“Hello incoming students, and welcome to MIT, Inc.! Here at the corporation, or as we like to call it, the ‘Institute,’ you’ll be greeted with the latest synergy between academia and the rest of the world; the corporate college.
“At MIT, Inc., you deserve to be treated like the valued customer you are. We understand some of you have been dissatisfied with your purchase. We appreciate your concern — Your opinion is important to us.”
Sadly, this kind of corporate jargon may not be too far from where MIT is heading. For years, at least the apocryphal story of “All Tech men carry batteries” was believable; we thought that the administration would support students and would stand up for academic values that the community believed in. Were we wrong?
Last Friday’s student sit-in protest in Lobby 7 is only the most recent manifestation of a growing sentiment among students that their concerns and interests are too often brushed aside. The active participants in the “Real Campaign for Students,” while themselves only a small segment of the student population, are a sign that many other students — graduate and undergraduate, east-side, west-side, or neither — think the administration isn’t listening.
Time and again, administrators have shown that they do not view students as partners in making policy. Repeatedly, student opinion has been solicited and largely ignored (the W1 Steering Committee and the Blue Ribbon Committee on Dining), or simply never solicited in the first place (the shuttering of Green Hall).
The administration’s imprudent kneejerk reaction to Star A. Simpson’s run-in with the state police at Logan Airport further reinforced the conception that MIT has evolved from an academic institution into a corporation, more concerned with public relations and fundraising than our values.
At the time that MIT threw Simpson under the bus, the Institute was employing an experienced spin artist from an HMO, Deborah Loeb Bohren, to coordinate our public relations strategy. Bohren silently left the institute a few months later.
The reaction to the Simpson controversy became so contentious that the then Undergraduate Association and Graduate Student Council presidents, Martin F. Holmes ’08 and Leeland Ekstrom G, were driven to address the issue in a column in the Faculty Newsletter (Vol. XX No. 4, March / April 2008). That column led to negotiations and ultimately an attempted solution — the establishment of the Task Force on Student Engagement — but this one committee, even if it works, is only a start.
MIT teaches us that modern innovation is the fruit of cooperative effort. Some of the most successful firms of the “new economy” have succeeded because of a purposefully porous and inclusive decision-making process: good ideas trickle up from all elements of the company. Suppose MIT has gone irreversibly corporate. There is still hope: we can hope that MIT will be an example of the kind of organization it teaches us to lead.
By incorporating students into high-level policymaking, the Institute can achieve three key goals. First, the result of any collaborative process will have solutions that aren’t divisive; even if they don’t differ much from what MIT would have decided anyway, students’ input will help make decisions thoughtful and tailored to our unique community. Second, the process of public discussion and consensus-building across campus will create a stronger, more cohesive campus community — a clear win for MIT for fundraising if nothing else. Finally, an open paradigm for change will give students more opportunities to become leaders.
If you believe the stereotype that “too many MIT graduates end up working for Harvard grads” because of differences in our leadership skills, then perhaps you’ll also agree that we should try to reverse the trend. MIT should let its students become leaders by helping chart the future of their school.
We could call it a teaching moment.