Over the past year, the Institute has been releasing “MIT 2030,” its framework for land use and renovation for the next 20 years, and it contains some interesting and ambitious ideas for commercial development on and around the MIT campus. However, behind flowery language of an “innovation district” lie major problems with MIT 2030. In effect, the plan neglects the central mission of the Institute: to “advance knowledge and educate students.”
MIT 2030 prioritizes making the most money off MIT’s land and other resources. While there are two major proposed academic buildings, neither seem to fit into a broader vision — the vision is reserved for the commercial development going on around the campus. In particular, land that had been set aside for academic expansion for decades has suddenly been redesignated for commercial development at sites like that of the former Analog Devices building. Because it is so close to campus, MIT should recognize that this land has far more than monetary value — it is far more valuable for academic buildings to be close to campus, whereas commercial developments rightly value different things.
Why the sudden shift in priorities? It began in 2004, when the Institute split off the MIT Investment Management Corporation (MITIMCo), which would take responsibility for MIT’s investments, including real estate. To encourage higher endowment returns, the employees of MITIMCo would operate with less oversight and be compensated on the standard Wall St. model: relatively modest salaries and huge bonuses tied to performance.
While this change has helped the endowment grow in size, it has had many secondary implications for MIT’s future. Those with first responsibility for land resources now have only one goal, to generate as much income as possible off that land. With the dissolution of the independent Planning Office in 2000, no one in the administration is currently responsible for ensuring that MIT uses land with the long-term perspective in mind, and MITIMCo has a seat at every table.
For students, long-term issues like those of land use are still important, despite our short tenure here. Fundamentally, our degree’s reputation rests on MIT’s reputation for the next 50 years, not on its reputation now. Moreover, because the students who came before us fought to make our experience better, we should do the same for the next generation.
So, then, what do students want from MIT 2030? Certainly, it doesn’t seem like anyone in the administration has asked this question. The list of projects for the next 10 years includes zero focus on students; for example, it totally ignores the pressing needs for dormitory renovations and better internet access for Boston fraternities, sororities, and independent living groups.
The Kendall Square Initiative, an important piece of MIT 2030, follows the pattern. Students want the neighborhood around MIT to be open for longer hours; Kendall essentially closes after working hours. The Initiative states that it wants Kendall to be an “extended-hours destination,” but its proposals consist of academic and commercial space, with only a trivial 120 units of housing. Neighborhoods only come to life at night when people live there, so if MIT is really serious about transforming Kendall, there needs to be a real plan for building up the housing stock.
To be clear, MITIMCo is not doing anything wrong — they are just playing the game we have given them. I understand the pressures placed on the administration; the economy is not doing well, and deals like those with Novartis and Pfizer can be bright spots. That said, MIT cannot ignore the long-term. MIT must actually engage the community before doing things like locking down irreplaceable land in 60-year leases — a solitary Idea Bank will not suffice. At the very least, there should be a serious, faculty-led committee to review MIT 2030 planning at a high level. Space affects everyone, and no one should be sidelined.
At the end of the day, a two-word plan, “maximize revenue,” does not live up to MIT’s standards. MIT is not a financial services firm; it is a university, and it has serious responsibility to faculty, students, staff, and alumni. But more importantly, MIT is responsible to the world for generating ideas, and it shortchanges everyone when it puts short-term gain first. We can do better.
Patrick Hulin is a member of the Class of 2014.