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MIT Shows Disdain for Undergraduates

Guest column by Michael J. Kobb

"Happy Students Also Make Happy Alums" by A. Arif Husain '97 from the Oct. 29 issue of The Tech couldn't have been more on the money.

While Husain is a soon-to-be alumnus, I'm a recent alumnus (graduated in 1994), so I have a somewhat different perspective. While he is still close enough to the Institute that he notices the small hints of institutional disdain for undergrads (the 50 cent bill he received), I'm removed by a few years, and I can see more of the looming iceberg under that small, snowy tuft.

Undergraduate life at MIT is characterized by working one's self to death in classes and dividing up insufficient resources to get by as best one can. When I was a student, I was often party to strategy sessions where friends and I figured out how to best steer our way through a packed few weeks of exams and projects, to do an "acceptable" job on all of them without incurring any terminal damage to our GPAs. There was never enough time to do the assigned work well, to achieve a level of excellence that would have made me proud.

One could argue that such an experience builds skills needed later in life (triage, cutting losses, assessing a situation, etc.), but if true, it does so at the expense of other skills even more needed later in engineering life (mathematics, algorithms, data structures, etc.). I have colleagues and friends who are engineers who went to other good schools. They have almost as a rule, more practical engineering training and expertise than I got out of MIT, and as far as I can tell, they got that training at less expense - monetary, emotional, spiritual and physical. It's just not natural for a 21-year-old to start getting gray hairs from stress and exhaustion, but I have friends who had exactly that happen at MIT. How many first-class institutions of higher learning have "IHTFP" as a slogan among the student body? Do all college undergrads know a couple of people who have committed suicide while in school?

I recently received a phone call from a sincere-sounding sophomore, soliciting contributions for the annual Alumni Fund fundraiser. I thought of telling him to drop the phone and escape while he still could, but I resisted. I thought, maybe he'll go on to graduate school, where the Institute actually starts caring about and taking care of its students.

Don't get me wrong here. I had some excellent professors and a wonderful, caring advisor during my time at MIT. But select professors do not an Institute make. As outstanding as some of the faculty are, in my opinion, MIT is crippled as an undergraduate learning institution by a culture of "survival at the expense of excellence." When confronted with an overwhelming, impossible workload, really smart people figure out the ways to most effectively cut their losses and get by with the requirements. But this leaves no room for exploration, no room for deep learning, no room for excellence.

Chairman of the Corporation Paul E. Gray '54 has commented that the endowment is too small for an institution of MIT's caliber. I am not at all surprised because, personally, I have no intention of giving MIT one red cent until I see some sign that undergraduate education is looked upon as just as valuable and just as important as the graduate school.

A good start would be to grant tenure to professors based on their teaching merit, not just their research prowess. But it needs to go deeper than that. Professors and their departments need to wake up and take stock of whether their policies and actions are merely expedient, or whether they are in the very best interests of the students and the world that those students will one day help to shape.

When I was a freshman, President Charles M. Vest assured us that we weren't at MIT by mistake - we weren't the only students feeling inadequate, the only ones who thought that they must have somehow slipped by the admissions screen that let in all those "smart" people, but should have rejected us. Well, that's probably true - the admissions office didn't make a mistake in offering me early admission. But I can't help asking myself if I made a mistake in accepting.

Michael J. Kobb '94 currently works in Silicon Valley, California.