UA restructuring is important, but retention, member value are key

Look past the rhetoric in the Secretary General/Vice President-Elect’s resignation letter and you will find a number of observations accurately describing the culture that has evolved in the UA over the past year. To reiterate, I do not mean misplaced remarks such as “megalomaniac,” which have been the focus of discussions on mailing lists, I mean the observations about a hostile work environment and a lack of team-oriented progress for students. If the UA is to sustain itself as an organization, we must not only commit ourselves to discussions on our structure, but also on how we promote member value and retention.

While evaluations of team members are necessary parts of a healthy team and organization, this year I have watched as members from every level of the org chart have engaged in mean-spirited critiques of others’ actions and used them to make statements about others’ talents, competence, and even intelligence. These discussions often take place behind closed doors, but in turn, these statements influence decisions and significantly alter the course of debate. Only in recent weeks have we seen clear evidence of these issues on the public record, most notably surrounding the difficult topic of restructuring. Is this behavior indicative of an organization that values its members or is focused on serving its constituents?

Granted, these problems are not new, and the UA is not the only organization on campus facing these issues in some shape or form. However, as was noted at last week’s UA Exec meeting, the UA’s work is inherently public service — we’re not building a solar car and we’re not a performance group. Despite investing many hours, it is not infrequent that one may come away from a task without the satisfaction of a job well done, especially on issues like dining or the enrollment increase. Let’s be honest, that’s okay. The danger is when we lose sight of our goal — to improve student life — and become more deeply interested in political machinations. For those who enjoy politics, the UA, like most student governments, has plenty of interesting levers to pull.

Is this ability to resort to internal politics a case for a new structure? I think not, and this is where I differ with The Tech’s analysis of the UA’s restructuring situation in the April 29 editorial. In the same way that a machinist does not blame his tools for an accident caused by an unskilled co-worker, the UA should not blame its structure for student-focused progress that’s stunted by internal politics. The structure of the UA was carefully designed to keep members honest, to ensure transparency, and in some specific cases, to protect the rights of a dissenting minority; it is a tool, not a cause. Misuse of this structure to achieve political aspirations through conflict is indicative of a culture that is not focused on results for students, despite any rhetoric that might be employed in justification. In this way, the UA needs leadership that will utilize this structure responsibly and encourage others to do the same. The organizational culture needs to be one that steadfastly adheres to the UA’s mission for students, and one that values members’ contributions along with the members themselves. Without this key element, the UA stands to lose members to burnout when the going gets tough, and it will lose focus on student issues in favor of devising political covers for internal conflict.

Student government at MIT, and the UA in particular, may very well be at a critical turning point in its history. On the precipice of widespread organizational change and amid much indifference, if not disillusionment, from the student body and its active membership, the UA’s new leaders must embrace, communicate, and work to realize a dramatically different direction for the organization. With that said, the leadership cannot be successful with only top-down directives. The UA also needs people — and good people in a hurry — who will be responsive to a message of cooperation and mutual respect while pursuing results for students.

So, while structure is important — and restructuring discussions should certainly continue — I believe we must also devote attention to the rather pressing issue of the UA’s organizational culture and that culture’s inertia. Addressing this issue is the key to developing a sustainable organization that has credibility with students and is considered worthwhile for those who participate.

Jonté D. Craighead ’13
2010-2011 UA Speaker of the Senate

Memory of a

different time

Ethan Solomon’s article in the April 8 issue brought back memories for me of the fateful events of January 1970. At the time I was one of an informal group of liberal faculty who were trying to maintain communications with the radical students. We shared their opposition to the Vietnam war but were convinced that their methods were counterproductive, that carrying the VietCong flag on their marches was not likely to attract support from the general public for the antiwar position. Alas, we could not get through to them.

I have found in my files a mimeographed flyer distributed by the groups PLSDS and SACC on January 14. The students’ demands, the rescinding of all past discipline and the abolition of the discipline committee, had been rejected by President Howard Johnson. (Mike Albert had already been expelled, following an earlier confrontation on November 4.) The flyer announced an “incentive rally, takeover, and live-in” to take place beginning at 11:30 a.m. on the following day. On the morning of the 15th , following a rally in the lobby of Building 7, a group of about a hundred students began a sit-in in the corridor outside the President’s office. At about noon I was sitting with a few others in the physics department commons room when a phone message came through, urgently requesting a faculty presence outside the President’s office. A rumor was circulating that something big was about to happen. We hurried over and joined the students at the sit-in. The situation was calm; a few students were playing music. Suddenly there appeared four hooded young men carrying a huge battering ram. The scene was surreal, like something out of a Grade B movie. After only a couple of blows the door to the president’s office gave way and all the students from the corridor poured into the office. I can still see the scene clearly in my mind’s eye. The students occupied the office for 34 hours and trashed the place completely. Furniture was smashed, paintings were defaced, files broken into, carpets slashed, and garbage left everywhere. As both an alumnus and a faculty member, I was heartsick at the sight.

An emergency faculty meeting was held that very afternoon; it was one of many during that period. The faculty voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution condemning the occupation and recommending that disciplinary action be taken against the trespassers. I believe the administration, in an extremely difficult position, acted in a responsible manner. The police were not immediately called in. as had happened at places like Berkeley and Columbia with disastrous consequences. But the administration did obtain a restraining order from the Middlesex Superior Court enjoining the occupation. The authorities would presumably have been called in to enforce the order if the occupiers had not left voluntarily.

The events I describe are a poignant chapter in the Institute’s history. It is hard to imagine similar events occurring today; as Solomon points out, students today express their views in different (and more effective) ways. But we have to remember that in 1970 the country was riven apart by the war, which continued for another four years.

Leo Sartori ’50