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Satisfying Tomorrow's Alumni Today

Guest Column Jim O'Donnell

Many columns have appeared in The Tech defending viewpoints on how to improve the undergraduate experience. I have very strong opinions about this subject. However, there is a critical assumption which must precede any of what President Charles M. Vest calls "introspective dialogue." The central question is, why should we try to improve anything? Do the undergraduates matter?

Speaking as an undergraduate, I feel important. However, anyone will tell you that they are important. The question is whether the improvement of the undergraduate experience is vital to the success of the Institute.

As an institution of higher learning, it is undeniably part of MIT's mission to create the best educational experience possible. Its faculty and administration are stewards of the talent in the undergraduate student body passing through MIT every four years. The curriculum and intellectual environment cultivate this talent so that it might later blossom into innovation and discovery, enriching the quality of life of the nation and the world.

In his column "A Tragedy with a Difference" (Oct. 21), Washington University Professor Ron Loui says that "too many administrators think their jobs are about fundraising, investment, and keeping alumni happy." Yet undergraduates are future alumni. The best way to keep us happy is by improving our experiences now.

On the Campus Roundtable Web site (, one fraternity member estimated that half of fraternities haze their pledges. Regardless of the accuracy of this statistic, if one of us comes to administration and tells them we have been hazed, like Scott R. Velazquez G and Robert Plotkin '93, then administration should do something about it. At the town meeting last Friday Matthew J. Herper '99 said it scared him how administration was sidestepping the problems with the fraternities, sororities, and independent living groups. More people would have attended the meeting, Herper said, if they felt administration was listening to students. Many of the students in the audience agreed. We are not stupid; we know whether problems are being addressed or just talked around.

It is common knowledge that MIT alumni give back less money than alumni of other universities of similar status. Why is this true? Perhaps the administration thinks that improving the campus atmosphere is pointless because we cannot appreciate aesthetics. This is the leveling effect at work. Because we liked calculus in high school, students cannot appreciate the simple pleasures normal people appreciate. Perhaps they think we only need four days to decide where to live because, after all, all we need is a place we can plug in our computer.

The administration should invest in undergraduates now, or we will not give money to MIT later. Building dorms and improving campus life is not as sexy as building a new physics building. That is why we have dorms called Next House and New House: No one wanted to pay enough to put their name on the building. Our poor alumni contributions indicate that MIT has neglected its heart, the undergraduates.

While it may be wise for Vest to pretend that MIT has no unique problems to the media, he must be careful not to delude himself in the process. The effects of neglecting issues of undergraduate life are usually opaque to the outside world until someone dies, of course. However, this neglect could cost the Institute millions of dollars in alumni contributions in the future.

I urge the administration to act with courage and in accordance with correct principles when making the many decisions which lie ahead. Today's undergraduates will reward you later.

Jim O'Donnell is a member of the Class of 2000.