Being an MIT student gives you a voice that few other people have. Like it or not, the MIT name makes you a representative of modern science and engineering. It’s no small secret that the world turns to MIT for its understanding of science, technology and related policy — just pick up the science section of the New York Times for proof. We’re not exaggerating, then, when we say that the pulse of MIT’s campus has a substantial effect on the world beyond the Institute.
If the world turned its eye towards MIT recently, it might be a little confused. The recent “big issues” at the undergraduate level have almost purely been ones of student life policy. But dining, residence exploration, orientation, and living group culture, while all important, are not what define MIT undergraduates. MIT, and its students, are part of a much bigger and much more complex world. They should play a part in the debates that define that world.
The Institute is a nexus of important research and education with vast ethical and policy implications. Right now, MIT researchers across several fields are trying to create a new energy future for this country, but some say their efforts are misguided or misdirected. Biologists and computer scientists are developing an increasingly clear picture of genetics, simultaneously opening doors for a future of human genetic engineering and modification. MIT nuclear engineers are continuing to push for a nuclear energy future, while the rest of the world is cutting back on that technology in the wake of Japan’s recent disaster. MIT’s Lincoln Laboratories develops weapons and tactical systems, funded by the Department of Defense. The Institute has forged educational and research partnerships with Russia, China, and the United Arab Emirates — all of which have ongoing political and human rights problems.
But there are important debates to be had even closer to home. As we’ve commented or reported on in these pages, MIT (and the rest of higher education) faces major social and political challenges. A March 2011 report on women faculty in the Schools of Science and Engineering noted marked improvements in the representation of women in science and engineering here at MIT, but also pointed out that misconceptions persist. In July, The Tech’s editorial board remarked on the state of LGBT students at the Institute — and it was clear to us that more work needs to be done to make MIT a welcoming and supportive place for people of all sexual orientations, especially when it comes to faculty-student relationships. And the list doesn’t stop there.
Our purpose here is not to pass a “right” or “wrong” judgment on any of MIT’s social, educational, or research activities. Whether it’s nuclear engineering, genetics research, educational partnerships, or weapons development, there’s room for reasonable debate.
We’re asking students to engage in those debates. Some of the questions we mentioned above will be the defining issues of our time. Do MIT undergraduates want to be stuck squabbling about dorm food or orientation guides while the world changes at a breakneck pace around them?
To be sure, undergraduates are not solely concerned with student life issues like dining or orientation. Many of us have had late-night discussions with our friends about science, politics, ethics, and philosophy. But we’ve noticed in cases of public discussion a near-exclusive preponderance of student life issues. Whether through mailing lists, postering, social websites, student government, letters to The Tech, or sit-ins, undergraduates seem to be most vocal about issues with fundamentally limited scope and relevance.
This hasn’t always been the case. In the 1950s through 80s, students were regularly driven to riot or protest in response to human rights issues, wars, or political repression. Be it the establishment of Fidel Castro’s brutal regime in Cuba or the presence of recruiters for military contractors on campus, students were energized and vocal about issues with great global and national relevance. Rioting, of course, is a bad way to make a point, and we don’t support a return to that tradition.
We want MIT undergraduates to engage in more public discourse about the issues that really matter. There’s a time and a place for dining and dormitory debates, but the real focus — the real energy — should be where MIT has the most influence. The best way to preserve true MIT culture is not by butting heads with the administrations about food, it’s by having debates about the science and technology that will change the world.
Students, faculty, and administration will likely disagree on such issues. But those are the disagreements that are worth having.