The new dining plan and the fate of scientific collaboration

Or, why MIT won’t matter in 50 years

This is my brief attempt to illuminate the MIT administration as to why so many students and affiliates are offended by the recent dining plan, and maybe, by the end, justify my title.

In more technical terms, if the administration sticks its head any further up its own ass, it’ll be topologically equivalent to a klein bottle.

First up, dining.

Mentally translating and compressing Chris Colombo’s one-page “compromise” plan from this past Monday, I get something like this:

“A ton of you are against this proposal. We still kinda like it. Compromise? We enact it—but only after you’re gone.”

It does solve a chunk of the complaints levied on HDAG of late. At least for the complainers. Presumably the incoming classes — either through self-selection or some careful work by the admissions office — will have fewer problems with the plan, and the community will gradually accept the status quo of Institute opacity. At worst, we’ll become a marginally “techier” version of Harvard, and surely there’s no problem in that, right? I’m not arrogant enough to suggest that this plan will drastically change education at MIT. At the end of the day, people will be going to the same classes and turning in the same psets. The amount students will pay extra on meals is marginal compared to the behemoth that is full tuition. And if MIT is enhancing financial aid for this, I suppose they have the right to waste their own money.

I think most people on the “sayno” petition get this. Some might be mollified by Dean Colombo’s compromise, but the vast majority still feel uneasy. Words like “culture” and “community” get thrown around a lot when we talk about dining, probably because those, rather than our student bills, are at stake. I’m guessing that the vast majority of MIT graduates — certainly all the ones that I’ve interacted with — will tell you that what they gained from MIT was intellectual connections and friendships.

But will people stop talking to each other if they’re eating more expensive food? Probably not. Graduates from universities with mandatory dining are certainly learning the material roughly as well as we do here, so I doubt that that will change.

So who cares?

Perhaps MIT won’t lose competitiveness relative to other American universities, but MIT should still be aware of what it is really selling. It is not selling lectures; it is selling community, and sooner or later someone will get hip to the fact that community can be bought for a whole lot less than five digits. The frank truth — that every student worth his or her diploma here knows — is that none of us are here for the professors, the classes or the psets. The first are often pedagogic troglodytes, the second are inefficient and opaque (it has been estimated that the average lecture-goer catches perhaps the first twenty minutes coherently), and the third are available online, from ours and other universities. What’s holding MIT together is not the power of our classes but the power of our name and the power of a piece of paper with that name on it. Once that fades (which it will, once more of the most brilliant minds decide to buck the system and its pricetag, and get their education off OCW, Wikipedia, arxiv, and the numerous other resources available for next to nothing, per capita) MIT will fade with it.

I read a recent article in Gizmodo, detailing the decline of Bell Labs; in 1934, Clarence Hickman, an engineer at Bell Labs, created a prototypical answering machine that used magnetic recording tape. Bell Labs, worried that the technology would damage their own profitability, hid the project for the next fifty years (the rather Machiavellian rationale being that businesses would be more afraid to using the telephone were they to suspect that their calls might be recorded). The technology would only show up on the market in the 1990’s, instead, largely from Germany. Note that Bell Labs has perhaps half the prominence it had in its glory days.

I think also of the town of Göttingen, whose academic prominence shriveled following the rise of the Third Reich (to the benefit of several American academic towns and national laboratories, who suddenly found the newfound intellectual blood needed to dominate in their respective fields).

Let’s not pretend that all of these situations are analogous. The only reigning point is that academic meccas can be destroyed as quickly as they are created. Yes, the recipes for these communities can be complex, but freedom has always been an essential ingredient. The point is that if freedom is not vigorously defended (rather than passively permitted) by the administration, there’s nothing stopping the next wave of great scientists and engineers from packing up and leaving for greener intellectual pastures. If the American economy stays the course, such a place may not even be within our borders, and American students may be applying abroad just as internationals are applying here. Perhaps if the community allows it (the technology already does), scientific communities will flourish online just as open-source software groups do, with personal renown won only through raw talent and contribution, rather than patience climbing the corporate ladder of American academia.

The administration’s jobs will mostly be obsolete within 50 years. Perhaps this is why the voluminous pack of fact-checkers, paper-pushers, event-planners, and committee-sitters is flooding the MIT payroll now — they, as us, need to prepare for the future.

We, the students, have no particular say in the matter, but it is much more educational for us now to satisfy ourselves with what we can do than lament what we cannot. We should content ourselves with donating less to the institute after graduation, not as some petty revenge-tactic, but because in this day and age the cost of the time to take a paragraph’s worth of hand-written lecture notes roughly equals that of a full semester’s education through online resources, publicly-owned textbooks and preprints, and conversations with peers who are pursuing ideas for their true worth (rather than as a stepping stone towards a diploma and unquestioned social authority). If MIT will not embrace freedom for intellectuals — its only true commodity — it is more worth our time to ask where the newest great ideas will come from than to cling to relics of an obsolete and irrelevant academic culture.