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On MIT and Crazy Ideas

Ray Jones

I read the July 9 account of the administration confiscating student rafts [“Students, Admins Squabble Over Raft”] with a sense of amused futility that comes from having experienced this same, tired drama too many times as a graduate residence tutor in East Campus from 1998-2002.

It seems like the same thing happens over and over: students have an off-the-wall idea, in an immediate burst of activity they bring it to fruition, they get to enjoy it for a day or so, and then some overactive busybody of a bureaucrat sees it and gets all paternalistic. Everything devolves into confiscations and punitive meetings, in which the paper pushers plead for pre-planning, safety checks, and various handholdings designed to drum such free-thinking behavior right out. Of course, once inspiration strikes again, the last thing on the mind of an inspired student is what the powers-that-be might think.

Forgive me if I’m not particularly sympathetic to the protestations of the would-be shepherds. This is MIT. Students build crazy stuff here. If you find their lack of pre-planning disturbing, go work at a school with more a more millennial bent. If you find their actions disrespectful, consider that respect is a two-way street, and heavy-handed decrees, particularly those that renege on previous agreements, or that lack justification other than CYA-ism (or both), don’t register very high on the respect-o-meter. If something is truly unsafe, then by all means, tell the students about it so they can (gasp) learn and adjust their designs. Don’t treat it as a chance to demonstrate your ability to capriciously wield a rubber stamp of “not acceptable.”

This is not to characterize all administrators as suited Chicken Littles. To those individuals in the administration that have gone out of their way to protect students’ constructive antics, seeing them for what they are (harmless fun in a good mix with power tools), I applaud your willingness to work for the good of the students. The easy path is to “Just Say No,” and there seems to be tremendous pressure to take this road. Doing the right thing is often more work, and I thank you for it.

As for the rafts, I was on the water with them last year. I can attest to the fact that none of them was overloaded, had a motor, or sank to the depths of the Charles killing all those poor, defenseless, personal-floatation-device-equipped students aboard. Finally, to the builders of this year’s Flotilla: Well done. I hope to see you next year.

Ray Jones G is a graduate student in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.