Thursday, March 24, 2011

Controversies - the Lecture Series Committee

Some of you may remember the Lecture Series Committee. They were a student activity group that showed movies on the campus every weekend. These were usually feature films that had recently finished their runs at the box office, at a time when VHS and Beta had not yet finished duking it out for supremacy as THE format for home video. LSC was the principal source of cinema on the MIT campus, charging a nominal fee to students for the privilege of sitting in Kresge Auditorium (or Room 10-250, when circumstances warranted) to see "Dirty Harry" or "Star Wars". As a result, LSC was among the elite of the service organizations, along with the Technology Community Association (TCA), service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega and the Student Center Committee (SCC), which ran the Stratton Student Center (naturally). The SCC, which I was privileged to become a member of in my senior year, also ran the Coffehouse in the Student Center and sponsored a number of free events, such as Strat's Rat (all the beer and chips you could consume and all the disco you could stand), occasional live acoustic music performances, and their own Midnight Movies, which were free (just bring a blanket).

Running the campus movies was a major enterprise for the LSC, but that was all in support of their primary mission, which was (wait - it will come back to me soon enough) bringing guest lecturers to MIT. In that vein, they had brought us Henry Kissinger, David Frye (a comedian who sounded like Henry Kissinger on occasion) and Peter Schickele of PDQ Bach fame (he played music like Henry Kissinger). These were serious thinkers and policymakers, and without the money raised by those feature films, LSC could not have brought them to the campus.

At least that was their argument for retaining a monopoly on the showing of feature films at MIT. And they had a nice, lucrative racket going - one that the Social Action Coordinating Committee (remember them?) wanted in on. In 1976, they challenged LSC's monopoly before the Assembly of the Undergraduate Association. This seemed like a slam-dunk; one of their own, Phil Moore, had just been elected Undergraduate Association President, and he had reconstituted a defunct representative parliament of undergraduates elected from all the dorms, fraternities and living groups on campus, to legislate on such matters. Even Bexley had a representative in the Assembly. It couldn't lose. But somehow it did. The proposal to let SACC show feature films in competition with the LSC was voted down by the only deliberative democratic body comprised solely of MIT undergraduates. SACC skulked off and returned to its primary mission in life - harrassing the editors of thursday into running another serialized feature on the Battering Ram.

Of course, it made perfect sense for LSC to have a monopoly. After all, there were only a limited number of films that could be had from New Line catalogue, and two organizations showing films on the same night would have split the campus apart. I think the argument was summed up like this:
Back in 70's, the phone company was AT&T and AT&T was the phone company. It was a monopoly. It controlled all the local service, it controlled long distance and it provided all the phones. In 1983, a lawsuit ended this monopoly and broke AT&T up into multiple pieces, in an effort to foster competition (actually, AT&T agreed to the split-up; they gave away the local services and retained the more lucrative long distance). This effort worked so well that today there is a monopoly phone company. Its name is AT&T.

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