A story about disco

It's been awhile since I dug through old issues of the Tech; it's a good habit and I highly recommend it. (Interested in the history of X entity? Google "site:tech.mit.edu X entity" and click on things! It works surprisingly well. Interested in what things were like in Y year? Go to http://tech.mit.edu/browse.html !) Tonight I read through the fall of 1977 and I want to tell you about a bunch of the stuff I found.

In the spring of 1977, a guy named Peter Berke got elected UA President. He ran on a "Greening of MIT" platform - put leaves on the trees, provide places to sit down, etc. - which set him apart from the other candidates. The day after getting elected, he said things like "If one more person says, 'Congratulations,' I'll resign. The title of UAP itself is no big deal." and "The Staple Singers said it well in 1971: You keep talkin' about the president - won't stop air pollution. Put your hand over your mouth when you cough, that'll help the solution."

(Other interesting things from this issue: A motion calling for the UA president to be a member of the MIT Academic Council passed with over 90% of the undergraduate vote. This never happened and remains something that people call for.)

There are plenty of interesting stories from the 1977-1978 academic year: West Campus threatening to secede from Dormcon, a reprint of a 1970 story in which the housemaster of Burton declares "the guy who did that ought to be castrated with a dull spoon", and the burying of Transparent Horizon in snow. (And in the spring semester, the Tech printed a series about UA history and UA reform!) The biggest issue of the year was a faculty proposal to limit the number of courses which could be dropped after the fifth week of classes, to only one.

(To make a long story short: people who dropped multiple classes were likely to be in academic trouble, so "why not just prohibit dropping multiple classes"?. It was a dumb idea, students complained, it seemed inevitable, students complained more, the faculty vote was postponed but still seemed inevitable, students engaged in a well-organized peer pressure campaign, the faculty voted against the motion.)

But in the process, the Tech decided Peter Berke was a terrible UAP and needed to be gotten rid of. You can follow this story in the five issues of The Tech from November 22nd, 1977 to December 9th; here are some excerpts.

  • In the last issue of "thursday", Undergraduate Association President Peter Berke began his "notes from the undergraduate student body" with the following complaints: "Two things about which people have complained to me a lot this past year are the Dean's Office and the art on campus. I don't want to hear it any more. Go tell somebody else. If you can't make it to the hearing of the Visiting Committee for Student Affairs, and you don't want to be on the Committee on Visual Arts (see below how to get nominated) don't come to me and complain and ask me what I'm doing!" ... If Peter Berke does not wish to fulfill these vital roles as UAP, perhaps the job is not for him. --The Tech, Editorial, "Berke failing as UAP"
  • To which Peter Berke sent a letter to the five people in charge of The Tech, saying: "I am pleased to inform you of your appointment to the General Assembly executive committee. This committee will be responsible for the planning and successful execution of a General Assembly. This includes scheduling, agenda and selection of representatives for the assembly ... You have expressed a VERY strong desire for the convening of this assembly, so I am sure you will find time in your busy schedules to act on your real concerns ... Good Luck!"
  • At which point The Tech called for his impeachment, noting, among other things, that he had failed to attend a faculty meeting in which the controversial drop date petition was being discussed.
  • In subsequent issues, three different people wrote to the Tech complaining that Berke was doing a fine job and that the Tech was slandering him.

I noticed a bunch of things I found interesting:

  • At one point, Peter Berke mentions a hearing of the Visiting Committee on Student affairs (now the MIT Corporation's Visiting Committee on Student Life, which visits every two years, hears presentations, and has the power to put the fear of God in the DSL). The hearing was a public opportunity for MIT students to talk with incredibly powerful people about MIT student life; so of course, very few people came (nothing ever changes).
    • But the fact that there was such a public opportunity is telling about how times now are very different from times back then. In addition to having this forum, the Visiting Committee toured SH, EC, and Baker, and split up in order that their members could eat dinner with the leaderships of a number of different living groups (specifically, WILG, Ashdown, Baker, SH, and Sigma Chi). How many opportunities do you think the Visiting Committee will have to talk with current undergraduates in such an unscripted fashion when they come visit this year in a couple weeks (November 3-4)? I'd put five bucks on zero (especially if I get to define 'unscripted').
  • People wrote in the Tech. Not just undergrads defending the UAP - when the Tech wrote an article saying few people showed up to the Visiting Committee hearing, the Dean for Student Affairs wrote back, saying that she tried and asking for suggestions on how to do better. When students complained that money was a terrible reason to consider the drop date changes, the chair of the faculty wrote in the Tech explaining that the change was being considered only for academic reasons. The Tech truly seems to have been a clearinghouse for campus-wide conversations back then.
  • The Tech was very plugged-in. They reported on ASA elections and Dormcon elections (something which they appear to have stopped doing only in the past fifteen years), and put the new ASA president's face on the front page of the Tech! They had a sidebar every issue with a quote from a different campus' newspaper, indicating that they were knowledgeable about what the campus issues were at Harvard, Tufts, Caltech, Stanford, etc., etc. And they were so fluent with MIT history! They dragged interesting things up from their archives many if not most issues, and their articles regularly indicated a command of history and institutional memory which I think almost every student organization today lacks. (I inherited a friend's pet hypothesis that the past fifteen years have seen an unprecedentedly widespread decline in MIT student institutions.)

  • Constant complaints about student apathy appear to have been happening since the dawn of time.


So how did Peter Berke - who would later be described as "something of a joke on the campus at the time" - get elected UAP anyway? Fast-forward to IAP 1978: "Berke again offers disco class". Peter Berke, his sophomore, junior, and senior years, ran a disco dancing class over IAP, which was the most popular IAP activity every year. His senior year, he happened to be UA President while he was doing it. Some quotes from the article about his final offering:

"This is a class especially for individuals who haven't danced before (and even people who thought they never could). Don't come expecting me to teach fancy cha-cha steps for couples, and I won't come expecting you to run for school president, okay?"

"The dancing class is open to anybody...with a special invitation to reactionary, self-aggrandizing, irresponsible and ego-blinded members of the campus press."

Berke's class is in the spirit of how he sees his role as UAP: "to get people to do what they're good at." He added, "That's how I got elected - because I taught a couple of hundred undergraduates how to dance."

It was the '70's, I guess.

Come to the meeting on Sunday afternoon! It'll be fun*! 3pm in the UA office!


*I'll find it fun!