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Institute Overrun by Focus Group Craze

Column by Anders Hove
Executive Editor

MIT is sick. Surely you must have noticed. All the tell-tale symptoms are there; I'm afraid the Institute has come down with a hard case of the focus groups.

Every day my inbox breaks out with a rash of new focus group announcements. There are so many now that the ordinary processes of student government and administrative affairs are completely crippled. Even the most committed members of the community have taken on a pale, hobbled aspect. They wander in and out of administrative offices, barely conscious of whether they will be given free pizza or MIT catering. They're in no condition to cope with the barrage of meaningless questions that assault them at every turn.

With the number of focus groups held weekly reaching epidemic proportions, I expect the Medical Center to release an informative pamphlet to the community quite soon. It might be entitled, "Focus Groups: How You Can Protect Yourself." It might contain some of the following information:

Focus groups originated in the field of marketing. The idea was to get more information from potential customers by herding them into a tight space, presenting them with a product, a commercial, or a sales pitch, and then debriefing them in detail. Products and advertisements could then be fine-tuned to anticipate the reaction of real customers.

This semi-insidious concept quickly spread to politics. By the late 1980s, candidates and their spindoctors were airing speeches and ads in front of focus groups. Members of the groups were given hand-held devices with which they could register the exact emotion they were experiencing during the commercial. Campaign aides could craft and recraft the candidate's message to maximally attract voters or at least drive them away from the opponent. Many feared that focus groups and other marketing techniques were being used to subvert democracy by manipulating the information available to voters. Focus groups and "hot buttons" became buzzwords for everything that is wrong with our political system.

In the early 1990s, managerial retrenchment and reorganization brought the focus group idea to the upper reaches of corporate America. Instead of reorganizing or improving a company's functions the old fashioned way (by negotiating among interested parties or making top-down decisions with minimal information), companies brought in outside firms with little or no knowledge of their inner workings. The consultants brought with them a new strain of focus group, one designed to anticipate negative worker reaction to reorganizations or downsizings by packaging them in an attractive way. Focus groups were also popular among workers because they represented an independent forum where they could air their grievances.

Who brought focus groups to MIT? So many cases go undocumented that nobody knows for sure; however, it seems reasonable to assume that Aramark brought them here as a marketing tactic. Compared to widely ignored comment cards, focus groups could be used to placate the bawling masses who said their voices weren't being heard on food issues. Second, Aramark could evaluate for itself the complaints people had, tinkering and repackaging to improve their image if possible.

Needless to say, focus groups were by no means successful (Aramark is no more popular than before). Yet one bad idea seems to breed another. Administrators and committee chairs expressed dissatisfaction with the unpopularity of their top-down proposals. Students were not satisfied with daily surveys and token committee members as a level of input. They were asking for real involvement and real consultation.

Focus groups were a quick fix. They gave the impression of involvement without its dangers and difficulties. Students dissatisfied? Fire off a salvo of focus groups and watch them writhe in meaningless, self-generated drivel.

Originally these torturous sessions were actually attended by faculty and administrators trying to prove their empathy. Before long, however, it became apparent that even this was unnecessary. Hire a couple of random students to actually run the focus groups, and now you have a complete, low-maintenance system of collecting, co-opting, and disposing of student input. The focus groups act like a barrel of Roundup brand weed killer, nipping representatives in the bud and insulating top level committee members from noxious ideas and protest.

An admittedly cynical view of a bad situation, no doubt. The carcasses of well-intentioned administrators litter the history of focus groups on this campus. Handed the hot potato of "soliciting student input," they followed the path of least resistance. Not the greatest of sins, in retrospect.

So where's the exit for the road to recovery? The first step, of course, is for MIT to admit it has a problem. That might be followed by an immediate and unilateral cessation of focus group and survey activity. After that, someone might consider cutting the number of similarly-named, overlapping committees in half. The final and most crucial step would be to initiate a system of student involvement that would maximally use and promote student participation and representation.

Perhaps I'm going too far in hoping for a full recovery. This case of focus groups is pretty acute. For all I know, it may be terminal.