Alex (yakshaver) wrote,

Professional Administration Considered Harmful

Those of you who aren't in the MIT community won't have context for a lot of the allusions this post. But the issue is one that I suspect affects all US universities --- possibly all academic institutions, everywhere. I wrote this yesterday, as a connected series of zephyrs (i.e. messages to one of MIT's internal group instant-message forums). The immediate context is an attempt by a part of MIT's bureaucracy to place a centrally-managed electronic card-reader lock on a student group office. An office key is, operationally and symbolically, the badge of membership in this organization, and has been for over 20 years. Many (probably most) members don't have a current MIT ID. Most also no longer live and work in the Boston area — consequently, part of the group's intergenerational continuity involves current students occasionally arriving at the office to find it open, and occupied solely by someone they don't recognize, possibly their parents' age. Introductions and stories follow, and community bonds are strengthened.

Obtaining an MIT ID requires coming to campus during business hours to spend time playing bureaucracy. Most of my Boston-based MIT-alumni friends are actively involved in the MIT community — but even among them, few have bothered to get MIT IDs: people who will gladly take an afternoon off work to fix a broken toilet in a student living group are nowhere near so enthusiastic about taking an afternoon off to wait in line and deal with bureaucrats. I can't imagine someone who flies into town for a week every year or two wanting to spend part of their vacation that way.

So: my zephyrs on this topic form yesterday. My main point was to provide some historical context for the current students. But this issue has been gnawing at my mind for years, and I'm fairly pleased with what emerged when I suddenly had a spontaneous motive to write about it.

I've elided other people's comments from the log (not that there were many — but I don't have a right to quote them).

Instance: office Time: Fri Jun 21 19:01:29 2013 Host:
From: I always like that further-up-the-evolutionary-ladder look... ---eichin

This is, I'm afraid, going to get long:

This is just the latest in a long series of hostile actions the MIT
administration has been engaging in toward the MIT community since
the mid-90s.  (I make no claim that their intent is hostility
toward the community.  Each of the actions I'm thinking of may well
have had other motives, most obviously the ones that were claimed
for them.  But the effect has been hostile to the community, and
the administration has at the very least had a reckless disregard
for the effects of their actions on the broader, informal MIT
community.  (Or, more likely --- and more recklessly --- willful
ignorance of the nature of thte actual MIT community.) 

Instance: office Time: Fri Jun 21 19:09:08 2013 Host:
From: "nice" is just such a vile word.... ---eichin

BITD, on any given evening you would find a dozen or so community
groups meeting in MIT classrooms:  music groups, theater groups,
computer user group, sewing circles, leatherworkers, tablet
weavers, and assorted other clubs.  Many had only tenuous formal
MIT affiliation.  All were welcoming to newcomers, and especially
so of MIT students.  They made campus safer in the evenings (eyes
on the street, as Jane Jacobs taught us).  They gave students
opportunities for serendipitous social and learning opportunities.
It wouldn't surprise me at all to learn that some former student
had been kept from suicide by people they ran into randomly
wandering the 4th floor infinite one night.  I know an extremely
socially ackward nerd of the mumbling-while-staring-at-his-shoes
(literally!) sort, who joined a theater group --- and now has
two kids and a dozen-year-old marriage with a girl he met there.

Instance: office Time: Fri Jun 21 19:19:36 2013 Host:
From: The most sublime act is to set another before you. ---William Blake

Many of the adults in those groups lived in the burbs, and drove
to campus.  Then  the administration started putting card-readers
and gates on parking lots.  Bringing three milk-crates of craft
supplies to a classroom on the 4th floor of building 4 is a very
different thing if you have to try to find parking on the street
somewhere near campus than if you can park in main lot.  A few
weeks of that, and you give up.  Your group finds a church in
the suburbs to meet in.  Or it dissolves.  Or you just drop out.
Even if it keeps going in a church basement, there's no more new
blood from serendipitous encounters in the hall.  You lose; your
group loses; MIT students lose.  The MIT administration presumably
wins, or thinks it did --- but it's not clear to me how.

Instance: office Time: Fri Jun 21 19:29:37 2013 Host:
From: Johanna's hair is stunning braided, too, especially if she thwacks you with it.

Or maybe your group does keep meeting at MIT.  Your activity
doesn't require much stuff, and most of your adult members can
switch to taking the T.  Then one day you get off the T, and
head for the Med Center, so you can cut through it and take 
the most direct path to the Infinite.  And suddenly the Med
Center's locked at night.  So you go around, and you get to
the pointy end of 66.  And it's locked too.  And so's 56.
And if it's February, you say to hell with it, and give up.

I could go on.  The administration, largely I suppose in the
name of "security", has made the MIT campus a continuously 
less hospitible place over the past generation.  I don't see
it ending without significant pressure from alumni.  And 
even with that, it might also require a cultural shift 
away from the professionalization of academic administration
and back toward universities being run by their faculty, and
their faculty heavily recruited from among their graduates.
Tags: mit
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