Opinion open letter

MIT’s attempts to reduce risk also stifles exploration and opportunity

In 1978, just two years before I began my MIT journey, I was interested in American postal history. While I was visiting Washington, D.C., I stopped by the L’Enfant Plaza headquarters of the U.S. Postal Service. I wanted to explore their library. While the treasure trove of books and artifacts was set up largely for postal employees, there were no obstacles to a 15-year-old simply walking into the building, taking the elevator to the desired floor, and spending many hours among the stacks and shelves. My work there that day led to a project which resulted in my doing volunteer work at the United Nations, and that work in turn led to a significant topic discussed at my MIT admissions interview.

A few months before the pandemic began, I had a chance to stay at a hotel right next door to the USPS headquarters. I headed over to see if the library was still there. At the front door, I was eyed with suspicion. Yes, there’s a library, and yes, it remains open to the public, but one cannot actually walk into the building to get there. Someone needs to come down from the library to fetch you. After waiting ten minutes, the librarian appeared to escort me upstairs. He, too, looked at me suspiciously. When I reached the library, I realized why. There were no other people there. The librarian shared that I was the first non-postal employee to come to the library in months, largely because no one can get in unless he happens to be free to come downstairs. But he simultaneously followed me everywhere, still concerned that I might be there for nefarious purposes.

If a 15-year-old were to show up at the headquarters now, I’m afraid that individual wouldn’t have a chance of getting in, certainly wouldn’t be given unfettered access, and perhaps would never end up following a career path which otherwise would have been productive and enjoyable.

While at MIT, one of my favorite activities was to walk around campus, often late at night, just to see what there was. What labs existed that I didn’t know about? What bulletin board postings told of lectures or meetings outside my usual stomping ground? What students might also be roaming about and eager for a late night talk? In my years as an alum, I have often stopped by campus just to make the rounds and to see what new experiences might be possible. Writing about all the activities and experiences of my life which began with such walks would take pages.

I’m sad to see MIT following in the footsteps of our rapidly eroding freedom, all in the name of reducing risk. Showing an ID, dealing with limited access, and going through security checks have all become the norm. Not being allowed to explore is now the routine. Our nation has become so dangerous, so risk-averse, and so suspicious that we have erected the equivalent of barbed wire around the heart of our Institute. I’m sad to think of the young people who don’t have the opportunities that used to be so abundant. I’m sad that even those of us who are part of the MIT community have restrictions that were never previously perceived as necessary. And I wonder … how do we get our freedom back?

Stuart Gitlow ’84