Dear President Reif, Don’t Fuck Up the Culture.
Part I: Being Candid.
Before you entered your presidency in May of 2012, you urged the community to be candid with you. You encouraged us to speak with you frankly, even if it’s not what you want to hear. You correctly identified that part of the secret to MIT’s success is a culture of openness, of vocalization, of ideas, and subsequently, of collective improvement.
But at the time, I didn’t have anything to say to you. Nothing to be candid about. It was my freshman year and I really enjoyed MIT. Of course, rosy retrospection may bias my opinions now, but compared to high school, MIT was such a breath of fresh, open air. But it’s funny because I remember speaking with upperclassmen at the time, and hearing them talk about how MIT has changed so much — unfortunately for the worse — since their freshman year. They spoke about how freedom was dwindling, how autonomy was fading, how culture was dying.
And I didn’t understand at the time. There I was, a lowly freshman, amazed at the stark differences between high school and college. I didn’t know enough about MIT to comment on the grim storm that MIT had been weathering. Three-and-a-half years later, I find myself in the shoes of the upperclassmen, now heeding the same warnings to those younger than me and receiving many all-too-familiar blank responses.
MIT’s culture is very unique, very diverse, yet very fragile. Friends who have visited from other colleges are often amazed at just how complex and diverse the social scene at MIT is. And in this complexity lies the flexible culture that supports the broad spectrum of students who attend MIT. Every living group is distinct. Even floors, suites, sides, towers, houses, and entries differ in personality and lifestyle. Moreover, each student has multiple identities that span many different cultures: living group, Greek life, varsity sports, IM, a cappella groups, dance teams, cultural clubs, technical clubs, majors, classes, etc. And these groups are the social cornerstones which students grow and rely on, even after they’ve left MIT. It’s tragic to see so many of these cultures diminishing at the hands of Administration.
See, every year MIT is losing more and more of what makes MIT, MIT. Each year, it loses more and more creativity, more and more communities. In their stead, the Institute has substituted these once inspiring features for more restrictions, more regulations, more bureaucracy. The Administration has prioritized the reduction of liability over the care of students’ mental, intellectual, and emotional growth. The student body is becoming increasingly fragmented, broken, closed. MIT culture has suffered greatly. Life throughout campus has gradually become sterile, stale, nearly stagnant.
As a co-founder of my own startup, I’ve listened to quite a bit of advice since beginning my entrepreneurial journey. Last year, I came across a letter by Brian Chesky, CEO and Co-Founder of Airbnb, that he wrote to his own team. The title, topic, and lesson of the article will forever stand above all other advice I have received.
Simply and clearly, Brian heeded: “Don’t Fuck Up the Culture.”
Such a brash statement takes a while to digest. But think about it very carefully and hopefully you’ll understand the magnitude and importance of such an ideology. See, cultures, like individual humans, are often not logic-driven; they’re largely emotional. It’s about intrinsic preferences, gut feelings, social connectivity. It’s about finding the group(s) that resonate with you and inspire you and provide comfort to you, despite your background, your major, or your academics.
The Secret Sauce
In the business world, an organization should never lose focus on its secret sauce — its core principles, insights, or information that give them an unfair advantage in the world. This secret sauce is what differentiates the organization from every other company and competitor out there that is fighting for the same customers, same employees, and same resources that they are. And if the organization doesn’t know, or perhaps even worse, if they lost their secret sauce, then you might find such an organization slipping in the rankings and fading away in the background, despite whatever track record it had achieved prior.
This brings us to MIT’s secret sauce: I’ll tell you that it’s not its academics, as I’m sure even you would agree a great education can be earned at many other places. In our modern Internet-driven-MITx-filled world where first-class knowledge is shared instantaneously to anyone with a computer, classes are hardly what make MIT unique. No, it’s not the academics. It’s the culture. It’s the fact that there’s such a strong community of diversity, of collaboration, of intellect, of social destressing, of exploration and eccentricity. And that’s why it’s absolutely crucial that fostering this community, this culture, becomes MIT’s number one priority.