This Is MIT?

Lack of Transparency Undermines Community

I chose MIT because of the stories: the great cannon heist, the police car, the student-run live-action role playing club, the simple trust that was placed in the intelligence and competence of the students — in letting them choose their own living groups that kept up their own cultures, often decades old, in letting them have a voice in any decisions affecting them. I guess I was imagining a sort of Utopia — 5000 of the funkiest, most brilliant minds from the entire country and around the world molding a homeland of their own in which to learn and live.

But the stories I hear now do not echo the ones that drew me in. Yes, Amy Smith seems now every bit as fantastic as she did then, the Infinite is respectably long and the people are ridiculously, scarily smart. I was mercifully allowed a decent voice in my housing assignment, and the Assassin’s Guild games run exactly the way all those stories promised. But there is another vibe that I wasn’t anticipating, of fear, maybe, or betrayal, or mistrust.

Many students feel that their preferences and opinions, though “valued,” have little effect; though many lines of communication with the administration are open, few are effective and even fewer have any strong feel for what MIT is, what sets it apart. Yes, the people here are brilliant, the best of the best. But I could have gone to a dozen other schools if I wanted to study with brilliant people.

I came here because of the traditions, the culture of openness among everyone in the community, but have found it only in small packets, sparsely spread, while the reality seems to be that students are having to choose between getting into grad school and continuing tradition, that such tradition is often not well understood by the administration and other higher-ups.

Student leaders have expressed a feeling of helplessness, as though they’re playing a game whose rules were never posted, working for goals — from dining preferences to clear consequences for actions — facing dead end after dead end.

Transparency in admissions is something MIT takes pride in. Perhaps it is time that we widen the scope of transparency at the Institute. We need to see how students can make it clear what is most important to them, from the ground up, in ways that will yield results, not “consideration”; in how traditions are to be maintained so that what is now a gallery does not become a sealed museum remembered only by visiting storytelling cruft and tour guides reading off their printed pamphlets; how to make it so that MIT’s particular brands of students can continue to maintain their place in the world.

Last summer, I saw the Dark Mark rise above the student center in the dark of predawn, and I declared I’d found my people. But this isn’t the MIT I’d heard about.

This column first appeared in The Tech on Oct. 3, 2008.