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MIT Should Quit Stifling Leadership

Column by Anders Hove
Opinion Editor

"Leadership" was the topic at last weekend's MIT Alumni/ae Association conference. The prevailing views expressed during the conference wouldn't surprise you.

Take the members of the Educational Council - the alumni/ae who conduct MIT admissions interviews - for instance. They had some disturbing things to say about leadership at their bull session.

Several participants played down the importance of leadership at a science and engineering school. One asserted that industry isn't really interested in hiring leaders, but rather in filling positions. Another declared that assertiveness and leadership were more often bad qualities among employees, since they might hinder their ability to do only as instructed. (Director of Admissions Michael C. Benkhe was seen furiously scribbling notes. The opinion department would love to hear what he found so enlightening.)

MIT graduates, it seems, often make successful leaders (although I doubt an effort was made to uncover unsuccessful leaders among the alumni/ae). The roads these leaders took to leadership are as diverse as their life stories. Some always thought of themselves as leaders, while others rose to positions of leadership after doing plenty of time in other jobs. It was unclear whether they led because of their MIT experience, or in spite of it.

Indeed, participants in the conference voiced a wide variety of concerns about MIT's role in fostering leadership. Most of their stories related to learning leadership through classwork and cooperation at an intellectual level. Few emphasized the actual practice of leadership on campus.

I sympathize with those who can't think of a way to find leaders among MIT applicants, and with those who can't think of how to make leaders out of MIT students once they are admitted. I don't have a complete solution either.

Instinct tells me, however, that one way to encourage leadership among MIT students would be to stop stifling it.

It's not that there aren't examples of leadership at MIT. Most of the ones I can think of, however, seem to have succeeded because they didn't conflict with the goals of MIT's lean but entrenched administration. (The Baker House Dining initiative, the Safe Walk program, or the student-run Killian Kick-Off are recent examples.)

As everyone knows, however, when the top people on the second floor of the Infinite Corridor want something done, they are more apt to fear rather than encourage student leadership. Last year's flame-fests over East Campus and Senior House and intermediate grades, not to mention less recent spats over the future of Aramark and mandatory meal programs, demonstrate that student involvement - and leadership in particular - are viewed as more of a hindrance than an aid to decision-making.

During these student-administration feuds, students government organs, student groups, this newspaper, and student leaders in general have insisted that the decision-making process begin and end with all concerned community groups. The fact remains that key administrators are loath to admit that they represent only one competing interest on this campus. Trying to account for the opinions of faculty and students after the committees have met and the reports have been written is not sufficient.

If MIT really wants to foster leadership, it could start with the re-engineering of student services. Director of Housing and Food Services Lawrence E. Maguire is mistaken in thinking of students as customers. "Customers" are disorganized masses who communicate through comment cards, complaints, or market research. Customers don't have leaders; constituents do.

It's time the MIT administration supported leadership among students by beginning the planning and decision-making process with the community as a whole. The prestige and autonomy of administrators may well suffer. But the gains to the quality of an MIT education could be immeasurable.