woman from Senior House and from the (strictly student-made) DVD that accompanies the "Guide to Residences" that is sent to incoming freshmen during the summer to help them decide where on campus they want to live, the culture hasn’t changed one whit.


Samuel Jay Keyser is professor emeritus of linguistics and philosophy and former associate provost of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This essay is an adapted excerpt from his new book, Mens et Mania: The MIT Nobody Knows (MIT Press) and appears here courtesy of the press.


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