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COLUMN

Campus Conditions

Ken Nesmith

Now that dark nights, wet days, and cold everything reminds us that we’re well into the school year, we students will spend more time both indoors and on campus, a most unfortunate combination. Everyone complains about the campus, and of course, it deserves the attacks.

I think the best adjective to describe the MIT campus is “industrial strength.” (Old column reference #1: I once described the campus appearance as the product of a bad case of architectural diarrhea. I stand by that description, but no less believe this comparison to chemical cleanser is warranted.) It’s fairly large and unwieldly, and doesn’t have attractive packaging. Its innards are shamelessly exposed: pipes run along hallway ceilings, and tubs of chemicals litter corridors -- the combined effect invokes the image of a plain white bottle marked with a few danger signs and labeled “DETERGENT” and maybe some chemical percentage numbers, rather than superfluous descriptions using words arranged to convey meaning (sentences) describing the product -- sort of like our course, class, and building numbers.

As with a strong industrial cleaning solvent, using it burns like hell and may destroy the object to be cleaned/educated, but it’s infinitely more effective than those wussy off-the-shelf, lemon scented handsoaps that pass for other colleges and universities. Pour on a good dallop of MIT, give it a good scrub, and you can bet from those bleary eyed students, thought-cleansed students will come out shiny and new, or fatally injured. Like some chemicals, its products may cause extensive environmental or societal damage as well, but we probably won’t notice until its too late and our kids have cancer from persistent organic pollutants or we don’t speak to another human in the course of a day thanks to the new Web.

A few recent additions to the campus warrant new review. The Z-center wins first place, hands down. It’s a full-fledged fitness center with little to complain about. Everyone loves it. It even looks cool, and in the tradition of athletic facilities, people refer to it with words instead of numbers. It only loses points for necessitating an extra student life fee of $200. This money, taken from the hands of students and/or their parents, both runs the center and pays for food for people who like diversity or other administration-sanctioned student activities, some of which reportedly do not consist of thinly veiled free meals.

The student center additions come in second place. Although they’re really just renovations, they’re still great. The dining and lounge space in the formerly vacant front hall works well, and the new restaurants seem to be fine, if a bit expensive.

Allowing LaVerde’s to accept the MIT card is another positive development. I still don’t understand why it took so long to make that happen, or why it isn’t immediately implemented in other local businesses. There’s no need for a high transaction cost on the card, and setting up the payment system should be an as smooth and easy as the smoothies at Alpine Bagel. Subcontracting to a major credit card company like Visa or Mastercard to run a basic debit card system enabled at local businesses might even work best, as they clearly have an easy time achieving success in widely variant market conditions. There’s no excuse for this deficiency. Most likely, some obscure office is making a bit of money of the current bad, stagnant system (Web access is available only as of this year), and changing it would step on the wrong toes.

This silliness is reminiscent of Technology Licensing Office absurdities. Get this -- see the MIT logo on your brass rat? When you buy the rat, your class ring, the most immediately tangible mark of your MIT education and a nearly universal symbol of pride in the MIT student and alumni community, you pay a proportional fee to the Technology Licensing Office -- for using the logo of the school you attend. We are the reason this school exists; we comprise its student body, and give it its purpose of education and research -- yet we pay a licensing office to use the name of our school, on our class ring. Absurd.

But I digress, a lot. Back to the campus review. So far we have the fantastic Z-Center and the pretty-cool student center, and now we arrive at the bottom of the fruit barrel, where we find the bruised and worm-ridden remains of this year’s selection. Here lies the worst monstrosity ever to invite incessant bombing but receive habitation instead, Simmons. It’s a disaster. Have you looked at the thing? It boggles the mind that we paid money to build this beast. It houses about 350 undergrads, doesn’t include modern innovations like air conditioning, and is nothing short of repulsive. Small windows, custom cut for maximum expense and predesigned with limited opening capabilities to prevent suicides, dot a rotting gray facade patched with primary-colored panels that look terrible.

Why did this happen? Why can’t we have nice things? Incidentally, the dorm cost over $70 million to build, and tuition is now $28,030. In this year’s campus review, Simmons finishes dead last, though Frank Gehry’s messy new computer center, arriving next year, should challenge its title as the worst thing to be built, ever. When The Onion begins openly mocking the architect building your campus, as they did last week of Gehry, it’s not a good sign. (Old column reference #2: I once compared the appearance of the new computer center to that of a discarded scrap heap, not meaning it as a compliment. A few months later, in an interview in Esquire about the center, Gehry noted he was going for the “discarded scrap” look. I guess he meant to do that, then.)

The wretched new dorm is bad enough, but MIT’s decision to restrict freshmen freedom by forcing them to live on campus, regardless of their desire to live elsewhere, perhaps in buildings that don’t induce either nausea or involuntary twitches, adds insult to injury. The decision is a bad one. It is immoral in its needless restriction of freedom, insulting in its imposition of a parent-child relationship between MIT and its undergraduates, and destructive in its artificial attempt to forcibly build community at the cost of thriving fraternal communities, still suffering the long hangover of a drunken administration decision to put all freshmen on campus without choice to leave. Admittedly, the threat of an infamous lawsuit, settled instead by extortion and this haphazard solution, forced MIT’s hand to some degree. No less, they’re disappointingly complicit in the affair.

The new housing system and the ongoing homogenization of the MIT community, though, is a rant for another day -- this is enough ranting for a long time. But lose no hope! Good spirits will win the day, if I only focus on the positive -- I’ll go workout at the Z-Center, have a delicious smoothie or perhaps a crepe at Stratton, and then go home to Boston to a beautiful house that’s not a sponge.