Sunday, June 23, 2024

During a recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology community Covid Call, professor Krystyn Van Vliet presented the administration’s plan for the future of campus access – essentially, to continue with pandemic-related restrictions indefinitely. The campus shall be locked, accessible only through MIT IDs and Tim Tickets. Unmoderated access to the public will be relegated to four buildings around campus, none in the main block.

The reasons were well supported and largely reasonable: more security and fewer thefts, a reduction in distractions and annoyances. I expect there to be some protest from students and alumni, and I expect MIT to largely ignore them. I’m not writing to organize dissent. I am not overly surprised or alarmed by these measures. I just wish to express a certain sadness for the loss of grounded connection to our broader community. Call it a requiem for a more open institute.

My first visit to MIT was in high school, as part of a family trip to Washington, D.C., New York and New England. I recall being struck by just how open the campus was compared with other universities, particularly other private universities. Every school has tours. Every school has a few areas designated for the public. But here you had to really try to find a locked floor or building. You could spend your time browsing flyers in the Infinite Corridor; studying in Hayden, Barker or Rotch; or considering just what the lives of all these students and professors must be like. And why did that matter?

Universities are highly artificial environments in many ways. You’re surrounded by peers who are largely in a very narrow age range, being taught by faculty who are largely significantly older. And unlike in grade school, you don’t go back home to a social environment afterward: You live here. The ivory tower isn’t just about having a different interest or focus than the rest of the world, it is about being literally separate in many ways.

This can be hard to notice on a day-to-day basis. When I moved into Ashdown, it took me weeks to figure out why I was feeling such a particular joy upon seeing the heads of houses’ young children playing in the hallways and courtyards. One day I realized that it was because, since leaving home for college, I hadn’t had children around where I lived. I hadn’t seen a future generation in my space. They were a reminder of the future, of joy and vitality, of society at large, in an all-too-often sterile dorm environment filled almost entirely with peers in age and professional bent.

Similarly, having the public present in our campus spaces, our hallways and our libraries is a lovely background reminder that there is a larger society that we are a part of, and whom we are here working for.

A few years back, I organized a lecture by professor Phillip Sharp for a student club. As I stood in the doorway, welcoming audience members, two parents approached with their child, a young girl – maybe 8 years old. They spoke virtually no English but wanted to know what all the hubbub was about. In my very poor Spanish, I was able to convey the gist of whom Sharp was and what he would talk about. They asked if they were permitted to join, and I gladly said yes. After the lecture, they came down to the front and, with me serving as a (highly mediocre) translator, expressed their gratitude. The parents ended up taking a photo of their daughter with a Nobel laureate, saying they hoped this visit would inspire her to one day attend MIT herself.

This lecture took place on the third or fourth floor of E51, well off the beaten path for visitors and not one of the few areas designated to be left open to the public. What the family was doing in that hallway on that evening, I couldn’t tell you. How much of the lecture they understood, I don’t know. But because of how open this campus has been historically, a child was able to be inspired and two parents were able to feel excitement for the future. Is this not what MIT should aspire to?

We members of the MIT community will lose something too. I have already acknowledged that there are good reasons to close down campus to the public. There were good reasons to implement the original RFID system in the first place. There were good reasons to restrict dorm access to residents and otherwise enhance dorm security. There were good reasons for segregating the MIT Guest network from MIT Secure. These reasons are often concrete and specific., to the extent that I confess that I find it hard to argue against any individual of these changes. My counterarguments – for an ethos of openness, the potential for serendipity in experiences – are general and anecdotal. Nonetheless, I see a concerning trend here. One of increasing security, control, isolation from Cambridge and society at large.

I fear that whatever gains we have in research efficiency, in the inconveniences of tourists avoided, or even in our persons and possessions, we may come to regret the loss of grounding that the presence of the public provides. Many environmental factors, such as air pollution, urban heat islands, climate change or just plain noise have diffuse and stochastic effects. It can make it difficult to attribute specific, individual events or outcomes, despite the presence of a major societal impact. Similarly, I expect that the absence of the public in an unchaperoned, undirected manner will be hard to notice on a day-to-day basis, hard to attribute to any specific change in our behavior. Despite this, I worry it will make us just that much more isolated, that much colder, that much more secure in our ivory tower.

Jack Reid, Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate student