Had it been a mural of happy unicorns, it would have still been there when the students returned from their summer of excellent experiments. But then, it was painted at a time when the Institute was more concerned with giving students the freedom to express themselves rather than never hurting anyone’s feelings.
When the residents of third floor of MIT’s Burton-Conner dorm left at the end of the spring semester, there was an old mural of a bar scene on the wall, and a real bar in front of it. This was the personality of the floor, an aspect of dorm life that characterizes MIT. Unlike other schools, each dorm has developed a persona, and attracts like-minded students who prefer the lifestyle it reflects. But that’s history, and this is a school of science.
When the students of Burton Third returned for the fall, there was no mural. There was no bar. It was gone. The “penny arcade” mural on Burton 1 was spared complete obliteration, merely censored to remove offending words.
The Penny Arcade mural on the first floor of Burton-Conner has recently been censored. The last two sentences originally read, “This floor will eviscerate you with pleasure. You will bleed to death.”
According to Housemaster, Anne McCants, she had no choice.
This controversy began when we raised a concern to the Division of Student Life about a potentially harassing environment on one floor of Burton-Conner as evidenced by the totality of the wall art and permanent graffiti in its public spaces. (Once again, I will forbear from making public what was found on those walls, with the exception of two examples below, because it had not been my intention or role to publicly humiliate any residents of my dorm. Certain residents, not I, saw fit to take this matter beyond our dorm, and repeatedly so.) They agreed that the material on the walls and the décor of the lounge were inconsistent with the values espoused in the MIT Mind and Hand Book and likely to run afoul of Federal and State civil rights and anti-harassment legislation, which among other things highlight the well-established nexus between intoxication and sexual harassment/violence. The material at issue was removed, “immediately” as Federal Title IX guidance explicitly requires, and some students have been angry ever since.
There were, apparently, two complaints about the mural that adorned Burton Third, causing the feeling of discomfort, because of this:
Barbara Baker, Senior Associate Dean for Students and MIT Title IX Co-Coordinator, was unavailable for comment on the specific process DSL used to come to this decision. But in a later email to the Burton-Conner community (following the appearance of posters on campus) Baker said that “Displays of sexual objects, pictures, or other images, if severe and pervasive can lead to a sexually hostile environment.”
As it coincidentally happens, McCants’ husband is a Senior Civil Rights Attorney for the Office for Civil Rights within the U.S. Department of Education.
It may well be that the content of the murals was relatively offensive. I’m unable to find an image of the Burton Third mural to offer for consideration, but from the comments by the Burton-Conner dorm president, it wasn’t exactly a shrine.
Akhil Raju ’14, Burton-Conner president, said in an email to The Tech, “About half the students I talked to didn’t like [the murals] and the other half thought they were slightly amusing. Actually, a lot of people didn’t see them… Many students felt that most of the murals were not offensive, and the manner in which they were taken down concerned them more.”
It may be that had the Housemaster met with the students, they would have been good with getting rid of the mural. Or at least, wouldn’t have raised too big a fuss about it. After all, times change and, if Raju is right, it wasn’t all that great anyway. But they never got the opportunity to agree to kill the mural.
There are two big issues raised here, the more concrete one being that the mural disappeared without the students’ knowledge or input. While McCants contends that the duty under Title IX was to eradicate it immediately, it somehow managed not to be painted over until after the students left for the summer, but had to be completed before their return. There isn’t much to argue about after something is gone forever.
The harder issue is the elevation of delicate sensibilities over all else:
MIT’s Policy on Harassment in the Mind and Hand Book defines harassment as “any conduct, verbal or physical, on or off campus, that has the intent or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual or group’s educational or work performance at MIT or that creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive educational, work, or living environment.”
“There have been a few students who … are pleased, actually, to see that someone’s taking these questions seriously. I’m hopeful,” said McCants. “I think that it certainly makes for a better environment for people who work in Burton-Conner … Those people have identical rights, actually, on this campus as the students. And I think that’s something that’s really easy for students and faculty to forget. Whatever these provisions are, they aren’t just to protect us — the people who are here in the education part of it — they’re here to protect everyone on this campus.”
And, McCants adds, it wasn’t just about her duty to “shield” anyone whose feelings might be hurt, but her own experiences as well:
What I do want to do in this letter is to tell a story; a story which informs every aspect of the decision making I have engaged in since first discovering the harassing material on the walls of the residence hall that has been entrusted to my care by MIT.
In the twilight hours of Labor Day in 1979, my family, while driving home from a weekend backpacking trip, was struck by a drunk driver. Our car was hit broadside at considerable speed, rolled over twice, and crushed my brother who, as the driver had taken the brunt of the impact.
That would be experience enough to make me wince at expectations that in my role as Housemaster I “shield” students from the consequences of their behavior, as so many in the MIT community have suggested to me over the last two months. But there is more to this story of mine that further informs my actions this summer and fall. My brother had been born with only one kidney, and that one in near failure.
But let me say a bit more about my brother. His problems had not just been medical. As I suspect many of the readers of this story know all too well, there is something much worse than surgery: bullies.
Now that the place has been sanitized, no one’s feelings will be hurt by mural on the walls of Burton Third or Burton 1, and the perfect world will finally consume MIT, a place that once held independent thought in high esteem. All it cost was freedom of expression, a tradition of snarky independence and the soul of nonconformity. But no one’s feeling will ever be hurt again by anything, ever. And isn’t that more important?
Update: To get a feel for the whole concept of dorm life at MIT, here’s the 2006 REX video for the Burton Third Bombers, used to show incoming frosh their, ahem, culture.