Dear President Reif, Don’t Fuck Up the Culture.
Part II: On Reality.
I wanted to comment on some realities that often go missed and without thought:
- MIT is a company. It has a board, it has a CEO (ie. you), it has VPs, it has paying customers (students, government, etc), it has multiple ‘products’ (students, research), it receives a substantial amount of revenue which it uses to cover expenses…you get the point.
- MIT has a well-known, global brand that requires a huge amount of maintenance and care in order to sustain such a lofty, prestigious image.
- Liability is one of the greatest threats to MIT’s global brand. Everything must be politically correct, everything must be governed by policy, everything must be controlled in order to avoid litigation and negative publicity. For MIT, bad press is bad press. To the detriment of the students, this makes reduction of liability one of MIT’s highest priorities. This particular Agenda will — and partially already has — come back to haunt MIT, for the unplanned side-effects are quite severe.
- This corporatization is affecting all aspects of MIT, not just student life. Even certain members of the MIT Corporation share the same concerns regarding the increasingly strict governance and management of the Institute.
- Most Administrators — to no fault of their own — did not experience undergraduate life first-hand. Therefore, it is difficult for them to understand how intricate and delicate the culture is. And needless to say, this culture is deeply integral to the MIT experience (arguably more so than the academics…). This isn’t to say that all administrators should be from MIT, but administrators should, however, seek to better understand the importance of campus culture before implementing institute policies.
- MIT Administration — to a fault completely of their own — is extraordinarily difficult to work with. The group operates with a lack of transparency that rivals even national governments. And any student who has attempted to vocalize any discontent (along with notable solutions) through their formal channels has been gridlocked in thick bureaucracy that eventually fizzles out due to exhaustion and lack of progress. See An Agenda of Their Own.
- The PR department of MIT is very talented. They know how to fabricate a great facade of liveliness around campus through tours and media in order to attract more and more students. They use the examples of hacks, projects, and other student initiatives to bolster their own image, while simultaneously stifling the very students and culture that bring such creativity to life. And therein lies MIT’s hypocrisy.
An Agenda of Their Own
- Because of corporatization, MIT has a strict agenda to adhere to, and unfortunately student feedback isn’t included in their plan. The general path of student input looks something like this ([optional]):
student->[GRT]->[Housemaster]->Res Life->DSL->Chancellor->President Reif
- Of course, matters rarely ever pass DSL, if not Res Life. Now, it’s not that there isn’t enough student feedback; it’s that the feedback is being largely ignored by those whose jobs are to listen and act upon the feedback. It’s interesting to note that Res Life and DSL’s excuse for inaction often involves citing top-down orders from their superiors (DSL and the Chancellor, respectively). And when we speak with the Chancellor, her hands seem to be tied because it’s Res Life and DSL’s jobs. And while they may congratulate themselves for a day’s, semester’s, or year’s work well done, it is disheartening to see students’ voices continually silenced and ignored, time and time again.
- In order to adhere to The Agenda, Administration can easily employ a strategy to radically change MIT’s culture within at most three years time, regardless of student input. Strategy: implement a policy according to The Agenda, send any students who wish to seek change on a merry chase to different administrators who will point their fingers to the next administrator, and wait until the school year is over. Once summer begins, all progress will be wiped clean and if the brave student has the will-power to continue the following year, she must repeat the entire process again. Can you guess how her efforts will be rewarded? In honor of candidness, I’ll answer for you: thanklessly with no results to show for it.
- If you’d like a recent, unfortunately successful example of a such a strategic maneuver, look no further than the implementation of campus dining, which was met with overwhelming discontent and opposition. If you’re looking for an example that is ongoing and is about a year-and-a-half into completion, take a look at the issue of dorm security.
- The addition of external desk workers and the subsequent increase in security protocols for visitors has had a drastic effect on campus life. Do not take this light-heartedly. Social dynamics and culture are largely shaped by convenience, opportunity, and happenstance. Serendipity plays an unsurprisingly large role in sparking and fostering friendships in an institute where some of the brightest young minds in the world are gathered. But such friendships are a lot less likely to form and thrive if everyone is physically and culturally closed off.
- And of course, the official rebuttals to the above point are, “it’s for the students’ safety” and “that’s what the guest list is for.” If you have never used the guest list system while visiting a dorm, which I’m almost certain you haven’t (at least not from a student’s perspective), then you should take a closer look at the unwelcoming and inconvenient experience. As for “student safety,” it’s a great media and publicity buzzword, but it’s negligent to add haphazard, superfluous security without analyzing the de facto consequences. See figure above.
- The class of 2015 and 2016 were the last classes to know what MIT was like pre-Allied Barton security. Like I said before, the introduction of additional desk security in 2013 drastically changed student life. But alas, half of the student population (2017s and 2018s) have little (although nonzero) motivation to voice their discontent with the Institute; they came into MIT believing that Allied Barton (amongst other things) was ‘normal.’ This of course isn’t to say that there aren’t underclassmen who are advocating for change. This is just noting that as this school year comes to a close, and as the fall begins to welcome the new 2019s, the proportion of those who know to advocate will decline, as the proportion of those who do not know to advocate will increase.
- On paper, MIT may seem like they’re increasing mental health support via professional services, but unfortunately, I get a sense that these measures are more for liability’s sake than they are for students’ sake. MIT, as a corporation, must show their efforts and actions in concretely dealing with these ongoing, publicly-loud, image-tarnishing problems. And what better way is there than to point to all the official mental health resources MIT has like Mental Health & Counseling, Student Support Services, Housemasters and their House Teams, and RLADs.
- See in practice, these measures may help. But over the past 3.5 years, I know that most, if not all of my support has come from friends who I not only trust, but I know can relate to the issues and stresses that I’m dealing with at MIT. If they were close enough of friends, then they most likely already knew about what was occurring in my life, and they would naturally ask and check up on me, without my needing to consciously reach out. This is where community comes in. This is where culture shows its true value.
- Don’t get my last bullet points wrong; I know that professional help often times is extraordinarily useful and is the solution for a lot of people. As evident in recent vocalizations around campus, subtle remarks around MIT can unfortunately discourage many students from reaching out to their own peers. The complex thing about mental health and well-being is that there is no panacea, no miracle cure, no one-size-fits-all. No policy or regulation that can completely solve the problem alone. But in focusing your attention on professional services (and liability reduction), you are neglecting a very powerful form of student support that I would argue is more effective than professional help in a lot of cases. This is of course difficult to see and prove from an external observer’s point of view, since most students do not record every conversation that they’ve had with their friends, nor do they comment on or share its impact on their psyche. Understand that culture is just as important as professional support when talking about mental health.