Where Is the Leadership?

For a university that claims to be at the intellectual forefront of the world, for a powerhouse that claims to churn out global leaders, MIT has been pathetically represented and outright lambasted by the national media over the last couple of weeks. We have been portrayed as deceptively ignorant (or ignorantly deceptive) in a study uncovering our ridiculous SAT accounting measures (check The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 22), as stereotypically foolish by airport security (check any media outlet near you, Sept. 21), and miserably irresponsible by a mother grieving for her lost son (The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 10).

All this wonderful press comes, of course, on the heels of our U.S. News ratings jump … down to seventh! Had I the luxury of this endearing praise endowed upon MIT back in April 2005, my uninformed high school senior self may have chosen differently; I would probably be sitting elsewhere, mocking beloved MIT like the rest of the world. That would have been unfortunate; at the same time, I think it indicates that public perception should matter more to a school as prestigious as MIT.

Mr. Stuart Schmill, interim director of admissions, when asked about the faulty SAT reporting of the school, replied with: “It was a pretty harmless error, or we wouldn’t be talking about it.” The fact that I was reading this on The Wall Street Journal Online’s front page seems pretty harmful to me; it makes the situation inherently more damaging than even the error itself. Although the press is the press, there can be no doubt that the national perception of MIT has dropped significantly in the last year (let’s not forget ex-Dean of Admissions Marilee Jones). That fact should not be taken lightly — not by the students, not by the professors, and most of all, not by the leadership that, according to President Susan Hockfield, is in place to make MIT a global leader.

It is the leadership of the school that must remedy the situation, for it seems that we have again lost perspective. Academic brilliance is academic brilliance, but as an institution that strives to be much more, there must be much more. Rather than only trying to save humanity through cancer research or One Laptop Per Child (and both are very noble causes, though not equally so), can we not engage humanity in a discussion of the present? I wonder if Madame Hockfield would have been half as bold as Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, who on Sunday engaged, indeed enraged, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran in an open forum. While it is facile to label Ahmadinejad a hopeless ignoramus, a bona-fide nutcase, it is too easy to dismiss him solely as such. There are reasons he believes what he does; those reasons are deep-rooted and probably remarkably revealing.

Trying to understand the rest of the world is a similarly admirable task, and some inside MIT’s community don’t seem to attempt it often enough on a practical level. There are reasons everyone believes what they do, and a true comprehension of those reasons will allow us to eradicate negative publicity without necessarily altering our fundamental work. It is too easy, and dangerously arrogant, to dismiss the rest of society as ignorant. Come, Ms. Hockfield — engage, indeed enrage, the world in an open forum! Why will I never see your name in the nation’s most regarded public forums? Is it not part of your responsibility to be present there? Ms. Hockfield, hear my call, or read the writing on the Wall.

MIT would tremendously gain from having such high-profile and controversial leaders as Ahmadinejad arrive on campus; the benefits would be multifaceted and would include a genuine enrichment of the MIT experience, as well as a more superficial, but equally salubrious, change to our public profile. Columbia University is splashed across the front page of CNN and this should be noted as an accomplishment of its own. Indeed, that alone is reason enough to bring people like Ahmadinejad; the additional intellectual curiosity that many of my peers and I share makes the dearth of such speakers on our campus almost unbearable. Two years ago, Ms. Hockfield promised me over dinner at Baker House Dining that she would rectify the situation. Her promise remains unfulfilled. That makes her like many leaders in today’s world, and I can only hope she will rise above to bring MIT out of the public abyss in which it currently rests.