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Learning From Our Differences

Guest Column
Gina Kim

Last year, I spent my junior year at Cambridge University as part of the Cambridge-MIT Institute’s undergraduate exchange program. After reading Jason H. Wasfy’s recent column [“The Cambridge-MIT Institute and Cultural Challenges,” Feb. 26], I felt I had to respond.

Life in Cambridge is very different from life at MIT, and that is exactly why I wanted to go. I wanted to try experiencing academics under the supervision system, make friends who call London home, and figure out why the British have an obsession with tea. We can’t learn anything by staying where we are; the foundation of education is exposure to new ways of thinking, living and working.

So when Mr. Wasfy quotes the Vice Chancellor of Oxford as saying that CMI resembles “a shotgun wedding,” and that because the institutions are dissimilar and lack “common values,” the alliance will not work as smoothly as, say, the new Oxford-Princeton partnership, he misses the point.

Comparing CMI and the Oxford-Princeton partnership is like comparing apples and oranges. According to an Oxford press release <>, Oxford and Princeton are two “remarkably similar” universities that wish to share resources and “collaborate on research and student exchanges.” Their purpose does not emphasize innovation or improving an economy but instead aims to “[make] both institutions stronger.”

CMI, on the other hand, revels in the differences between MIT and Cambridge because it is an alliance “that undertakes joint educational and research initiatives that improve entrepreneurship, productivity and competitiveness in the UK,” <>. It is the exchange of diverse ideas and viewpoints that will allow CMI to innovate education. Nothing revolutionary ever came out of the status quo.

This kind of change will not be easy, but Mr. Wasfy seems to think it is unattainable. “MIT people shouldn’t count on reform anytime soon,” he says. “[The decentralized structure of Oxford and Cambridge] makes reform almost impossible for central administrators.” Now if Mr. Wasfy were correct, this institutional inertia would foil not only the Cambridge-MIT Institute but the Oxford-Princeton exchange scheme as well.

But fortunately, this is not the case. Reform is not only possible, it is happening before our eyes. CMI’s undergraduate exchange program is proof positive: It is remarkable to me that within two years of the conception of the undergraduate exchange program, 32 Cambridge students are here and 27 MIT students are in Cambridge. And this despite an ancient Cambridge residency requirement which had to be bypassed. All it takes is commitment.

In addition, next year eleven MIT departments will have worked out credit transfers from Cambridge courses, including humanities. My own experience as part of the pilot year exchange is a good example: I returned to MIT with credit for seven classes, more than enough to ensure that I will graduate this spring (provided I fulfill the physical education requirement).

Mr. Wasfy also seems concerned that the Cambridge students are “uncomfortable making the transition” to MIT, what with the “impersonal lectures and lack of meaningful contact.” I can probably venture a guess that he hasn’t met any of them -- the Cambridge students I know are kicking academic butt. And because they are used to Cambridge’s personal supervision, many of them get to know their professors by taking full advantage of office hours. We can learn something from them and they from us -- and that’s the point of this exchange.

The “major cultural challenges” that Mr. Wasfy mentioned are challenges that face MIT and Cambridge University, not CMI. But one very exciting benefit of this alliance is it can help improve both communities. We can look to Cambridge’s student life and support systems and find ways to improve our own. They can look to our interdisciplinary programs and transform their departmental structures and curriculum. I do not claim that CMI is a panacea for all that ails MIT, but the benefits of a new perspective are obvious. Only time will tell if CMI improves economic development in the U.K. But one thing is certain: our differences are our strengths, not our weaknesses.

Gina Kim ’02 was a participant in the pilot year of the CMI undergraduate exchange as a member of Jesus College, Cambridge.