Keep it weird, keep it awesome
Why I and other students chose MIT
Numerous MIT alumni, including myself, are rushing to protect Senior House from the recent attacks on the dorm and its community. The Senior House community and set of values were a constant source of joy, belonging, and refuge for me and for so many others, during my years at MIT.
We have many concerns with the administration’s actions, including the disregard for student input and the unethical use of the data from the Healthy Minds survey to justify the freshmen ban and the eventual depopulation of Senior House. These actions signal to many MIT students and alumni a lack of understanding of the culture and needs of Senior House, its residents, and the undergraduate community at large.
The actions of the administration also signal to me a much larger problem with a larger risk to MIT’s continued existence as the preeminent science and engineering institution in the world. I do not believe that the current set of professional administrators in charge of undergraduate student life understand what makes MIT unique among the set of accomplished peer institutions to which they so often compare our Institute.
My last year of high school, I received offers with complete financial aid from Princeton, Stanford, and MIT. Many prospective students are also faced with such a choice — between MIT, Stanford, Caltech, Ivy League schools, and other institutions of similar caliber. Those who choose MIT often do so because of its uniqueness, as proudly displayed in MIT admissions website and various other places.
It was the uniqueness and boldness to be different that made me choose MIT without giving much of a serious look to Princeton and Stanford, even as my mom tried to cajole me into choosing Stanford because she was worried about Cambridge’s weather. The housing system made me feel like I had the freedom to find a group of people whom I felt connected to, and that meant a lot because I feared my far-from-perfect command of the spoken English language would be interpreted as either shyness or awkwardness. I liked that students could build a roller coaster and nobody would question their motives. I liked that deviating from the norm was not seen as a threat but as an opportunity. Most of all, I liked that even from my small house in the outskirts of Mexico City, I could tell that MIT was a place where I would belong.
I found all of what I wanted at MIT and more. I found people from all walks of life who helped me become a more understanding and tolerant person. I found curious people who invigorated me with their interests and were in turn invigorated by mine. I found a place that encouraged me to learn, not only about the subjects I studied but also about myself. Most importantly, I found Senior House, where I lived for the next four years.
While I found a lot of great things at MIT, I also found myself in the middle of a battle that had been fought for years, possibly decades. Where I saw vibrant, exciting communities, the administration saw potential PR nightmares that had to be mitigated. Where I saw freedom and the chance to grow into an adult on my own terms, the administration saw a lack of structure dangerous to the teenagers that had been entrusted to their care. Above all, while they saw opportunities to make the undergraduate experience at MIT more like the experience at its peer institutions, I saw the slow and unstoppable eroding of everything that had convinced me to pick MIT over Stanford and Princeton.
In his commencement address to the Class of 2017, President Reif encouraged the new graduates to make the world more like MIT. I fear that with each passing year, with each new measure implemented in the name of students’ well-being without their input, MIT becomes a bit more like the world it is trying to change.
I sympathize with the complexities the administration faces, and I certainly do not wish to be in their place. The pressure coming from all sides must be endlessly frustrating, but if they want MIT and its undergraduate population to succeed, they must appreciate the uniqueness - the glorious weirdness of MIT. They must also understand that the particular challenges that come with it cannot be solved by applying the cookie-cutter, top-down approaches that are popular at other places and that might have worked there. Administrative policy has to be adapted to fit the challenges of MIT, not crafted for an imaginary Institute where pedestrian solutions to complex problems work “adequately”.
Blindly following our peer institutions ignores the most valuable strengths of MIT. Some of these institutions have bigger endowments and name recognition. Most of them do not share neither the democratic ideals of MIT nor MIT’s commitment to make a world-class scientific and engineering education a great social equalizer. None of them have MIT’s most valuable asset: the weird uniqueness and boldness. MIT must regain confidence in its strengths and assert them as something to be proud of, not something to tame down or be ashamed of. It must trust viscerally in its values, even when that means it stands alone among its peers.
I urge the administration to remember that providing a quality undergraduate education remains one of the best ways to fulfill the mission William Barton Rogers set for this Institute over 150 years ago. The pressing challenges of today and tomorrow will be easier to solve if people with an MIT education are in the frontlines.
Lastly, I ask the administration to consider that the protests to the closure of Senior House do not come from a place of disrespect for authority or a lack of willingness to improve our community. We recognize that Senior House is not without problems and that there will always be room for improvement. Our response comes from a place of mourning. My heart mourns not for myself nor for the alumni who already found Senior House to be a place that allowed us to grow. My heart mourns for the current residents who lost a home after a stressful turnaround effort that was setup to fail from the start. More than anyone, my heart mourns for the future students who will never be given the chance to live there, to paint in its walls a testament to their stay, and to become adults on their own terms.
Martin Martinez Rivera is a member of the MIT Class of 2014, M. Eng. ‘15