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Bye Bye, ‘IHTFP’?

Eric J. Plosky

Congratulations, graduates - you’ve just endured some of the most scintillating, effervescent, frenzied, perplexing years you’re likely to see. Proud? You should be. And you should also be glad -- glad that you no longer have to put up with grizzled old codgers like myself telling you you never knew MIT “the way it used to be.”

Old codgers always say that. But this time, big changes are actually planned, to make MIT a kinder, gentler place. Make no mistake -- as MIT administrators hunch over the strategy table, plotting the Institute’s future, many of the hallmarks that have long made MIT unique are slated for elimination. Some, like the residence system, are already being lowered into their graves. Others, including even the legendary “IHTFP,” may be crushed within only a few years.

It’s too much trouble in this post-Krueger era to manage MIT the way it used to be. All the media attention and legal activity has demanded quick responses, and so administrators have done some odd things over the past four-plus years. This has gotten students’ dander up, which is perhaps understandable. But many students, in their righteousness, have overlooked that some changes are definitely needed.

MIT should be somewhat “kinder and gentler.” Take the issue of suicide. Even though suicides have been commonplace for decades, the topic didn’t register on the radar screen until after Krueger. Now, finally, the administration is tackling the issue, trying to figure out how to be more supportive. Banishing MIT’s notorious pressure-cooker reputation is regarded as an important step.

But in remaking itself (beyond the tremendous physical upheaval now underway), does MIT lose more than it gains? Everyone wants a more supportive atmosphere, yes. However, many students secretly (or perhaps unconsciously) take pride in overcoming MIT-type challenges, in succeeding where others have failed or even died. Recent Alumni Association posters targeting new graduates -- “YOU [unlike others] made it!” -- express the point.

The administration, for its part, needs to recognize that some balance is needed. Even as the Institute improves itself, the “MIT way” must not be lost. The academic programs should remain challenging. Creativity, insouciance, and the “IHTFP” spirit should be encouraged. And the idea of the special “MIT person,” the rare sort who can chuckle at an in-phrase like “Fibonacci me, baby!”, must be preserved; the Institute being taken over by the generic, apple-cheeked, “well-rounded” types that populate our “peer” campuses would be a tragedy without equal.

Class/brass antagonism has made it hard for students and administrators to work together, and recent world events have distracted students’ attention from campus planning. Then, too, there are occasional feature pieces in People or The New York Times, and lawsuits from the parents of dead students who blame the Institute. The administration will be inclined to forge on as conservatively -- as safely -- as it can. Students, fickle and ill-tempered, need to be constructive partners in planning if the “MIT way” is to survive.

Alums, too, must help. It’s no secret that except for massive vanity checks from crusty billionaires, alumni contributions are down. More and more alums, disgusted with the administration, are keeping their wallets closed, or are simply neglecting their MIT connections in favor of other matters. In fact, somewhere in this very issue of The Tech, I’ll bet, is a commencement-themed column from some right-wing idiot urging you graduates simply to grab as much money as you can before you croak. Charming.

Your MIT pedigree is important, though, even if you don’t now realize it. At the very least, in a few years you’ll probably be addressed by some stranger who notices your Brass Rat, shows you his own, and strikes up a conversation. The MIT connection is a powerful one, and so it’s in your interest as an alum to have a stake in what happens to the Institute. You do want the Class of 2022 to still be MIT people, surely, and you will still want to recognize the place when you show up wearing a red jacket for your fiftieth reunion.

How much kinder and gentler can MIT be, while still being MIT? If we stay involved, we’ll see. If we don’t, well ... say, what did “IHTFP” used to mean, again?