Diagnosing Problems with ‘The Human Factor’

The Need for Greater Institutional Awareness of Student Issues

MIT recently launched a fundraising campaign titled “The Human Factor.” Their website, http://thehumanfactor.mit.edu, uses video and text to encourage donations to MIT, outlining several fundamental beliefs about students at MIT. While I am not against getting more money for MIT and its students, as a current student of MIT there are several reasons why I find The Human Factor to be misleading and over-simplified.

“The genius of MIT depends on the unique expressions of students’ talents and personalities — the human factors. MIT students’ achievements result from and depend upon the connections between their academic and extracurricular passions.” — The Human Factor, The Campaign: Overview

In spirit and perhaps intentions, the administration is right — the students of MIT are very driven and dedicated people who believe in the power of intellect and knowledge to lead our world into the next stages of advancement and development. The activities in which we engage are not limited to the world of academia, and our extracurriculars also mean a lot to us.

As such, it should be a key focus of the administration to understand and support the ideals, activities, and passions of their students. This requires not only open lines of communication, but a strong tradition of trust and interaction between the administration and the student body.

Unfortunately, such an environment currently does not exist.

What are the passions of students at MIT? Of course there are the usual extracurriculars, including performing and visual arts, sports, and religion. And these are all passions that influence and drive many people to great things. But what actually makes us “unique”? What are the activities of MIT students that excite prospective students on a tour? What gets MIT in national news, as commentators and journalists state with a wry combination of pride and awe, “You’ve never seen this anywhere else. But it exists at MIT.”?

I came to MIT because I wanted to be in an environment where innovation and advancement are the daily pursuits of the entire community. Many of the students here have the self-motivation and the intellectual drive to get a good education at any university or college in the nation. The advantage of MIT is not just the benefits and opportunities that arise through financial means, such as funding for labs, research opportunities, and a myriad of student groups.

The true advantage of MIT is the mentality of the community, and its collective inertia to push the boundaries of human existence with every individual creative thought that we are able to muse upon. As a senior, my understanding of this community is that we are here to reach the leading edges of our respective fields as quickly and as knowledgeably as we can.

Why is an education at MIT compared to drinking from a fire hose? As soon as we arrive, we are expected to engage in a feeding frenzy of learning in order to lay down a foundation upon which we can innovate as soon as possible. This is why I am here, and not elsewhere.

“The Institute is committed to ensuring that this education remains focused on addressing and solving the world’s most intractable problems, while upholding the most rigorous academic standards. … it must teach its students to be fluent communicators, culturally knowledgeable, intellectually agile, and confident.” — The Human Factor, The Campaign: Undergraduate Commons

When I arrived, I expected an open community, where students collaborate with professors and administrators, not only to exchange knowledge and improve each other intellectually, but to constantly reinvent and improve our campus in a joint effort that strives to create a mecca of creative and innovative thought. If the students of MIT are to truly be the minds that will spearhead humanity’s next leaps and bounds into the future, we need to be respected as a body of responsible, thoughtful, and aware adults.

Such an attitude requires the administration to not only understand and support students, but also to actively reach out to students and communicate with full transparency. Administrators, your students are not only meeting your “most rigorous academic standards,” we are applying and innovating upon them. A student can express improvements to the educational curriculum with just as much accuracy and insight as, if not more than, the administration or even faculty and staff. We are trying just as hard to find ways to optimize our education and to become the leaders that everyone expects us to be.

I don’t know if we need another $500 million, and of course I’m not against more funding if it will truly benefit the students and the community. But this is money that is supposed to be spent on students and on improving our experience at MIT, and yet the general student body at large was unaware that such a fundraising campaign was even in the works.

How did the administration make an accurate and comprehensive decision on how much funding is needed, and where it is needed? If the students were not consulted, how do administrators really know how “… the Institute can offer a broader, more flexible, educational experience to prepare MIT students to solve complex, global problems”?

How can MIT students become “fluent communicators” if the lines of communication in our own institute are obstructed by miles of red tape and an inability to relate with many key administrators? How can we change the world if we are made to feel that we have no control over the change in our own Institute? How does MIT think that more money will fix an environment that is broken by a rift of misunderstanding between the students and the administration?

“MIT students’ commitment to expand their knowledge — both inside and outside the classroom — is matched only by an equally impressive ability to integrate their passion for academics and myriad other pursuits.” — The Human Factor, The Campaign: Overview

If the administration is so proud of our passions outside the classroom and wants to nurture the “human factor” of MIT, then consider supporting the things that make us feel human in this brutal environment of prodigious intellectual expectations: our freedom to choose our living environments based on a ranked housing lottery; our freedom to eat what we want, when we want; our desire to feel a sense of security and acceptance for carrying out long-standing MIT traditions such as hacking; our desire to configure the public places on campus to reflect student tastes in art and architecture; and our need to know that MIT’s primary focus and mission is centered on education, not business.

It is true that students at MIT are committed to the expansion of knowledge; it is now time for the administration to prove that they too are committed to the advancement of this cause.

“An MIT education is about more than what’s taught in the classroom; it’s also about learning by doing.” — The Human Factor, The Campaign: Student Life

The beauty of a place like MIT is that unstructured and non-institutionalized learning flourishes here. What many people would call “tinkering” is what MIT students do best — we buy a commercial product and discover all of its inner workings, so well that we can make our own improvements to it; we have a crazy idea, collaborate with our fellow students on our own time, and end up with a giant USB controlled disco dance floor or a time traveler’s convention. In order to tinker conveniently, we choose to live around people with whom we believe we can have a productive and inspiring exchange of talents and ideas.

In order to save our money for the equipment and tools needed to further our informal education, we choose to be efficient and frugal consumers in necessities such as food and clothing. In order to create spaces on campus that are conducive to such creative productivity, and even just the productivity needed for classes, we make our opinions known about the art and architecture placed in our working and living environment.

We believe that learning is not limited to the classroom, or even to time dedicated to classwork. Learning happens at every moment of the day, from every interaction we make, with every thought that passes under our scrutiny. This is the ideal that MIT seeks to project as its public image. It is crucial that this image not be the gilded layer hiding a contradictory reality; this must be the focus, drive, and motivation behind all of MIT’s decisions.

One example of the MIT administration’s severe misunderstanding of these basic principles is hacking. One of MIT’s oldest and most publicized traditions, it is the creative, public application of the desire to tinker. As prefrosh and high school students willing to give up our left arms to attend MIT, we were told that at MIT, one of the student traditions is to create “hacks,” or “a clever, benign, and ‘ethical’ prank or practical joke, which is both challenging for the perpetrators and amusing to the MIT community” (http://hacks.mit.edu/Hacks/).

The challenge, young prospective students are told, is to integrate a level of engineering aptitude with creativity in an anonymous way to show off one’s engineering prowess. To the young people who are falling in love with the idea of MIT, this is the epitome of geek paradise — a place that challenges and encourages one to tinker, to demonstrate one’s knowledge in creative ways.

There seems to be a very rudimentary understanding amongst the administration concerning the popularity and success of this learning technique called tinkering. MIT has a hobby shop in W31 and a student shop in the Edgerton Center, but these spaces only allow for mechanical tinkering, such as woodwork and metalwork. Why is there no public electrical engineering lab? If MIT sees fit to give students the tools to prototype and work on woodwork and metalwork projects on their own time, why not give analogous tools to the largest major on campus, computer science and electrical engineering?

MIT is a research institution, so why aren’t students given the public space to carry out independent projects, explore new ideas and methods, and build as many prototypes as they can punch out of their overclocked minds? If the administration actually believes that “[t]he mission of MIT is to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century”, then there needs to be a greater accessibility to and availability of creative working spaces, where “learning by doing” can flourish.

“The task ahead is to nurture the creative impulses that flourish here so that these fledgling initiatives, as well as others that might be developed, will become part of the MIT education for all.” — The Human Factor, The Campaign: Undergraduate Commons

The key to bridging the rift of misunderstanding between students and administrators is communication. Both parties seem to understand a similar goal — “to advance knowledge and educate students.” However, the means to this end are being obstructed by the misaligned attitude of the administration; the administration seems to be going down a path of good intentions without considering the input of the body that they claim to serve — students.

If the administration is truly willing to begin a “Campaign for Students,” they must first understand the demographic for which they intend to fight. An advocate who is mis-informed or under-informed cannot bring about productive or effective change, no matter how much money is involved.

Danbee Kim is hopeful that the MIT Administration will reach out to their students and become better informed on how to best utilize their donation money. Please visit campaignforstudents.com to learn how to raise the administration’s awareness concerning the true needs of MIT students.