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Commencement Spectacle Also a Time for Reflection

Column by Ramy A. Arnaout
Senior Editor

Wednesday, June 4. The nearness of Commencement had me in a reflective mood. It had also made me a bit cynical.

After all, no amount of pomp and circumstance - the new crab apples in Killian Court, for example, or the not-so-free Senior Week foodfests, or the still-wet groutwork underfoot - can hide what Commencement really is, at least to this cynic: the tail end of a very pricey business deal. I have done my time. I have paid my $100,000. I have caused a mortgage. In return, I now collect my diploma. Four years of IHTFP and nerd pride; one rotten piece of paper.

Come to think of it, I'm surprised that the wizards of re-engineering have not yet hit on the idea of making diplomas available as, say, PDF files over WebSIS, printable upon request. It would save a fortune in printing costs alone.

Needless to say, this kind of thinking would not fly with either proud parents or partying friends. There had to be a better way to come to terms with graduation. So I took a walk around campus to try to find one.

It was windy as I headed east along Amherst Alley. Every now and again I passed fellow seniors, loved ones in tow. Most were giving the folks the penny tour, just like they did during Residence and Orientation week. Here and there 25th reunion alums were strolling by the dorms that have gone up since their days here. I wondered if any of them had ever eaten at Joyce Chen's - the restaurant that used to sit where New House sits now - and how far their 1972 dollars would go today at Aramark.

Watching them got me thinking of how much the physical campus is likely to change by the time the Class of '97's 25th reunion rolls around. First off, East Campus and Senior House will probably be history. I'm not saying I necessarily like the idea. But the administration has been trying to move students west off and on since the 1960s and has failed in large part only because of pressure by dormitory alumni. If the recent renovations succeed in weakening Senior House's character and making it just another dorm, alumni ties will weaken as well.

East Campus would then be just a renovation plan away from the same fate, and it sure can use a pair of elevators.

The west campus I know, then, would probably double in size with a new dorm alley along Vassar Street. It was not hard to imagine converting the mammoth Metropolitan Fire Proof Building for undergraduate use. MIT has even begun to stake its claim on the building with a proposed visitor's center inside.

Those, of course, would not be the only changes. The barbecue pits between Johnson Athletics Center and the Rockwell Cage are already set to house a new indoor pool complete with diving venue, which should be open by 2000. Looking east, plans are in motion to finally put Building 20 out of its misery, yielding to a new computer science complex. And, if students want it badly enough, Building 14 will hopefully be replaced by a large, well-lit, centralized library, netting humanities professors nice new offices in the deal.

By now Ihad reached the Student Center. Outside, two Physical Plant workers were on their knees doing some last-minute groutwork as part of the Institute's all-out effort to impress Commencement visitors. This pageantry is directed mainly at returning alumni and less so at graduates, whom the Institute hopes to hoodwink into thinking that MIT was always this nice to be at - nice enough, at least, to donate some money. That's the plan, or so an even more cynical friend told me.

It was working. The more Iwalked around, the more I noticed how nice the campus actually did look. Shrubs had been trimmed. Cracks in the concrete had been sealed. Lawns had been laid down, watered, and mown where no lawns had existed just days before. I mean, how often is this place actually pretty? And, through some deep connection, that got me thinking about the friends Ihad made and good times Ihad had here, the lessons I have learned, and the trials Ihad faced and surmounted or, often, failed.

Yes, I really was getting sappy. But it was also dawning on me just how much had happened to me here and how much there is to think about. Commencement is a spectacle for guests. But for graduates it is, more than anything else, a chance to take a break and to try to get a handle on the MIT experience.

And that will take some time.