The first step is admitting you have a problem

MIT administration should be honest about their motives

Dear MIT Administration,

In the future, please give us more believable rationalizations than “Faculty are worried [students are] worn out by the time classes begin.” It’s increasingly obvious that you aren’t even making a significant effort to justify your actions (see: “an improved House Dining plan that offers greater breadth and flexibility”). There is no student on campus who believes that you wish to take away REX because “freshmen report too much free time,” Dean Hastings. I don’t know whether it’s more ridiculous to be concerned about MIT students being tired (Really? We are?) or bored. And you certainly can’t raise both concerns at the same time.

These absurd justifications serve only to augment the current wave of frustration with you. The dining plan isn’t “improved” when almost none of the students support it, and a full-length REX half a week before classes is unlikely to make us sleep through lecture. When you lie to us, Administration, it makes us angry.

Let’s face it: the changes suck. But they aren’t the end of the world.

Maybe instead of concocting all this drivel, you should have spared yourself the trouble and admitted the truth: We’re broke.

Through the end of 2008, MIT’s endowment had a truly remarkable track record. From 1999 through 2008 it had an annualized return of 13.2 percent, hitting a peak of $10.1 billion before things took a turn for the worse. The economic downturn resulted in a 21 percent drop in the endowment’s value in a single year, leaving it at less than $8 billion at the end of 2009. Even factoring in the slight gains of the last year, our endowment is currently at less than 2006 levels. Our spending, on the other hand, is not.

So that’s why we’ve seen all of these recent changes! I can’t say that I’m exactly happy about the new dining system, and I’m certainly not done fighting about REX, but … suddenly, you don’t seem like the enemy anymore. I believe you are genuinely trying to give us what we want and need given the Institute’s current limited resources. So why are you so unwilling to tell us what is going on? Are you afraid that students are like predators, ready to pounce at the first sign of financial weakness?

Let’s consider what did happen in a case where you admitted the problem: Residential Life funding. Dorm budgets in the past two years have suffered significant budget cuts, and what did we do? We stuck together. Housemasters gave some of their funds to GRTs, and “students seemed all right with the changes. […] they realized that we had to be more frugal with our budget while our economy is struggling,” as put by a Baker GRT last year. No bickering, no petitions, no mess. You presented us with a problem, and we dealt with it.

Last November, the New York Times created an interactive puzzle on their website that allowed their readers to experiment with various ways to balance the United States’ budget, from cuts to federal workers’ salaries to withdrawal from the Middle East to changes to Social Security. It was enlightening, not because it gave any clear solutions, but because it had none to give. No matter what your political inclinations might be, some of the decisions you had to make to put the U.S. in the black were necessary evils. Perhaps MIT might benefit from the same type of resource. Is it better to create a mandatory dining plan that will put a tax on students who choose to live in some dorms, or to cut half of our athletics department, or fire a quarter of our professors? Let the significance of those decisions stare us, the students, in the face, and we will be much more willing to talk about changes.

We love our culture, and we’re willing to do an awful lot to preserve it, whether that means working with you or against you. Up until this point, you have been attacking it. Out of sheer stubborn refusal to admit the problem your changes are attempting to solve, you have made yourself the enemy of practically the entire student body, when by all rights we should be on the same side. Appeal to our better natures, ask for our understanding, and present the problems at hand, and you may be surprised at what we are willing to do to help. Maybe the dorms would contribute some of their funds to REX. Maybe the students and alumni would donate a sufficient amount to cover the costs of orientation.

“We’re sorry,” you might say, “but due to the current recession, we must reduce our costs by $40 million in addition to the cuts we have already made. Here are a few plans we have come up with so far that could balance our budget. We welcome student feedback on these options through online comments and voting, and we will give full consideration to any alternative proposals. We thank you for your understanding and assistance in this trying time.” We’ll understand. We’re college students — we know a thing or two about being broke. Wastepaper baskets are an integral structural component of my desk, so yes, I believe I can wrap my head around the idea of reducing costs.

“I think we all share the same values — we want to welcome students, and have them be ready to find the right residence or community for them,” said Julie Norman, director of the Office of Undergraduate Advising and Academic Programming, and I believe her. You aren’t evil, Administration, and you’re trying to do the best you can with what you have. You want us to be happy, and that means ensuring the Institute has enough money to function. Just admit you’re the good guys so that we can all get on with our lives.


A Team Player

Will Whitney is a member of the Class of 2013.