Thursday, January 16, 2014

Mens et Mania: The MIT Nobody Knows

Mens et Mania: The MIT Nobody Knows
Samuel Jay Keyser
Publisher: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2011)

We all know about the Seven Wonders of the World (with more being built every day); some things are just mythic. We can look at the awesomeness of the Grand Canyon or see photos of Dubai's tallest hotel and see right away that they are unique, stunning, and beautiful. But when it comes to the abstract landscape of the intellectual and scientific, we don't really "see" things the same way. To most of us, MIT is a set of buildings in Cambridge Mass. along the Charles River that provides a counterpoint to Harvard on the other side. They do law and politics, MIT does science and math.

But what makes for a school that for generations has spun off new inventions and technologies? How does that work behind the scenes? What do the people there see? Jay Keyser gives us a peek into this world.

Here I have to declare a bit of disclosure; I worked at MIT from the late 1970s thru the early 1980s, first as a secretary (back when the term was still politically correct) at the Laboratory for Computer Science and later as Operations Coordinator for MIT's Project Athena (which put all the students online). I can attest to the accuracy of the information concerning students at the time I was there, although I certainly had no knowledge of what went on in the bowels of the MIT administration.  Jay Keyser, however, was well respected at the time I was there, so I expect his insight on that to be accurate as well.

In an environment where the students are arguably some of the brightest in the world, how does an administrator deal with the ever-present and ever-more-creative end runs? What's the algorithm for coping with the fraternity house that insists on its right to show pornographic films every year, a tradition overwhelmingly supported by its "democratic" residents? What do you do when, post 9/11, one of your students is arrested at Logan airport carrying a lump of play dough and wearing one of the early tee shirts with an attached circuit board lighting up LEDs and scaring the heck out of the TSA?

Where do the answers come from when the Cambridge City Council asks MIT to "study" a shantytown of homeless people supported by student activists, refusing to move to make room for a new development?

There's no end to the challenges that come when dealing with an extremely bright, creative and highly competitive student body. The infamous practical jokes played on the school by the students are legendary for their boldness and logistical prowess. There's no play book from the School of Business Administration that can teach what to do when the student body is profoundly anti-authoritarian.

Should all these students be brought to heel? Should they become "team players" and make things easier for the administration of the Institute? Or is that creativity and nuttiness the spark that turns into new technologies and groundbreaking ideas? What responsibility does the administration have to these students (and their parents who pay the bills) when the "ivory tower" meets intense individual and collective expression? Keyser has a lot to say on this subject.

There are, as with all memoirs, places where descriptions of the politics behind the institution get a bit dull for those who haven't worked in academia, and places where it's all about his job and how he dealt with his superiors, but all in all, this book is a fascinating look behind the scenes at a place few of us ever get to see. The list of contributions to science and technology from MIT is a long and compelling one, but its future, Keyser says, is far from clear if administrators focus on conformity and if the new students coming in have not been allowed to let that spark of anti-establishment creativity continue to burn brightly. Count on this one to give you a new perspective on techies.

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