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Athena Access for Alumni Would Promote Interaction

Guest column by Albert L. Hsu

On one of my recent visits to MIT, two students bumped into me and took the chance to ask me for recommendations, since I had been their recitation instructor for Organic Chemistry I (5.12). If we had not crossed paths at MIT, I doubt that they could have located me at school in the Bronx. MIT needs to provide better ways to keep in touch with alumni.

The Alumni/Alumnae Association recently initiated a service for MIT graduates called E-mail Forwarding for Life. Many seniors believe that this means they will have permanent e-mail accounts after graduation - perhaps even Athena accounts. Many think that EFL stands for "E-mail for Life."

In reality, EFL merely provides a permanent MIT e-mail address - not an actual e-mail account. This means that e-mail sent to the address is bounced to a new e-mail address - if you have one. While EFL is a decent first step toward keeping alumni connected, it is inadequate for MIT alumni to stay in touch.

First, while EFL claims to be "for life," it does not address transitional periods when alumni are between e-mail accounts. If you are between schools or between jobs and you don't have a new e-mail address, any e-mail sent to your alumni EFL address is bounced back to the senders. The senders won't know whether you are off-line, out of country, or dead - or if they were merely using the wrong address.

EFL is also clumsy. EFL usernames are almost always different from the Athena usernames that we are used to. We don't use, or even often remember, our own EFL addresses - or the passwords needed to update our directory information. It is not possible to finger alumni on Athena for their EFL addresses, and the directory of alumni EFL addresses is still only experimental. To be worthwhile, a directory has to be kept current, but it is inconvenient for alumni to constantly update their information indirectly through the Alumni/Alumnae Association.

I propose establishing an alumni Athena subdomain with Zephyr, e-mail, and World Wide Web access. This simple proposal only requires a few pieces of software, including Kerberos, finger, Zephyr, a talk program, a word processing program for writing e-mail, and a basic operating system. Some disk storage space (perhaps 5 MB per user) would be needed to store an e-mail and some basic files when the user is between e-mail accounts. Alumni would log in to a server by modem or telnet via Internet service providers, much as they would through Athena dialup.

There are several major strengths of the proposed system. First, Zephyr and e-mail would be used frequently, encouraging graduates to update their own directory information as soon as it changes. These updates would provide a current directory of alumni with minimal effort.

Second, MIT would be providing a valued service to alumni for little cost. The Office of Resource Development and Alumni/Alumnae Association have long recognized that alumni community building is important for fund raising. A set of Athena-like privileges will greatly facilitate alumni community building. The alumni Athena subdomain would also be excellent for public relations between MIT and its alumni. Particularly for young alumni, such relations are vital because only about 25 percent of recent graduates alumni traditionally donate to MIT.

The proposed alumni Athena subdomain would be established within a separate Kerberos realm, which will allow only logins to machines specifically designated for alumni. Additionally, because of site-licensing contracts, MIT cannot grant alumni access to commercial programs, like Maple or Matlab. Putting alumni in a separate Kerberos realm prevents access to these restricted programs. Finally, nobody wants alumni network traffic to slow down Athena. I have been informed by Information Systems that Zephyr and e-mail use minimal network bandwidth (at least compared to graphical programs) and would not appreciably slow down MIT computers.

Equally importantly, this service will be very good for MIT alumni on both social and professional levels. Strong connections between alumni remind us of the good times that we had at MIT - our living groups, our sports teams, and our organizations. Zephyr provides a convenient way to keep MIT friends connected, both with each other and with current students and faculty at MIT. An alumni subdomain also would be a convenient forum in which local MIT clubs could interact and organize events.

It is in the MIT community's best interest to keep its alumni in touch with each other and with the Institute. A stronger alumni presence will enable current MIT undergraduates to contact alumni for mentorship, institutional knowledge, advice, and recommendations.

A closer alumni community also would help MIT to recruit students effectively. It is conventional wisdom that 50 percent of jobs in the United States today are acquired via connections. MIT needs to develop alumni networking. Schools like Texas A&M have very strong alumni networks - if you're a fellow "Aggie," you've got the job.

The proposal for an alumni Athena subdomain could be the foundation of a rejuvenated, vibrant community of MIT graduates worldwide.

Albert L. Hsu '96 is a first-year MD/PhD student at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and an active member of the MIT Club of New York. He can be contacted at ahsu@aecom.yu.edu.