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Student Concerns Should Come First

Column by Thomas R. Karlo
Contributing Editor

Last friday I went with a group of friends to view LSC's presentation of Dead Man Walking. About 15 minutes into the movie, I began to remember one of the reasons I always hated to go to lecture in that room, 26-100, when I was a freshman. Of all the chairs I find myself using, the seats in 26-100 have to be some of the most uncomfortable, awkward pieces of furniture around.

The worst part is that the situation is not much different from most of the other lecture rooms that undergraduates use. Yes, 34-101 has those nice new seats - but they're so close together that people regularly hang their legs over the seats in front of them for relief from banging their knees into the next row. And 54-100 manages to combine both old wooden seats and cramped rows in one room, providing an especially awkward and painful experience.

I'll admit I'm not a compact guy, and I guess if I were shorter I'd be able to sit more easily in closely spaced rows. But that would still mean I'd experience the discomfort of sitting in those wooden chairs that, rather than supporting you properly, have a seat that pivots back and forth with you as your weight shifts. Anyone who's ever sat in 26-100 and listened to all the bearings of the seats groaning and squeaking during a lecture will relate to this.

Why does MIT, home of some of the best engineers in the world, force its students to use some of the worst designed chairs around? Maybe this is where the administration should be working. All I keep hearing about is how they're going to rework the mail distribution system (that's a column in itself, actually), streamline the administration, and cut costs, etc. But what are they doing to improve student life on a day to day basis? All of us spend hundreds of hours sitting in lecture during our time at MIT; simple changes in our experience there could make major impacts on the quality of student life at MIT.

A lot of students don't care about re-engineering. They don't feel it will impact their experience as a student, and they're probably right about that. MIT needs to examine how it can impact the daily life of its students and not just center on redesigning the MIT administration. The administration is important, but its internal function often has little bearing on the daily experience of the MIT student. We eat, we go to class, we socialize, and we work. Is re-engineering going to affect this? Can MIT raise its quality of student life to match that of other top level institutions?

The solution isn't easy to agree on. MIT's administration may well need to be redesigned and reorganized. But MIT should also make an effort to examine how the lives of its students can be improved if it wants to establish itself as a top U.S. school. We have the academics - there's no question of that. But getting a top reputation and bringing in the top candidates should not be where things end. Students are people, too, and academics aren't their only concern.

The fact that a recent college ranking by U.S. News and World Report placed Duke University over MIT should wake us up to this issue. I doubt Duke beat out MIT because it had more Nobel Prize winners, or because its administration gets its mail distributed cheaper than we do. Look in that elusive "student retention" category for the answer to why we lost out. Although Duke trailed MITin every other category, it ranked 8 schools higher in retention rate. Why is retention such an important component of the rankings?Because it's indicative of the happiness and satisfaction of the school's students.

For MIT to attract a broader and higher quality pool of students, it will have to address those areas that it has traditionally regarded as secondary in importance. First among those should be the quality of student life.