Not Just Another Ivy League

MIT is going through an identity crisis. Administrators frequently use Ivy League universities as a yardstick by which MIT’s student life is evaluated. MIT fundamentally differs from these other elite institutions in our dominance of science and engineering as well as our values of self-determination and independence in student life.

The tides at MIT are turning. MIT administrators are more out of touch on numerous student life issues. Although student input is sometimes sought, it often comes too late in the decision-making process to have a significant impact, or is disregarded outright.

Ashdown has recently exemplified this decline in student-administrator interactions. Over a year ago, graduate students were completely in the dark about their future home in NW35. Building designs stifled organic community growth and included no input from future residents. Improvements were made only after significant negative press. Only months later, undergraduates ended up in a similar situation regarding future undergraduate dormitory W1; the original building planning committees, which had student members, were abandoned by administrators after only a handful of meetings, without producing any firm recommendations.

Finally, at the end of last semester, a sweeping plan for Ashdown was revealed. Included in this plan was a full dining hall, much to the chagrin, but not surprise, of the original student committee members. These students had been told in one of their few committee meetings months prior that the decision had already been made and that it was completely non-negotiable. Committee members had numerous concerns about the feasibility of the proposed dining hall and its effect on organic community in W1, but discussions were cut short when administrators deserted the committees and completed the decision-making behind closed doors.

Not only was the decision frustrating because of the lack of student input, but it went against MIT’s oft-vaunted tradition of student involvement and scientific approach to problems. With four nearby dining halls hemorrhaging money and a fifth already closed, the addition of another facility makes little sense economically. MIT needs to look at the big picture and develop a strategic plan instead of offering ineffective piecemeal solutions as issues arise. This year, approximately $50K was spent on consultants hired to collaborate with students and administrators to form an effective plan for dining. However, this investment has lost its utility since plans for a W1 dining facility have been prematurely set in stone without the input of this new dining committee. Students have been cut out of the picture, as have the consultants with the expertise to integrate student ideas into a successful new system.

Many administrators are trying to fit MIT student life into the pre-packaged models in use at other elite universities. Dining serves as a prominent example of this. Students at MIT thrive on self-governance and choice, and when MIT looks to other institutions’ models before looking to students, these values are overlooked. In such a stressful environment as MIT, it is important to give students the freedom to develop programs that will harmonize best with their busy lives. While finding the best possible system is important, and change is certainly not all bad, only MIT students know what is best for themselves.

Community building around dining has been the central focus in MIT student life in recent years. If administrators were willing to meet eye-to-eye with students, share frequent meals in a dining hall or a kitchen, in a dormitory or an FSILG, they would understand that we already have an amazing, supportive community for every different type of student and we don’t need dining programs to foster it. Even if we’re not eating in a dining hall, or participating in some other sort of official community-building event, we’re socializing and supporting each other in lounges, hallways, courtyards, and suites all around campus. These community bonds are what will excite prospective students, help current students learn and survive, and encourage alumni (and their pocketbooks) to stay involved.

The strength of MIT’s community cannot be attributed to the vision of one, but to the collective creative power of many individual students. In the coming year, I hope that administrators will take further advantage of that creativity and that community, and seek more student contact and input. Most of all, though, I hope that administrators will look beyond what other universities are doing and realize that maintaining MIT’s unique identity is the only way we will continue to achieve excellence.

Sarah C. Hopp ’08 is the president of Dormitory Council.