Opinion guest column

Welcome back to Fortress MIT

Restricting access weakens our community, insults our neighbors, and betrays our values

As someone who has spent the better part of five decades in and around of MIT, I feel the need to express my concerns — and really, my sadness and disappointment — over the administration’s recent tendency to lock down, control, and shut off access to our campus. Despite public statements and public relations campaigns proclaiming the importance of community, openness, and caring, the reality on the ground demonstrates just the opposite: increasingly, the university is closing itself off from our neighbors.

This trend began long before the current pandemic. I first noticed it when sections of Building 6 were closed, even to MIT ID holders, presumably because the newly renovated lobby spaces had become too nice to allow random riffraff to enjoy. Over the past two years, this trend has accelerated to the point where all entries to campus are now locked behind ID scanners. And now, just when it seems possible that we may be returning to some semblance of pre-pandemic life, the installation of new scanners to replace the "temporary" gates at the main entrance of Building 7 signals a chilling new normal: Fortress MIT.

I’ve worked here for 15 years and have been a resident of the neighborhood for nearly my entire life. I have always been impressed and proud of the Institute's commitment to open access, both intellectual and physical. Over this time, despite the challenges of maintaining our research labs and keeping our students safe, we have continually nurtured a generally friendly and open campus environment, where everyone (student, faculty, staff, visitor, neighborhood resident, or even tourist) was made to feel welcome and included. Our libraries allowed locals to browse, sit, read, and learn; our classrooms and lecture halls welcomed the neighborhood for public talks and performances; our hallways, lobbies, bathrooms, and water fountains served everyone, regardless of ID or status, at any time of day or night; surplus food was put out for the taking, feeding the hungry and preventing waste; and our doors were open, allowing everyone to navigate through the maze of campus as they needed, without unnecessary barriers, suspicion, or surveillance.

I know that the recent pandemic created concerns over the need to “secure” campus (although my own sense is that many of those concerns were overplayed). But to allow this unfortunate moment to be used as an opportunity to permanently install card scanners and locks on every exterior access point (and even some interior ones — bathrooms, classrooms, and special study spaces) is truly disheartening, and more than a little disingenuous as well. Take a moment to ponder the Orwellian irony of the new “Dynamic Engagement Node” on the Restricted Infinite Corridor: how much dynamism or engagement do we expect to happen, locked behind not one but two card scanners?

COVID-19 alone does not provide a justification for these changes — and you’ll of course note that nearly all of our students and faculty regularly leave campus and visit neighboring restaurants and other buildings, which are open to the public.

To lock off our campus sends the wrong message to our own community, suggesting we need to be insulated from those around us, to protect ourselves through isolation rather than connection. It’s also inconvenient and patently silly to boot: other than causing confusion and delay, do we really think that non-cardholders can’t figure out how to get through this absurdly ineffective security system? But worst of all, it serves as an insulting slap in the face to our host communities, which (to be honest) have much more to fear from us than we have to fear from them, between institutional expansion and displacement, disruptive parties and events, nuclear and biotech hazards, or even campus visits from influential individuals of questionable character.

I’d love to learn that my fears of a permanent MIT security state are overblown, and am eager to hear of plans to return to the "old normal" as soon as possible. At the very least, it would be good to learn that the administration is making these changes in consultation with relevant stakeholders, including students and staff as well as neighbors and community partners. In the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP), we teach this as basic “Community Planning 101.” Unfortunately, from what I can tell, there hasn’t been much open discussion to date. (And for those inclined to skepticism, it’s worth noting that the installation of the new Lobby 7 scanner during the dead of summer suggests a less-than-open process.)

We know that the work of hands and minds need not be cut off from the wisdom, love, commitment, and bravery we find in our hearts. Sadly, students in the senior Class of 2023 now represent the only remaining undergraduates who may remember the unfettered magic of the “pre-scanner” campus, an MIT that represented this spirit of open learning, free and generous sharing, and a broader, unselfish caring.

Before these last embers of community and inclusion are extinguished, let’s remember these feelings and act on them. Let’s reopen our minds, our hearts, and our doors.

Ezra Haber Glenn is a lecturer in DUSP.