The Institute of Perfection

How the State of the Institute Ignored All of the Things MIT Is Doing Wrong

I sat down on the end of a row just before the State of the Institute speech began, and quietly introduced myself to the woman next to me. She wanted to know what I was expecting President Hockfield to talk about. I guess I was expecting a mention of the supposed drop in student integrity, or the demise of the moral hacker, both of which were highlighted in that recent e-mail that caused such uproar among students. As I explained this, the woman next to me seemed surprised, and told me she was wondering about the status of the Stata leakage lawsuit.

So President Hockfield’s cheerful speech was not exactly what we thought it would be. These are unsettling times, Hockfield began, referring to the latest problems on Wall Street. But that was about as dreary as her message ever got.

Hockfield launched into a huge list of what MIT is doing right … and completely ignored what we’re potentially doing wrong. Among the strengths that Hockfield mentioned were our balanced budget for FY2009. How appropos. Boy, if I could find a Presidential candidate that I believed would do that, I just might cry. As if that weren’t sweet enough, last year’s seniors contributed in record amounts to the senior class gift, freshman applications are steadily increasing, pledges from alumni are at record high levels, Professor Drennan of the Chemistry Department became the first professor in history to become both an HHMI Professor and an HHMI Investigator, five professors were accorded high honors in one week alone … need I go on?

Most of Hockfield’s speech focused on the Institute’s professors, building, and finances. So where were the students? MIT students were the focus of only one short video clip. The clip showed various students talking about how they want to help people around the world with everything from energy concerns to eradicating poverty and disease. An admirable cause, to be sure. But slightly unsatisfying if you were looking for the true state of the Institute.

After hearing that inspiring clip and those incredible statistics, I thought to myself, “Is this really the same school I go to?” I mean, sure, we’re amazing students, among the best and the brightest from around the world, but it’s a bit hard to believe that our institution is this amazing despite the Wall Street fiasco, the lack of funding from the NIH, and the stressful pressure to find new energy sources. Aren’t we noticing the pinch at all? Even a tiny bit?

Hockfield is confident that MIT will pull through and solve the world’s problems. I have my doubts. Although, I suppose that it’s true that if there’s anything an MIT student is good at, it’s coming up with creative solutions to a problem when you have no idea what the heck is going on.

But what about that scathing integrity e-mail that hit MIT students so hard? Hockfield never mentioned it once. In fact, Hockfield never mentioned anything at all critical about anybody.

That’s a little bit of a disconnect. Am I missing something here?

Jennifer E. Nelson is a marginally dissatisfied member of the Class of 2009.