It is a well-known adage that members of elite groups which undergo rigorous training tend to be more stressed and even resentful during the training phase, but consequently more proud of their achievements and tightly bound to other members -- even those with whom the training was not performed concurrently. At MIT, this dichotomy is commonly represented by the acronym IHTFP, whose most common two expansions represent the opposing ends of this spectrum: “I Hate This F***ing Place” and “I Have Truly Found Paradise.” It is not advisable to consider one translation without the other, and, though IHTFP is not unique to the Institute4, it remains a valuable insight into the holistically unique culture of which it is a part.
MIT students frequently feel heavily invested in MIT beyond their own financial and educational stake. They feel that the Institute's successes reflect on them and theirs reflect on the Institute. In this respect, the IHTFP phenomenon is a mirror of the range of feelings many MIT students experience about themselves during their time here. The intensity of the Institute drives students to personal successes that give them great pride, and seemingly interminable, grinding slogs that can make students question their fitness even to be in attendance. These extremes – and everything in between – contribute to an esprit de corps that can be hard for outsiders to gauge, often appearing sardonic or absurdist; for example, MIT's distinctive gold beaver ring is colloquially referred to within the Institute as the "Brass Rat.”
The intensity of the MIT experience is legendary – as the popular saying goes, "An MIT education is like taking a drink from a fire hose.”5 As a result, MIT students have a reputation for both working hard and playing hard. Neglecting to eat, sleep and bathe can be commonplace – often out of necessity, during final project periods, but also during "leisure" activities, such as during IAP's 3-day marathon Mystery Hunt. While this can sometimes be a matter of concern, it is a manifestation of the remarkable passion MIT students demonstrate towards both their work and their other interests. It leads them to take on challenges that others would ignore, but can also lead to emotional stress and questions of self-worth.
MIT students care very deeply about their freedom to select and manage many aspects of their Institute life: where they live, how they eat, their social events and other activities. Informed choice allows students to find their appropriate niche within the intensity of the Institute: to adjust their comfort level at a pace that suits each individual. Students believe that not only must these freedoms be preserved, but significant effort must be directed towards ensuring that incoming students have the best possible information and environment to make the decisions that will, to a large degree, determine the support networks they will rely on during their time here.
In recent years there has appeared to be a line of thought among MIT management that has alarmed students: that student culture at MIT is insufficiently focused on MIT as a whole, and instead too compartmentalized into narrowly interacting subcultures. As a result, students perceive that their ability to make important choices, and the resources necessary to make those choices wisely, has been limited in favor of emphasizing cultural structure at the school or class level. Students see this as short-sighted in light of the very intensity and breadth of choice that is available. It is easy to feel, before classes begin, that the selection of housing and student groups is of minor importance, because there will be plenty of opportunity to spend time at other residences and groups. But in reality, time rapidly becomes a scarce resource and an all-inclusive lifestyle cannot be supported. Students believe that it is extremely important for MIT to continue to recognize and support the ability of students to take control of and inject their passion into their lives outside of class.
This is not to say that MIT's maze of opportunities is not without drawbacks which should be monitored. Isolationism and self-segregation remain causes for concern at MIT: students can become self-absorbed and unaware that other people's situations are in many ways not so different. More effort needs to be made to identify subcultures that should be brought into contact, and then to find means of achieving this. The "grassroots" support networks that students create for themselves are usually highly effective, but sometimes are less so – the difficulties of providing institutionalized support for activities and individuals, and in identifying the cases in which students are in need of assistance, remain challenges that need to be addressed.
It is hard to overstate the importance of housing – encompassing graduate and undergraduate dormitories, fraternities, sororities and independent living groups (FSILGs) -- to student life at MIT. Students' living selection ultimately fulfills a number of needs beyond simple accommodation: 24-hour support network, social nexus, sanctuary, study hall, and much more. Living groups play central roles in teaching independence and self-sufficiency, provide welcoming environments for many international students to adapt to a new culture, and, particularly in those cases (such as FSILGs) in which selection criteria must be met, satisfy the need to belong. For many students, their choice of living group will be one of the most important decisions they make at MIT, on par with choosing a major. In addition to different prevailing attitudes and cultures, different living groups offer variations in the amount of responsibility they give to and expect from residents, and resources for social and educational activities, such as house taxes, facilities, tutoring, and student labor. Many living options also assist their residents in forming strong bonds with alumni from years well beyond the residents' own tenancy. These alumni affirm that the bonds formed from living together are stronger than any other.
Nearly all undergraduate students live in either MIT dormitories or FSILGs while over 60% of graduate students must find their own off-campus housing. Therefore, while living groups play significant roles in both graduate and undergraduate communities, the most significant issues faced by the former (many of which relate to availability and cost) differ greatly from those faced by the latter (such as rush, the role of FSILGs, etc.). Here we focus primarily on those issues faced by the undergraduate residences, and Section II.2 provides more information on graduate housing concerns.
When undergraduate residence selection is mentioned, many people think of the process formerly known as "rush". Since the implementation of the decision to house all freshmen on campus, FSILG rush no longer exists in its prior form. Many FSILGs have struggled to maintain recruitment numbers under the new housing system, and the ones who have been successful still face enormous challenges to maintain their community with their youngest members living elsewhere. To dormitory residents "rush" also refers to dormitory selection, and is therefore an equally important process. Dormitory residents are extremely concerned that the removal of FSILG rush from the orientation period has caused "dorm rush" to be neglected, as students will have to fill the dormitories anyway. A lack of official support and adequate time for dorm rush leads students to worry that incoming students will underestimate the importance of residence selection, and that the residential cultures will suffer from this lack of concern for optimal placement. At the same time, FSILG rush needs to be supported as these cultures form a unique and important counterpart to MIT's dormitory system. Students in all living group types are worried that the increased capacity in the housing system and the freshmen on campus decision have turned residence selection into more of a competition for bodies, rather than a process of finding the best place for each individual, and that in fact there is now a dangerous motivation to ensure first year students do not become so complacent during their compulsory dormitory year that they do not consider other options.
Despite their distinct cultural identities, many MIT living groups are not monocultures. The subcultures within them, especially the larger dormitories, are critical to the safety and support zones that students find themselves immediately surrounded with. For example, the halls or entries within a particular dormitory may have a specific theme or identity, such as the halls of East Campus or the Language Houses at New House; in other residences, the subcultures are less defined by geography. These thematic elements often manifest themselves in shared activities such as social events and cooking groups. This type of cultural difference also manifests itself across the type of residence – within a particular class of living group, there is typically a distinction according to the generally different expectations and desires the residents have from their university experience. This seems to be both a result and a contributor to the cultural distinction between the east and west campus dormitories: students initially gravitate to the side that best represents their ideal MIT experience, and then set about making sure that it indeed conforms to that ideal. This gravitation causes students to be suspicious of "social engineering" approaches to residential culture: since people will be attracted to situations that appeal to them personally, attempts to force them to do otherwise are unlikely to be successful. Similarly, demonstrating allegiance to one's living group is a natural outcome, and should be thought of as a supplement to demonstrating allegiance to MIT in general, rather than being in conflict with it.
MIT's living groups also have a variety of house traditions. Traditions are important to recognize at MIT; not all traditions are good, but much of MIT's rich cultural identity comes from rituals and traditions set up by its former students, and these positive legacies should be preserved and encouraged. Traditions serve to draw current residents into shared activities, and promote connections with alumni. Alumni engagement assists in mediating the effects of "institutional memory" - without it, a valuable tradition may only have to miss one class cycle to be lost forever. A relatively small amount of support and recognition may be all that is needed to entirely prevent this occurrence. Similarly, since so much of a living group's cultural structure is implemented by the house government, it is important to provide support and encouragement to the individuals who volunteer their time and energy for these positions, in order to foster an environment in which there is an expectation of participation by all residents. Since the freshmen on campus decision, this has been an emerging problem for dormitory culture: many of the people who would otherwise continue on in residence to mentor the next wave of students are instead being siphoned off to FSILGs, leading to something of a leadership vacuum, and many first year students are hesitant to fully participate – or feel like they truly belong – during their initial year, as they know they will be leaving at the end of the year. Conversely, FSILGs have lost one quarter of the time per student available for full immersion in their culture, and subsequent transfer of responsibility for perpetuating that culture. Some affiliated freshmen also complain that being forced to live on campus does little to enhance their experience, as some dormitories may not offer the level of community or underclassman-upperclassman interactions that they can attain in their FSILG.
Student groups are another significant part of MIT's student-owned culture. Students are wholly responsible for the success or failure of these activities, and their dedication to the former is often nothing short of astounding. Some groups might better be thought of as fully functioning small businesses; the skills students learn in staffing and operating them extend to management, budgeting and accounting, manufacturing, marketing, athletic prowess and more, as well as a host of valuable cross-cultural exposures. In addition to imparting valuable real-world experience, student groups build the confidence of their members and leaders, rather than the "learned helplessness" that frequently results from having activities organized by paid staff.
Student groups tend to be the main mechanism other than the residential system by which students develop social networks and make contact with one another. At MIT, associations tend to be formed elsewhere and carried over into class, rather than the other way round. When this is combined with their passion for the subject matter, it is easy to see why students take such pride in their activity groups and aggressively recruit new members. Students are aware that everyone at MIT has limited time resources, and the only way to survive and thrive is to attract a new generation of recruits. The result is a pleasant departure from the exclusivity and elitism that too often characterizes group "marketing" – everyone wants you to be a part of what they are doing, for their own sake as well as yours.
One reason that this method of doing things remains sustainable is that the intensity of the Institute carries over into the extra-curricular region. MIT's intensity is not just about the rigorous academics that are imposed; on the contrary, students tend to have surplus intensity within them that needs an outlet. The largest threats to MIT's student groups stem not from lack of interest, but from over-commitment. It is thus very important that MIT provide adequate support – both money and club space – and recognition for the many students that keep the myriad organizations in shape.
With choice as a principal element in the culture, not everything students choose is necessarily without risk. The innovative minds that are drawn to MIT also tend to be those types who are interested in "pushing the envelope" of what can be achieved, both in the academic setting and in their outside interests. Students can learn extensively from the unstructured exercise of concepts learned in class, as well as from each other. Some of the remarkable feats of engineering to be found at MIT are built outside the laboratories or the classroom, in unsupervised and possibly less than ideal conditions. In such situations, students are free to make creative mistakes and learn from them without the limited feedback of evaluation or grading.
Fortunately, there is strong social pressure at MIT to make smart decisions and approach risks in an intelligent manner. It is understood within the student body that caution and forethought are the underpinnings of the responsibility and independent status that MIT students have historically been allowed to take on. Risk-taking should be, and at MIT often is, an informed choice. Projects are planned, safety "sanity checks" are made, and more experienced students act as mentors for those approaching new experiences. In this way, knowledge and skills are passed from one generation of students to the next. In addition to informal peer group monitoring, student organizations such as the Interfraternity Council (IFC) frequently have formal risk management systems in place to protect their members.
A prime example of the conscientious self-regulation within MIT culture is hacker ethics. Both senses of the term hacking – the practice of exploring and pulling technically challenging pranks – are concerned with exploring the limits of what is possible: Accessing difficult to reach places, finding spaces that have been long-since forgotten, thinking of creative ways to amuse the Institute community, figuring out how to implement a hack, and doing so in a grand and stealthy fashion, are all envelope-pushing behaviors and not without risk. These traditional activities are of great importance to the Institute's culture and image, and students recognize that in our increasingly risk-averse and litigious society they can not be sustained if performed without due diligence. Hackers follow a strict self-imposed code of ethics that are set down in writing and distributed to new students in a variety of forms. Hackers are required to leave no permanent damage, and to ensure their hacks are safe for the intended duration of the spectacle. Large hacks are accompanied by letters to the MIT Facilities staff detailing the construction of the hack and how it can be most expeditiously disassembled. Furthermore, hacks that are not removed by the authorities are typically discreetly removed by the hackers themselves after an appropriate time window. The hacking community understands that recklessness and ill-preparedness benefit no-one, so the peer code is strictly adhered to.
It is true that students, even at MIT, are not always fully aware of the nature and scope of the risks that they take. Students acknowledge that there have been instances of poor judgment among their number. What is called for is not the absence of supervision or accountability. Rather, the Institute must realize that students come to MIT to educate themselves as much as they come here to receive an education, and that this process must include the right to experiment, take risks, make mistakes, and grow from them; that they are intelligent enough to take responsibility for their own investigations, and that they should be offered support and guidance in these endeavors rather than arbitrary or blanket restrictions.
4 Unknown even to most MIT students, the phrase “IHTFP” has been used at other institutions such as the US Air Force Academy since at least 1956 and remains so today.
5 The full saying is even more telling: “An MIT education is like taking a drink from a fire hose. You drown and your parents get soaked.”