In It But Not Of It:
Nine Years in the MIT Administration
My nine years as MIT associate provost began in 1985. I served first under John Deutch, who appointed me, and then under Joel Moses, who followed John and then Mark Wrighton, who followed Joel. It was Joel who changed my title from Associate Provost for Educational Policies and Programs to Associate Provost for Institute Life. My tenure overlapped three provosts and two presidents, Paul Gray and Chuck Vest.
One would have thought that in such a distinguished company of administrators, some of their know-how would have rubbed off. Alas, it never did. I think I know why. About a year after John appointed me he took me aside one day and said, "Keyser, you are in the establishment but not of it." John was absolutely right. I never quite got the hang of administration. I treated it more like a Noh drama than a football game. For example, I remember once informing Paul before an important faculty meeting on apartheid that I intended to vote for divestment. Since this was not Paul's position, I thought it only right that I tell him how I was going to vote. Then I offered to resign. Paul said, "What on earth for?"
Looking back on it now, I realize that a major difference between Paul's career and Chuck's had far less to do with the character of the two men than it did with the character of the times. When I first came to office under John and Paul, I remember sit-downs in the corridor outside the president's office, sit-ins in the Faculty Policy Committee lunchtime meetings, tear-downs of the student-built shanties outside the student center, and whistle-blowing during commencement. Each confrontation was like sitting through a Frankenstein movie as a 10-year-old.
And then there was the matter of dealing with harassment at MIT. John put me in charge of a 21-person committee that met for over a year trying to come to grips with those painful issues. What I remember most was anger, sometimes so palpable you could cut it with a knife.
None of that sort of thing rocked Chuck's boat. It wasn't that he didn't have his storms, but they were of a quite different order. In Chuck's day at the darkest end of the spectrum students drank themselves into oblivion. But for the most part they were other-directed. They gave themselves as never before to community service, the finest flowering of which is the current student-run ambulance service, an extraordinary development for the common good. Between Paul and Chuck there was not a dumbing down of the student body, but a calming down of the student body.
That was a blessing for Chuck. Confrontations with the likes of Steve Penn, Frank Fernandez, Ron Francis, and Shiva Ayyadurai were like trying to make love to a porcupine. It just doesn't work unless you're a porcupine, too. These names will be familiar to only a handful of you, but to those of us who were in the "conflict resolution business," they are carved on our hearts the way Calais was on Mary Tudor's.
Perhaps that is a bit too strong. Times do change and hearts do mellow. I remember running into Shiva Ayyadurai several years after he had graduated. It was in the Bread and Circus on Prospect Street (when it was still Bread and Circus). I braced myself for a tirade on institutional racism and was treated, instead, to a testimonial on the great advantages of a high colonic. Who knew one could have a normal conversation with a student activist?
From my perspective certainly one of the most important changes during Chuck's tenure was the radical alteration of R/O (Residence/Orientation). Now all freshmen have to live on campus. It was extraordinary how hard it was to bring that about. I remember a meeting in 6-120 to discuss the Potter Report. It was in the spring of 1989, I believe. The report recommended, among other things, that all students live on campus during their freshman year. The hall was filled with students, not an empty chair in the 150-seat house. John Deutch was there as was I to answer questions and hear comments and generally test the temperature of the student waters. At the end of the meeting a straw vote was taken. How many were against the recommendation? 149 hands went up. How many were in favor? One hand went up. Naturally I was curious. I asked the lone dissenter why he was in favor. He said he wasn't but that as a matter of principle he always voted against the majority.
As everyone knows, it took a tragedy to move MIT off the R/O dime. Of course, moving it took something away from the students; an element of choice in an important area of their lives; namely, where they lived. A revered Boston shrink, Elvin Semrad, once said that a psychiatrist should never take something away from someone without also giving him something in return. Chuck took a leaf from Semrad's book. He gave the students Simmons Hall, the Z-Center, and Sydney and Pacific. Apparently it was enough. MIT is much the better for it.
What is the take-home from all this? It is that the ethos of the student body is a sign of the times. The students do not, I think, make their culture at MIT. Rather they bring that culture with them when they come. The culture of protest of the '70s extended well into the '80s at MIT. Then the culture of conservatism of the '90s produced the same at MIT to such an extent, in fact, that for the first time in my life, I find myself far more liberal than the student body in which I am immersed, an impedance mismatch of a completely novel kind in my experience as an academic.
What of the current student culture? What does it signal? Even though I no longer have a great deal to do with students, as Special Assistant to the Chancellor - a position I have held since I retired in 1998 - I hear things. What I hear is that the current freshman class is neither radical nor conservative. Rather it stands somewhere around the "S" end of the spectrum, where "S" stands for "serious and sad." Can you blame them? The country is at war.