2011 was a big one for MIT students, particularly in the realm of student government. Depending on who you ask, there was some combination of victories and defeats resulting in the implementation of the long-fought dining plan, the dissolution of the Undergraduate Association (UA) Senate by itself and simultaneous creation of the UA Council, and the appointment of a new Chancellor, Eric Grimson PhD ’80, which gave hope for renewed trust in student-faculty relations.
Dining has long been one of the most contentious issues on campus, with more committees and acronyms than one might care for having looked at the possibility of a dining plan. With the dining halls losing substantial amounts of money every year, something had to be done, and the administration decided to go ahead and finally put an end to the debate.
In a last grasping of straws, the UA had a referendum on the issue, with 56 percent of students expressing disapproval of the dining plan and 54 percent disapproving of the House Dining Advisory Group’s (HDAG) decision-making process, which many felt did not adequately represent students. As Paula Trepman ’13 (a former HDAG member) told The Tech 2010, “the administration is just going through the motions to appear as if they care about student opinion.” Housing’s Henry J. Humphreys, however, said, “the way I’m looking at it, I came onboard two years into the process, and I saw an unprecedented amount of student involvement,” adding that he anticipated the negative response from the referendum before the results were released.
Even after the administration had decided to move forward, students were not ready to let go of the fight, with the UA President-elect at the time, Allan E. Miramonti ’13, saying that “nothing was set in stone,” even though vendors were in the process of being selected. In the end, the dining plan was implemented, although some changes, such as the ability to swipe multiple times for a single meal to allow for guests, are still in the works.
But dining was not the only turmoil facing the UA. President Vrajesh Y. Modi ’11 was strongly pushing a restructuring of the student government in the weeks leading up to the end of spring term. Prompted in part by the massive attrition rate for senators and general inefficiency of the UA Senate, many agreed that something had to be done. But what began as a well-intentioned reformation turned into a crusade by Modi to leave a legacy of a reformed government. The process became rushed and ineffective; committees were given two weeks to formulate and implement the fundamental documents of the new undergraduate government, despite students’ regularly asking the administration for months to formulate new policy.
Damaged relations with the administration and the internal power struggles came to a head when, in late April, the incoming UA Vice President-elect Alec C. Lai ’13 sent a three page letter of resignation to undergraduates. In his letter, he outlined his reasons, criticizing the leaders for being “megalomaniacs” and the members for lacking respect. He also pointed to the heavy bureaucracy and arrogance of the leadership as hindrances in getting things done. The UA crisis seemed to be coming to a head.
In fall 2011, what would be the final UA Senate was elected. As usual, the percentage of students voting was tiny (often less than 10 percent of a given dorm) and many senators ran unopposed (I served as one of two senators representing MacGregor House). It soon became clear that the Senate, President Miramonti, and the Speaker of the Senate, William F. Steadman ’12, were determined to see a more efficient and representative body replace the current government. Unlike the previous attempt to restructure, the process this time took more time and allowed for more input, garnering support from key stakeholders. Although not perfect, the product ended up being far superior to its predecessor.
MIT student life has fundamentally changed in the course of a year. No one can know for sure how it will all play out, but there is certainly reason to be hopeful. The new UA represents a new beginning for undergraduate government to work, and the appointment of Grimson has demonstrated that the administration is also willing to move forward and usher in an era of renewed trust between students and faculty. The administration has also been responsive to some concerns regarding the dining plan, making it all-you-can-eat and working on permitting multiple swipes per meal to allow for guests.
On this precipice of new beginnings, uncertainty, and hope, students would do well to remember a few things. First, students, especially the UA, should work to enhance its institutional memory. Otherwise, the administration can pass a policy and deal with the uproar because they know that four years later, it will be completely forgotten. This is a tool that students do not have unless they can improve the ability to maintain positions as new students enter the Institute.
Second, criticism is important, but it should always be constructive. Whether targeting policy created by the UA or the administration, or addressing either group’s response to the other’s policy, criticism is only useful so long as it is respectful and constructive. Remember that the individuals making policy are not perfect and should not be expected to get everything right on their first try.
That leads to the third point: input should be encouraged. MIT students have a bad habit of only getting involved and speaking out when something they don’t like happens. Otherwise, they are largely apathetic when it comes to campus politics. In a nation, the power to vote comes with the responsibility of being informed. In a community like MIT, we also have a responsibility to be informed and try to make this environment the best it can be for everyone here. That is not going to happen if we do not pay attention or choose to sneer at others and tear down what they’ve done rather than work with them to improve things. MIT has arguably one of the highest densities of creative and intelligent people on the planet, yet the largest issue the students have fought over in the last ten years has been the dining plan? Aren’t there other issues which should command our attention, both within MIT and in the larger state, nation, and world?
The past year has been tumultuous, but it has been productive. For 2012, let’s hope that both students and the administration capitalize on the developments of 2011, work to develop better relations, and continue to work to improve student life at MIT. But most of all, let’s hope that more MIT students start caring about more than just their problem sets and commitments, and begin to look towards having a larger, more positive impact on the community — both MIT and the world.