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Not a Big Deal

Naveen Sunkavally

First, I’d like to start out by saying that I’m not an “academic superstar.” Somehow it seems appropriate to get this detail out of the way.

That detail out of the way, I must say I’m surprised The Tech cares so much about “academic superstars” and the potential they have to rock the foundations of campus unity at MIT. So there’s about a tenth of every incoming class to MIT that receives a bit of coddling and encouragement from some faculty at a couple of meetings, and the other 90 percent is left, well, to not go to these meetings. Big deal. Life goes on.

We live in a capitalist society in which, theoretically, one’s intelligence and know-how should determine how well that person succeeds. We have schools for the “gifted,” we have magnet and college preparatory schools, and we have entrance and SAT exams. MIT’s competitors, such as Harvard and Stanford, have similar programs for “academic superstars,” and any school with an elite athletic program does its fair share of coddling as well. Whether I like it or not, I can understand why MIT would want to coddle its top students to prevent other universities from snatching these students away. The reputation of a university comes in part from the caliber and future accomplishments of the students it recruits (I’m sure you’ll find on average that “academic superstars” are better motivated and more intelligent that the rest of the class), and, to keep up with the times, it’s only natural MIT would try to coddle the best.

The Tech asserts that the “academic superstars” program promotes separatism on campus. But MIT already promotes other forms of separatism on campus. We have activities specifically for women, activities specifically geared toward underrepresented minorities, and separatism in the makeup of our dorms and fraternities. The truth is that, as long as people share common bonds or interests, there’s always going to be separatism. I don’t find it very hard to accept that “academic superstars” would want to be around other “academic superstars.”

The Tech argues that the “academic superstars” program has the potential to divert resources from “normal” students to these superstars. Supposedly, “normal” students will have a harder time finding UROPs and receiving personal faculty attention. But I believe the number of UROPs people at MIT have held has steadily gone up since the inception of the UROP program, and, frankly, I don’t think students in general make a great enough effort to interact with their faculty to substantiate the claim that faculty don’t give “normal” students any attention. If, in a future trend, we find that “academic superstars” are monopolizing the attention of faculty, and that faculty are favoring “academic superstars” solely for the “academic superstar” label, then we can start making changes.

The Tech says that the “academic superstars” program is elitist. I’m no shrink, but I would say that this notion of elitism stems from inherent human jealousy. Get over it. I’ve heard others complain that “academic superstars” typically are egotistical and arrogant, but I don’t think there’s anything really wrong in one’s being a condescending jerk if one’s got the goods to back it up.

Actually, having said all the above, I don’t think the existence of “academic superstars” should be a relevant concern in anyone’s life. The discussion is simply not important. Compared to other universities, MIT, at least on the undergraduate level, doesn’t really tie down its students in any way. In terms of academics, students are free to make their own decisions, and it’s easy for the motivated student to get ahead. The support is there if sought out. I believe that any sufficiently motivated student, regardless of his or her “academic superstar” status, can succeed at MIT. And any student not sufficiently motivated, whether he or she be an “academic superstar,” is destined to fail.