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A Eulogy for the Planning Office

Guest Column
Jeremy D. Sher

In a way, the MIT Planning Office was a victim of its own diligence. They worked so well behind the scenes -- they quietly accomplished so much -- that they have occasionally become an easy target for misplaced ridicule. Now the Planning Office no longer exists. In one swift decree issued on Tuesday, March 28, with no warning and no clear justification, the Planning Office was dispersed.

I am now an alumnus, and have a full-time job away from the Institute. I no longer have the time and energy to produce an itemized list of all the good things the Planning Office did, with clear arguments as to why its sudden dispersal was a bad idea. Therefore, I have chosen the eulogy as the format for this piece. A eulogy is not a step-by-step legal argument designed to convince every skeptical mind. It is merely an appreciation of a light extinguished, by one who feels loss and is powerless to bring back what was taken.

Even as they accomplished a tremendous amount for MIT, the Planning Office had fun. As a student leader I worked with a wide range of MIT offices, on all branches of the administrative structure. Of all of them, the Planning Office had by far the highest morale, by far the smoothest working relationships, and by far the most exacting standards of work accomplished. I would have expected them to be a model for other offices. I call them my favorite office not to embarrass them or the many other fine people in the administration with whom I spent time at MIT. But of all offices, in atmosphere and standards, I would have to name the Planning Office as the best.

I once worked at the Planning Office, and still consider many of its now former employees as personal friends. As a student, I ran regular Institute tours for three years; the route took us past the Planning Office. I will never forget the sight of the Planning Office personnel waving out the window to my tour group. What other group of people would do that? And what a message to give the prospective families. The message, which the Planning Office delivered many times through words and actions, is that MIT is a family.

I did not always agree with the Planning Office, but I have a deep respect for their idea of community. In the Planning Office’s vision, the Institute is not cold and corporate. It is a family where genuine caring replaces fretting over liability; where students, faculty, and administrators embrace and learn from each other, rather than mistrusting one another; where all buildings conform to high quality standards; where appropriate dining options are offered; where living communities encourage spontaneity and fun -- in short, an Institute ready to flourish in the coming century. Now who will advocate for that vision?

And who will produce all the blueprints? The Planning Office had a storage room so cluttered with plans and blueprints that it was called “The Scary Room.” Who will coordinate the long-range vision for the physical campus now? Who will be in charge of transportation policy? Who will gather and analyze all the data MIT collects from surveys and other research? And how will those data analyses inform future construction projects when the Planning Office’s functions are separated? Who will present MIT’s pressing needs to the executives? I do not doubt that these questions will be answered. Perhaps they have already been answered. I doubt only that the answers will be as good as what we had before.

Now, I don’t know who exactly was responsible for the sudden termination of my favorite office. Neither do I know whether the responsible party or parties will feel any need to respond to this piece of writing. But if they do, I have some idea of what the responses are likely to be. He doesn’t know why we made this decision, they might say. He doesn’t know the background. He doesn’t understand why this had to happen. Each of those sentences is true.

Nevertheless, an entire office has been eliminated suddenly, without warning or credible justification. (I flatly don’t buy the “cross-fertilization of talent” justification that appeared the next day in Tech Talk.) I do know that the Planning Office produced mountains of very professional work, of which none of its former employees should be ashamed.

I don’t know how the senior administration expects other administrators to do their jobs, now that they’re left wondering whether they’ve said something wrong and are likely to be next. I don’t know how the climate of fear and uncertainty produced by this type of management could be expected to sustain a community of intellectuals. March 28 was a sad day for the Institute.

Of course my frustration is quite in vain; this vain frustration is a necessary part of grief. Therefore, I would like to end my appreciation of my favorite office on a more positive note, with an appreciation of the eminent man who built it. His sterling reputation as a planner will undoubtedly survive the decision to remove him as director of planning. Bob Simha is one of MIT’s brightest and most senior minds. For over forty years he has spearheaded MIT’s strategic vision of itself. If no one else will say it, I at least will offer my appreciation of Bob Simha and his contributions to the Institute.

Perhaps the reader will observe a moment of quiet contemplation, in honor of a legacy that history will judge more kindly than those who decided to end it. This is a time of sadness and of loss. I know the Institute would be crying today, if she could find it within her granite self to shed tears.

Jeremy D. Sher is a member of the Class of 1999.