New Admins Can’t Take Nerd Culture for Granted

I’ve often referred to MIT as a “nerd reservation,” or a place for the world’s extremely bizarre people to live and work together by their own system of rules and social norms. This beautiful society they created — one based on respect for logic and invention — is not coincidentally a mine of greatness. While churning out Nobel Laureates and top ranks, MIT garnered the reputation of being fun for those that appreciate spelunking, Smoots, and steer.

But we can’t take it all for granted. When asked to name the biggest problem facing MIT in 2007, my immediate thought was “threat to culture.” For now, parental complaints, various lawsuits, and the attention that disproportionately plagues high profile institutions have had only the occasional impact on student life (though infamous examples include freshmen in dormitories, dining dollars, the flag policy, a sensitivity to mental health considered unusual in other environments, and a general policy of forking over students when confronted by the media).

MIT has been fortunate to have administrators and governing “powers that be” that are aware of the fragility of their intellectually fertile and legally complicated charge. But understanding a complex social organism such as MIT is difficult to accomplish through any means other than first-hand experience. Continuing administrative turnover and the seemingly high influx of people previously unexposed to MIT’s culture does not infuse the Institute with a feeling of continuity.

In my tenure as Undergraduate Association vice president, I was fortunate to have the willing ear of many members of MIT’s administration. These individuals share a deep desire to help students, and they draw upon their collective experience at a variety of institutions. But the line between “draw upon” and “inflict” is a fine one and many people lack an understanding of the unique demographic they’re attempting to serve. Trying to explain the necessity of residential exploration to an administrator who didn’t experience such a thing in his own undergraduate career defines frustrating. Freshmen at other schools live together in randomly assigned freshman housing and learn to make the best of it — why can’t MIT?

Fortunately, not all of these experiences were so exasperating. During a slew of meetings to discuss the felony-charged hackers, one administrator — on his way to catch a plane and hurriedly stuffing papers into a briefcase as we spoke — stopped cold when I said, “We don’t want to be held responsible for letting this happen on our watch.”

“On your watch?” he asked, rightfully insulted. “How about on my watch? Do you think I, Hockfield, or anyone else wants to be held responsible by the alumni or the Corporation for letting this happen?” A few decades-deep into MIT, he felt the weight of the MIT community better than either of the second semester seniors sitting in his office.

Administrators new to MIT, particularly those tasked with improving student life or learning, must understand the unique relationship between student and Institute from both the Institute and the student’s perspective. The caliber of minds that MIT competes for are attracted by more than rankings — MIT students expect a certain level of responsibility, choice, and autonomy in exchange for their brilliant and feverish academic work.

Overall, 2007 wasn’t really so bad. Rather than defining a great problem of the past, I’ll frame 2008 as an opportunity to bring in a fresh wave of consensus-seeking administrators. But each new administrator entering MIT needs to see his or her position as that of collaborator ready to understand and engage students, not just members in the party of new ideas.

Whether this is best conducted through the training of new administrators in the ways of MIT student life, or in the recruitment of MIT students into the ways of administration, is an open question. I’d love to see students invited to create an orientation for new hires. Students need to continue building relationships with administrators and making their perspectives tangible. And until former UA VPs are offered advisory roles within the Institute, the UA needs to find a way for students seated on Institute Committees to be better representatives.

As MIT grows in new and unpredictable ways, leading the world in the few dozen fields that we occasionally take for granted, its leaders must remember that they are guiding more than just an investment portfolio or research lab. Taking the time to understand what attracts brilliant minds to MIT (we could have gone to Yale if we’d wanted to, but each of us chose to come to MIT) and supporting those activities, lifestyles, and dispositions that make MIT unique will preserve our greatest attraction — our culture — for another 146 years.

Ruth Miller ’07 was vice president of the Undergraduate Association from 2006-07.