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MIT’s Facilities Challenge

Jason H. Wasfy

I drove up to Lewiston, Maine a couple of weeks ago with my younger brother to visit Bates College, one of the colleges my brother is considering after he graduates from high school in June. Bates has a gorgeous campus. The athletic facilities are modern and extensive, the dorms are spacious and well-maintained, and the campus is dotted with functional, yet appealing spaces where students can study, participate in activities, and interact with one another informally. I had the sense that the people at Bates who plan the campus are sensitive to student needs and are willing to spend the money to address those needs.

Bates certainly is a very fine school. It draws students from all over the country and consistently ranks among the best 25 liberal arts colleges in America. But Bates is no MIT. From Technology Square in Cambridge to small towns in the developing world, most people consider MIT the finest institution of science and technology on the planet. MIT matriculates the most promising young scientific minds in the world, and research from MIT often graces the pages of major newspapers at home and abroad. MIT’s worldwide prestige, extraordinary students, and top-notch faculty allow the Institute to raise huge sums of money for a wide range of important projects.

So why then is Bates able to build and maintain such wonderful facilities while we live among so many eyesores? For sure, the problem isn’t a lack of money. MIT can raise enormous amounts of money. Last year’s $350 million pledge from Patrick J. McGovern, Jr. ’59 to establish an institute for brain research at MIT -- at the time, the largest donation to any university ever -- left no doubt about that.

I know that some may think that for me to advocate more fundraising for facilities seems a little odd. After all, construction crews are working on a new undergraduate dormitory on Vassar Street, graduate housing both on Albany Street and at the corner of Sidney and Pacific, the Zesiger Sports and Fitness Center, the renovation of Building 18, the Stata Center, and other projects.

But the reality is that even after this investment in campus facilities, MIT’s campus will lag significantly behind those of our peers. Undergraduate labs will still need renovations, MacGregor House will still have dim and prison-like lighting, what looks like an abandoned warehouse will still stand across from Senior House, rust will still blemish the windows around Killian Court, and Walker Memorial -- the main student life facility on the east side of campus -- will still be decades past due for a renovation.

We’re still going to live and learn in facilities -- particularly facilities that serve undergraduates -- that desperately call out for repairs and redesign. President Vest says in the current issue of Technology Review that “our campus is in danger of becoming old, gray, and uninspiring.” That’s an ominous message.

New research institutes are wonderful, but MIT should do more to emphasize facilities that play roles in undergraduates’ lives in ways other than the UROP program. The undergraduate experience is more than just research, and if MIT believes that undergraduate education is a serious part of what goes on here, then MIT should push donors to consider gifts aimed at improving classrooms, libraries, and student life facilities.

Otherwise, MIT will continue to lose bright students to our peer schools, nearly all of whom have more attractive and more useful facilities than we do. Marilee Jones, MIT’s dean of admissions, has said that MIT loses some of its best prospects to other universities just because of facilities. And if we don’t act, the students already here will continue to suffer the distraction, unpleasantness, and inconvenience of sub-standard facilities for student life and learning.