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An Inappropriate Response

Guest Column
Philip H. Tang

I am appalled at the way the leadership of this university has handled its affairs after the tragic events on Tuesday. It has sent the message to all faculty, students, and staff, that one day of its normal operations supercedes the importance of grieving with and sharing in the experience of our fellow Americans.

Once I heard the news of the terrorist attacks, I, like so many others, was moved by deep feelings of sorrow, fear, and anger. Were we supposed to put aside these feelings for an hour or an hour and a half at a time to learn about how rigid bodies behave, how molecules interact, and how mathematical expressions can describe our world?

As I left school that morning, I peeked in the windows of some classrooms. To my chagrin, they contained a multitude of students, all concentrating on some teacher writing furiously on a chalkboard. As I walked through the halls, I found students shepherding themselves to their respective classes -- some in an obvious state of unease, others seemingly oblivious to their surroundings. This is not the picture of caring and concerned citizens, and the MIT administration is at fault for supporting that behavior.

It is also not constructive for our leaders to send us a mixed message. At the vigil service that evening, one speaker called everyone to not be alone that evening and to make sure no one else was alone so as to discuss our feelings and to bring ourselves together as a community. Yet the message had already been implied during the day that we should continue to isolate ourselves by focusing our attention on our studies and work. It was also said (possibly by a different speaker) that business cannot go on as usual as we must come together in support of each other. But the campus-wide alert sent that morning essentially said that since we are not in immediate danger, to carry on as usual unless you know of someone directly involved in the events.

To further emphasize the administration’s mixed signals, even on Wednesday, despite the announcement urging faculty to use class time “to address feelings and issues raised by this difficult time,” many classes continued to follow their syllabi.

It is important that everyone on this campus understand that we are part of a larger community. That we work and play, live and die with each other. Thousands of parents and children, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters -- our fellow citizens -- are missing only because they were at the wrong place at the wrong time. Even if the events were closer to home (and it’s hard for them to be any closer than they already are), say at the Hancock and Prudential buildings in Boston, what would the administration have done? Would the policy remain that classes be cancelled only if there was a significant risk to the school? Undoubtedly the situations and factors involved in that scenario are different. Yet how different are they? And how different would it be if these events took place somewhere else, like Los Angeles or Chicago? It’s scary to even think that the leaders of our school would allow us to isolate ourselves like that.

The most compelling example of what the administration has allowed, and perhaps created, came after it released an announcement for Wednesday’s plans. By accident I received an e-mail directed to a professor from a freshman, concerned that because the class was not meeting the following day, her registration status in the class would be compromised. Considering the events that had just occurred, our class schedules, course requirements, and homework should be the least of our concerns. This incident emphasizes to me the notion that this school is composed of predominantly self-interested, insensitive workaholics, and is led by the same type of people. Whether this is true or not, the impression remains.

Compared to the scope and magnitude of the terrorism we have faced, one day of work and class is meaningless. The school should have immediately cancelled all classes on Tuesday, instructing all non-essential work to discontinue, and encouraging everyone to gather with friends, workmates, and/or loved ones to share in the suffering of our greater community.

There are many individuals who say that we must move on and not let the terrorism disrupt our everyday life, if only just to send a message that we will not be terrorized. But out of respect for the dead, the dying, and those risking their lives to save them, I refuse to carry myself as though nothing has happened. At some point, I and those who share my feelings will eventually have to. But whether that takes one hour, one day, or one week, is up to that person him/herself. And the MIT community should respect and encourage that. If you are an administrator and are reading this, I urge you to think about the example you are setting for the leaders of our future. I also urge you to discuss among your colleagues the type of atmosphere that you want to provide for our school and how the importance of the work that is done here compares to that. This is certainly not the first time a reaction such as this has been observed.

If you are a student and are reading this, I hope my point is clear, and you share my feelings in some way. I urge you to remember that we are indeed part of a larger community and sometimes we must remove ourselves from the so-called “college bubble.” Although our work and education is noble and important, it can be dangerously self-serving. God bless.

Philip H. Tang is a graduate student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.