In 2016, MIT turned its focus outward, developing new ways to take action on research, elaborating on the part of the Institute’s mission that commits it to “bring knowledge to bear on the world’s greatest challenges.” Within MIT, students took action to engage the administration on issues of identity, politics, and student life.
The first Tech headlines of 2016 reported events that would play small parts in long-running stories: the end of a 116-day long sit-in that pro-divestment student activists had staged outside President Reif’s office, the launch of a new undergraduate fund for innovation, the decision by UA Council not to endorse a set of recommendations from the Black Students’ Union, and the appointment of Suzy Nelson as vice president for student life.
This past year, MIT reaffirmed its decision not to divest its endowment from fossil fuel companies and sought common ground with student climate activists who, unsatisfied with the Climate Action Plan, lobbied the administration to reconsider. Vice President for Research Maria T. Zuber stressed a belief that divestment would preclude engagement with industry, while partnerships would enable faster progress on clean energy technologies.
Two months later, MIT announced that “health of the planet” was one of six pillars that would be targeted by the Campaign for a Better World, which emerged from its quiet phase in May with $2.6 billion already donated or pledged. The pillars of the campaign, which seeks $5 billion in total, also include the “MIT Core” (financial aid, new residential spaces, and research facilities on campus), education in the 21st century, human health, fundamental scientific research, and innovation and entrepreneurship.
With the launch of The Engine and the agreement to redevelop the 14-acre Volpe campus, MIT situated itself to develop a regional innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem over the long term. Together with the continuing construction of MIT.nano, expected to be completed in 2018, and the development of Kendall Square, MIT is building on the vision articulated by President Reif in 2015: to support the development of breakthrough technologies built on new science.
MIT defines itself by its commitment to tackling challenging problems. This year, some of those issues were internal to our own community. Sporadic dialogue, largely driven by students, addressed how race, gender, and class affect an individual’s experience at MIT. The Black Students’ Union sought broad support for a set of recommendations to improve the experience of minority students at MIT, and two students replicated a 1999 study and released their own survey on “The Status of Undergraduate Women at MIT.” These initiatives were student-driven; to take hold, they need sustained support from those at MIT who can institutionalize the ideas that emerged.
Changes to student life came as a result of unexpected dorm closures. Due to problems with its infrastructure, New House was slated to close partially for renovation. A plan for how current New House residents will be relocated to other dorms is expected this month. In June, Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart announced that Senior House would not house freshman this academic year. The decision, prompted by a comparatively low four-year graduation rate for members of Senior House and allegations of illegal drug use, was made without consulting members of the dorm and shook students from all over campus. Letters poured into The Tech; one of them can be found in this Year in Review.
Dormant political groups reemerged in a year with a divisive presidential campaign as the MIT Democrats and the MIT College Republicans both organized after periods of inactivity. Students held voter registration drives, volunteered for campaigns, and made calls to voters. After the election, student groups organized a Solidarity Rally to demonstrate support for MIT’s values.
The change in White House administration hit MIT very close to home when President Donald J. Trump’s executive order banning immigration from seven countries temporarily trapped two students outside the U.S. on the eve of a new semester. Administrators, faculty, and students condemned the order while working to bring the students back, and President Reif pledged that MIT will continue to take action to uphold its values where it can be effective.
Journalist and screenwriter Ben Hecht once said that trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of a clock. Single events rarely convey the whole story. The Year in Review is one chance to step back and see the larger picture, how those individual events collectively create change.
— Katherine Nazemi, Volume 136 Editor in Chief