Dear President Reif, Don’t Fuck Up the Culture.
Part III: It’s your job.
As a leader in your position, you have huge responsibilities to take care of. You are the head of a multi-billion dollar company. You have multiple departments, committees, faculty, and board members vying for your attention and time. And yet, there are internal problems within your organization and it’s affecting its operation.
If you’ve followed the employment industry lately, you would know that there’s a growing trend of employees seeking out companies that provide freedom, purpose, fit, culture. You were right in saying that money only works up to a point. And the same goes for prestige, image, and brand. But culture has a way of convincing talented folks to decline lucrative offers from established, global corporations in favor for modern companies that emphasize employee well-being.
MIT has always paralleled startup culture as opposed to corporate culture. The difference is day and night if you were to visit the crimson school down the street. We often take pride in our relaxed dress code, quirky traditions, and natural informalities. Just like modern tech companies, like Google or Facebook, MIT traditionally embodied a free, entrepreneurial spirit that valued exploration and community over bureaucracy and governance. And this pattern is growing worldwide. As millennials grow more relevant in the workforce, the style of management will have to accommodate the values of this social generation. Modern companies have realized this increasing trend and have prioritized fostering culture in their own workplaces; MIT has unfortunately moved in the opposite direction.
With all of your reports and recommendations from various departments, you hold the most information about MIT and how to lead it towards the direction you see fit. But you’re missing a very crucial part of the picture. The part which this school was made for: the students.
And this hefty responsibility of fostering culture doesn’t lie with the Chancellor, or the Dean of Student Life, or Res Life. It wouldn’t even lie with a separate person whose title was Chief Culture Officer. Why? Because it’s your job. Because you’re at the head of the helm. You are the President. The CEO. The single image of MIT that truly empowers others. The one who sets the tone and the vision for the entire institute.
And I’ll agree that it’s a difficult and complex job. In fact, it’s difficult because it’s a soft job, a job no one tells you about. By default, it is a passive job. One that you have, but isn’t explicitly stated in the job description; but make no mistake, it is your job.
Now, the more difficult thing to come to terms with is that if don’t do your (this) job, MIT will still exist. Students will still apply by the masses. Professors will still teach their courses. Researchers will still perform their work. The academics will still be heralded as world-class. But you’re going to have to ask: what about the secret sauce? What about the culture? What will distinguish MIT from the other corporatized institutions?
In an effort to be as candid as possible, I’d like to pass on to you the very same advice that I hold so dearly in running my own organization:
President Reif, don’t fuck up the culture.
Put down The Agenda and focus on the students. Discard the facade and instead, foster the ambitious, creative culture that you can proudly and genuinely promote as MIT’s unique brand. And stop blindly relying on corporatization to artificially dictate Institute operations, but rather, use the Institute’s secret sauce to create the modern-day, world-class university that we’re naturally known for.
Remember, students are just as great of a privilege to MIT, as MIT is a privilege to its students. Don’t lose sight of that.
I hope this serves you well during your presidency, and beyond. For if not, then I truly worry for the future of MIT, its students, and what remaining culture they have to cling on to.
Signed sincerely and candidly,
Former MIT 2015, Course 16