Institute turns 150

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MIT will be celebrating its 150th birthday at the Next Century Convocation this Sunday at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. Right, Bldg. 10 in 1960; Left, Bldg. 10 in 2008.
Great Dome in 1960 Courtesy MIT Museum, 2008 dome courtesy of Alexander Hopkins. PhotoIllustration by Quentin Smith.

One hundred and fifty years ago this Sunday, Massachusetts Governor John Andrew put pen to parchment, signing a charter to create the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The April 10, 1861 charter, as passed by the Massachusetts Senate and House of Representatives, called for an institute to advance “science in connection with arts, agriculture, manufactures and commerce.” A century and a half later, those words greet students as they make their daily passage through Lobby 7. Though the 1861 charter’s words continue to inspire the Institute’s mission today, the MIT of 2011 is the product of 150 years of development, evolving from a small tech school across the Charles to the world’s leading research university.

Our history of being at the forefront of science and technology speaks for itself. It’s no secret that MIT has produced a spirit of innovation, which has played a huge role in shaping our world today. The story less told is that of the spirit of the students, which embodies and defines the true pulse of MIT. Over the years, what has defined an Engineer?

Same passion, different students

On Jan. 15, 1970, MIT students took a battering ram to MIT President Howard W. Johnson’s office door, seizing and occupying the office for 34 hours. The takeover prompted an emergency faculty meeting and charges were brought against 31 students. The reason for the dramatic protest? The expulsion of Undergraduate Association President Michael Albert ’69. Against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, students suspected the move was politically motivated, as Albert had participated in a demonstration against General Electric recruiters on campus.

Throughout the Institute’s history, these kinds of events were almost routine. In the 1950s and ’60s, students rioted in protest of dining changes, held demonstrations and sit-ins to protest MIT’s ties to the defense industry, and sometimes raised hell just for the sake of raising hell. Students have a record of fiercely defending what they believe in: a culture of intellectual and social uniqueness.

Unsurprisingly, this culture is defined by the fundamental educational values of MIT. The engineer’s desire to build and improve and the scientist’s drive to understand how the world works both influence how MIT students approach problems in their own lives.

And although the times change, basic values haven’t. Students today still have a passion for making MIT — and the world — a better place, but they express that sentiment in modern ways. Instead of making their voices heard through mass demonstrations and sit-ins, modern Engineers protest through the Internet. The “MIT culture,” students say, adds an educational dimension to this place separate from what even 76 Nobel Prize winners can provide. This is the spirit that keeps Tech graduates coming back, even decades after they’ve graduated.

150 reasons to look to the future

The Institute has used this juncture to reflect and find areas of improvement in both academics and research. At the undergraduate level, students are usually not here for more than four years, so it’s less intuitive for them to set longer-term goals. The MIT150 celebrations have encouraged the entire MIT community to take a step back and examine the bigger picture — as any scientist or engineer would.

But MIT’s sesquicentennial is also the perfect time to consider, as students, where we are today, and what we want our culture to look like by MIT’s bicentennial. What aspects of student culture are worth preserving? How will changing Institute priorities affect student priorities? Are there aspects of our culture which need to be fixed or improved?

Although there is value in stepping back as a greater community, students could also benefit from turning their collective gaze inward. There are ways that we, the student body, can improve as both an academic powerhouse and as a cultural force to move the Institute forward. In that spirit, MIT150 is not a time to look backward. It is a time for students to evaluate what we want our future, and our legacy, to be.