At East Campus HouseComm last week, we learned something unexpected. Our housemasters of several years, Prof. Julian Wheatley and his wife Marjorie, will be leaving for South Asia at the end of this school year. Which means that we will have to find a new housemaster. The new housemaster will be chosen by a committee, which is comprised of other housemasters, Student Life staff, two GRTs, and two residents of the dorm. We held elections to choose the two student reps. A lot of people ran, more than I’ve seen run for any position in East Campus. We talked about ourselves for a few minutes, then got kicked out so that everyone could talk about us and the halls could vote (in EC, there are ten halls, and each hall gets a single vote in HouseComm). Eventually, Conor ’07 (of 2nd West) and I were chosen for the two spots, giving me yet another hat to wear.
Whoever the new housemaster is, I’m only going to have to live with him or her for a year. Same for Conor. But we both think it’s really important to make sure that EC gets a good housemaster, because we want EC to continue to be EC after we are gone. I believe that this illustrates an important point about MIT.
At many universities, policy-makers act under the assumption that there is no institutional memory and that attitudes are transient, and they’re often correct. They figure that most current students will be gone within four years, and that the ones coming in will be okay with whatever is put into place because they’ve never known anything else. And the students also figure that they’re going to be gone in a few years, and why bother to care about something that’s not going to affect them personally?
Anyone who tried to do this at MIT would run into significant difficulty. Because of the famed “oral tradition”, the number of grad students who were MIT undergrads Back In The Day, the number of alums generally lurking around, and forums like mit-talk (a mailing list) and white-magic (a zephyr instance), memories stay around for a long time. There’s a lot less transience. Students truly feel that MIT is their “community” and not simply their school, not a place they’re merely passing through, and they have enough of an emotional investment to want to make sure that the things they care about are preserved for future generations of students.
As someone active in student government, I spend a lot of time thinking about and working on things that will impact future students as much as or more than current ones. Over the last couple of weeks, there’s been a huge increase in the number and intensity of rumors about mandatory meal plans (this is one of those issues where the rumors never actually go away, sort of like the US government’s Terror Alert Level never goes down to green, but where they increase in intensity when something’s up other than the usual free-floating paranoia). I spent quite a while trying to track down these rumors and talking to others about them, including a half-hour conversation with Jeff ’06, President of Random Hall, at a Halloween party. Much to my relief, Dean of Student Life Larry Benedict told us quite firmly that he did not intend for there ever to be mandatory meal plans. But given that Jeff will be out of here soon and I’ll probably be out of here before such plans would be implemented, it illustrates my point about students caring very deeply about MIT and its culture beyond their own time here.
Of course, as I indicated previously (and in this entry), “their own time here” is not always well-defined. I went to see the Star Wars musical last night. It was a fantastic show, and Great Job! to my friends who were involved in it, but the reason I bring it up is that, if you look at the cast list, there’s a lot of people who are, shall we say, not very current. Like Rob ’96, who played Uncle Owen and Jabba the Hut. And David ’89, who played Ben/Obi-Wan Kenobi. And the wonderful Edmund “Bonk” ’99, who played Chewbacca…but who I usually associate with having been one of the great activists who founded the now-defunct student advocacy organization ILTFP (I Love This F—ing Place) many years ago.
And of course, moving away from the Star Wars thing but still thinking of alums, there’s Matt, who was no slouch himself when it came to the activism thing. ;) I’ve had some good conversations with Matt.
Where are we going? Sometimes I’m not sure, but reflecting on what I know of the past, I hope I’m doing a good enough job helping to make it a good place.