Last night Dean for Student Life Larry G. Benedict sent the MIT community a letter warning about the dangers of copyright infringement. As I read through this and past letters to campus, I came to realize something extraordinary. You’ll have to take my word on how insane it feels to write these words, but today I wish I were a Harvard man. Why? Simply put, because unlike our own Institute, Harvard treats its students with respect.
In recent years, the MIT administration has made a habit of treating students as little more than liabilities to be managed. Take Dean Benedict’s message: MIT forwards pre-litigation settlement letters to its students. Yet what most people fail to note is that MIT is under no legal obligation to do so. There is no penalty for giving a student the benefit of the doubt besides the enmity of the Recording Industry Association of America, which I personally count as a plus.
And where there is no legal imperative, I argue that there is a moral imperative that our educational institution, which should be sheltering us as we prepare for adult life, should not instead cut us loose at the first sign of trouble. MIT should not lower itself to a practice that reputable legal scholars call “outsourcing” the costs of the RIAA to our college. The reputable scholars I speak of are our compatriots on the other side of Cambridge. Harvard’s deans, professors, and administration have all said in one voice that the RIAA is not welcome on their campus and have pledged to give their students the most protection their university can offer. Whether or not the RIAA’s seeming fear of Harvard is due to its resistance or Harvard Law is irrelevant. The point is that Harvard is standing up for its students and MIT could easily do the same. While copyright infringement may be illegal, the very least MIT can do is not speed us into the maw of the music industry.
Another prominent recent case was the arrest and charging of Star A. Simpson ’10 at Logan International Airport. MIT’s statement, released barely hours after the incident occurred, was ambiguous and showed no trust in its student. Where was MIT’s vaunted skeptical spirit and desire for facts? Why did the administration not even bother to give its student the benefit of the doubt or hear her side of the story first? At the first whiff of bad publicity, the MIT administration did not just dump its student into the jaws of an anti-intellectual press, it fanned the flames. “Reckless” indeed.
Contrast this with a similar incident concerning Harvard students. Four protesters were arrested last April after a coordinated effort to interrupt FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and were charged with disturbing a public assembly. Compared to MIT’s statement, Harvard’s reaction was exemplary. According to The Harvard Crimson, as the case was pending, Harvard followed a strict policy of not commenting while it did not have the facts. When evidence became available, university spokespeople made a decision and called for the charges to be dropped.
But perhaps the most damning evidence of the MIT administration’s lack of respect for students is their policy on student input in campus life. From Ashdown to Green Hall, past opinion columns in The Tech have already painted in excruciating detail the lack of consideration student input has been given in decisions directly affecting students. Protests by students on these issues have been met with stonewalled administrators, stating that decisions have already been made.
Again, Harvard’s policy is the antithesis of our own. In March, the Harvard administration listened to Muslim students and instituted limited women-only hours in a major athletic center. Also in contrast to the MIT administration, Harvard student protest was met with public statements about the controversy and transparent explanations of the decisions. Yes, Harvard has many practices that do not give its students as much freedom as our own — but that is no excuse for MIT to disregard student input.
I don’t blame Dean Benedict for being a messenger of MIT policy. I blame an administrative culture as opaque as the election of a pope. Events past and present continue to prove to me that I and others like me have very little in the way of a voice. And still worse from the student’s point of view, our protests have a habit of being forgotten every four years. And so I must now humbly appeal to those who might make a difference:
Please. To the deans, the professors, the staff, the housemasters, to those who know and care, who see our faces and hear our voices, be our advocates. To the alumni, especially to those of you whose memories are clear, vote with your pocketbooks and contribute nothing to an administration that did nothing to gain your loyalty. Perhaps then those cloistered at the top might take a few pointers from Harvard. The day they do, every student will walk tall.
Velson is a member of the Class of 2010.