27 October 2008

Students Protest the Lack of MIT Leadership

MIT students held a "Tool-In" last weekend to protest administrative prevarication, incompetence, short-sightedness and what they see as the too many other unfortunate qualities currently manifested by today's senior leadership of the Institute. The student-run Tech newspaper spotlighted the latest protest, which was held in the Lobby 7 main entrance of MIT and timed to coincide with Parents Weekend. The Tool-In was organized by the other Campaign for Students -- MIT has an official fundraising Campaign of that name also, but this other Campaign is run by and for students frustrated with -- among other things -- the MIT administration's persistent miscommunication, oppressive hacking policies, unsavory dining plans, hapless housing strategy, and foot-in-mouth efforts to "build community" by imposing it instead of supporting and fostering student activities and grassroots social networks. Curiously enough, a similar Tool-In was organized by a previous generation of MIT students less than a decade ago, for mostly the same reasons, it turns out. Read the latest Tech issue article on Diagnosing Problems with the MIT campaign for more insight on student perspectives on the inconsistency between MIT Adminstration promises and actual delivery. Full Disclosure: While a grad student at MIT, I served on both the student-run presidential selection advisory group and the advisory committee to the President. And I was deeply involved in writing the various MIT In Transition: Student Perspectives on MIT’s Legacy Strengths, Emerging Challenges, and Future Directions documents. Therefore I'm necessarily sympathetic with the current students and non-plussed by the practices and performance of President Hockfield's administration because years ago we alerted her to the core issues but she seems to have just not listened. To quote a small sampling of the relevant passages of the MIT in Transition executive summary:
  • Community Culture and Standards -- The scope and importance of students' choice in pursuing their own interests in each of these aspects, and the self-developed and self-owned nature of the culture that results, are the strengths that underlie MIT's school spirit and give us a unique creative intensity. MIT must be careful not to let organizational bureaucracy or “professionalization” diminish the powerful experiential learning and risk-taking that are crucial to forging and sharpening our innovative “MIT edge”.
  • Connecting Strategy and Operations -- When everyday administrator action is at odds with overarching Institute strategy, confusion reigns in the student ranks. Local optimization in Institute decision-making is a root cause of a great deal of student frustration. Students desire transparency, accountability, and competence. We ought to strive for a well thought through and integrative total student experience, one that weaves together all the myriad elements of our time at MIT and beyond.
  • Institute Economics -- The Institute’s cost-structure, tuition duties, deployment of endowment income, and capacity to deal with sponsor volatility all directly affect student life. MIT students are especially sensitive to perceived misallocations of money and too often believe that some part of MIT is wasting it. Perhaps this is in ignorance of the “full picture”. Perhaps, however, it is a correct student perception. True transparency and accountability would allow us all to discern the difference.

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