Nobody Knows The Trouble They See


Photograph by Rowland Williams

by Samuel Jay Keyser

Ed Schein, one of the foremost authorities on organizational structure—he coined the term “corporate culture”—sent me an e-mail commenting on my book, Mens et Mania: The MIT Nobody Knows:

When visiting CEO’s [sic] would tell me how badly MIT was run, I would usually counter with “Well how would you run an organization that is simultaneously a hotel and dining service for 10,000 or more young people, a multi-level school, a set of research labs including a nuclear reactor, a library, an employer of 1000 prima donnas, and is supposed to be a respected member of the local community where all of the above represent equally important stakeholders?”  That usually… made them respectful of university presidents.

Implicit in Ed Schein’s question is an underappreciated truth: A good university is a bad business. Running one well means running at a loss, an embarrassment in a capitalist society. MIT could easily write its bottom line in black ink if it were to eliminate its hotel and dining service, its medical service, its psychiatric service, to say nothing of police protection, free transportation around campus, manicured lawns, safe lighting and good relations with the City of Cambridge. But then, MIT would not be the home away from home that its students and their parents have come to expect. They expect MIT to stand in loco parentis, in place of parents. That is a tall order. MIT takes it on, though not without cost.

During the first week of my tour of duty as a housemaster in Senior House, an MIT dormitory, I had a revelatory encounter. I recorded it in Mens et Mania. A conversation took place between two students while I was attempting to feed them at what was intended to be an ice-breaking barbecue:

The course the students were talking about was a legendary introductory course in computer science taught by one of MIT’s best undergraduate teachers, Gerald Sussman… MIT students typically refer to their courses, like their classrooms, by numbers rather than names. So I asked, “What do you think of 6.001?”

1st student: “It’s a great course. The best so far.”

2nd student: “I think it sucks.”

1st student: “Fuck you.”

2nd student: “Fuck you.”

They turned away from me and went their separate ways. I stood there with two hot dogs in my hand and my mouth open. I had heard that MIT undergraduates were undersocialized, but it never occurred to me that they could be so succinct about it.

Going to college is, for many students, primarily a social experience. The evidence comes from surveys that probe things like hours spent studying. Two sociologists, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, recently reported (Academically Adrift, Chicago University Press, 2011) that a third of the students they interviewed (more than 2,000 freshman in the fall of 2005) spent less than five hours a week studying.

I’ll bet that none of those students went to MIT where undergraduates must satisfy a basic science requirement before they can graduate. It consists of six core subjects in physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics. In addition there is a laboratory requirement as well as a two-subject restricted elective requirement with offerings like Thermal-Fluids Control 1 and Introduction to Special Relativity. The restrictive elective subjects are meant to deepen and broaden the six core subjects. Five hours a week won’t cut it. MIT students typically study 60 hours a week!

This entails good news and bad news. Let’s start with the good news. Binge drinking is often defined as downing five shots in one session for men and four for women. It is a serious problem on U.S. campuses. At least one study declares that 42% of the student population engages in this dangerous practice.

At MIT the binge drinking statistics were roughly half that the last time I looked (about five years ago). Why should that be? I think it is because binge drinking is something addictive personalities do. MIT, unlike most universities, provides its addictive personalities with a constructive addiction rather than a destructive one; namely, a curriculum that is extremely difficult to master. The lesson for the rest of the country is that if you want to cut down on college binge drinking, ratchet up your curriculum’s degree of difficulty. That suggestion, I’m guessing, would be as welcome as a blue stocking in a strip joint.

Now the bad news. MIT self-selects for a significant number of students who, when they disagree, say “fuck you” long before they say “let’s work this out”. To put that dysfunction in context the students have devoted their junior and senior high school years getting themselves ready for MIT. In the course of that preparation they have focused so heavily on mastering science and math that they have perforce neglected social skills. Nor does it help that the majority of their peers have already marginalized them, labeling them as geeks, nerds, eggheads and wonks. For most students one of the joys of coming to MIT is to be at a place where everyone is a wonk.

From Doonesbury, Garry Trudeau

The downside is that dealing with students who have not learned how to navigate socially is not only a pain in the ass, but a pain that takes a long time to go away. They pick fights and, though they aren’t aware of it, they make sure that those fights are never resolved. Sometimes those fights have to do with genuine social and political issues, like pornography and apartheid—I deal with both of these in my book—but sometimes the fight is over something as trivial as what kind of showerhead Physical Plant wants to install in the dormitory.

The most recent battle at MIT has been over food. You might think that student leaders would have better things to fight about than arrangements for breakfast, lunch and dinner. But that would underestimate the covert function of these fights. The fights help the students to come to grips with some unfinished business; namely, separating from their parents.

This is where the faculty comes in. A significant number of faculty have accepted the in loco parentis role. They identify with the students. They see themselves in the students. Hell, many of them went to MIT themselves 30 or more years earlier. Any administrator who fails to appreciate this is liable to walk into an academic lamppost.

That is what happened on September 21, 2007. An MIT student appeared at Boston’s Logan Airport wearing a sweatshirt with a circuit board attached to a nine-volt battery. She held what turned out to be a ball of putty in one hand. According to one newspaper account, she asked an airport worker for flight information. When the worker asked about the blinking green lights on her black-hooded sweatshirt, she walked away without answering. Within minutes state troopers wielding MP5 submachine guns surrounded her. Lord knows what might have happened if she hadn’t put her hands in the air.

The next day the Institute issued a press release calling the student’s actions “reckless.” All hell broke loose. 30 classmates signed a petition admonishing the administration for distancing “itself from members of its own community instead of attempting to diffuse misleading media hype.” On December 7, 2011 a faculty resolution was voted on that enjoined the administration “from making public statements that characterize or otherwise interpret…the behavior and motives of members of the MIT community whose actions are the subject (real or potential) of pending criminal investigation.” The resolution was barely defeated: 31 for; 36 against. Five months later a chastened administration apologized to the faculty. 

What is striking about this case was the extent to which students and faculty rallied around a student who had failed to answer questions about flashing lights and a ball of putty at an airport from which one of the 9/11 missiles had been launched. The protesting students and faculty were unwilling to cut the administration any slack, regardless of the circumstances. Why? They saw themselves as family. Both groups had signed on to the ethos of in loco parentis.

What is the take-home? As Ed Schein’s comment to the CEO’s implies, running MIT requires a huge investment in managing the complicated dynamics of a student body that is under-socialized, a faculty that identifies with that student body and an administration that tries to square these “stakeholders” with a critical outside community.

Over the 150 years of MIT’s existence this cultural olio has produced the world wide web—without which you wouldn’t be reading this piece, the research that led to the mapping of the human genome, the first theoretically significant theory of how language works in the brain, the transistor radio, e-mail, quarks, even the National Inquirer (its founder went to MIT). This kind of unparalled achievement doesn’t come from the world according to Mary Poppins. It comes from a university culture that is doing its best to grow up while it reaches out. My book tries to shed a little light on what that means.

About the Author:

Samuel Jay Keyser is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT. Associate Provost from 1985 to 1994, he currently holds the position of Special Assistant to the Chancellor. In his career as a theoretical linguist he has published over 60 articles and four books. He is editor in chief of the journal Linguistic Inquiry and of the Linguistic Inquiry Monograph Series.

In addition to his career as a theoretical linguist he has published two books of poems, Raising the Dead and The Pond God and Other Stories. The latter won the 2003 Lee Bennett Hopkins Honor Award for children’s poetry.

His most recent book, Mens et Mania: The MIT Nobody Knows, was published by the MIT Press in April 2011. GemmaMedia of Boston, MA will publish a new book, I Married a Travel Junkie, in the fall of 2011. He is currently working on a third book, Looking for Me.

Aside from his career as a theoretical linguist and author, Keyser is also a jazz trombonist with the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra, the New Liberty Jazz Band, and the Dave Whitney Swing Orchestra. He has appeared on 12 CDs.

Keyser travels extensively, having been to over 42 countries. Excerpts from his A Safari Journal: Faint of Heart in the Heart of Darkness appeared in the May 2000 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. He has been a commentator on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. He also blogs, at The Reluctant Traveler.