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Twenty-five years after graduating from MIT, the members of the Class of 1975 are focused more on years of earning than on the days of burning that they witnessed during their student years in Cambridge.
The prism through which the class shared their reflections was thus not a trip in the wayback machine to the infamous 1972 student occupation of ROTC offices in Building 20, nor the violent clash with police that followed.
Instead, these 40-somethings gathered peacefully at a Mid-Career Seminar led by Class of 1975 President William S. Wang and James A. Moody on the afternoon following Friday's Commencement.
Mr. Wang characterized his own path as beginning on a "Tom Wolfe, Bonfire of the Vanities note in bond deals. That was good while it lasted, but the handwriting was on the wall. In the 1990s I migrated to the private side where I felt I could make a difference. I'm still using problem-solving skills we learned here. As for a law degree&emdash;why get a degree when you can hire a lawyer? This time in our careers is so much about leveraging resources," he said.
LAW OUT, SCI/TECH IN
A group portrait emerged in the freewheeling discussion that followed. Right after graduation the Class of 1975 was in favor of getting MBAs or law degrees, but not now. They found themselves yearning for the definiteness of studying science or technology ("law has become too squishy," said one). Being parents of growing children as well as children of aging parents, they felt pressured by conflicting demands of work and family, relied on MIT training to analyze and solve problems, and figured they'd "never be able to retire."
Mark R. Hurwich, who got his MBA "right off the bat," commented, "When I got out of MIT, I wanted to be the world's best something. I've since lowered my ideals. Business school taught me jargon and concepts and gave me credentials. I wouldn't do it at 46."
"If you have expertise in one area, you can get people to pay you to learn something new. You can change your career without going back to school," said Michael D. Steifel. He also noted the "strawberry jam effect" on his own and his peers' lives: a full-time job here, a family there, a new area of expertise, more billable hours and "wham! You can get spread way too thin."
As for retirement, Mr. Steifel remarked, "Remember, compound interest can work in your favor. Besides, how important is it to have a big house?"
While most of the participants felt they worked too many hours, Robert M. Lefkowitz, a father of seven, had a different perspective.
"I'm the so-called 'smart guy' in the IT department, the one from MIT kept in reserve," he said. "I don't work too much." He has spent about 20 years in the same Wall Street firm but has quit five times, he noted, "because no one in their right mind lets me manage people."
Mr. Lefkowitz had just quit again, he told the group, inspired by a sense he was "paid too much and didn't contribute anything. I feel I haven't given back. I want to do something meaningful."
His advice to his classmates with retirement on their minds? "Have your replacement ready."
David N. Katz, now "in the middle of an MBA," commented that while the business degree would "help him get past the gatekeeper into a new job," the skills he acquired at MIT had qualified him to take on abrupt and challenging projects.
Members of the Class of 1975 relied not only on skills learned at MIT but also, literally, on the "brass rat." Observing that there are "three recognizable rings in the world&emdash;the Brass Rat, the West Point ring and the Super Bowl ring," Mr. Wang asked the group, "How many wear their MIT rings all the time?" Numerous hands went up.
Alumnae found the Brass Rat to be especially helpful. "When people saw I wore the MIT ring, walls went down and curtains went up," remarked Holli Jones-White.
Added Anita D. Horton, "That ring was really important especially for a young woman in international business. We all paid for it dearly."
FROM BMW TO FISH AND RICE
Her career path was unusual in the group in that it combined the "bonfire" of the 1980s with the zeitgeist of her undergraduate years. A socialist and a radical feminist in the 1970s, Ms. Horton became a "master of the universe" in the 1980s, working in international finance. She has been a senior executive ("I drove a BMW"), a consultant and a banker, and has worked at MIT in the Industrial Liaison Program.
But, as she put it, "I had Asia in my heart. I feel that I was guided to make Thailand my home." Today, she lives in a remote, impoverished village in northern Thailand, working to improve life and education there. After a visit to Thailand by Professor Emeritus Paul Gray, she began working with other MIT alumni/ae.
"They are bankers; they are economic and political leaders. I use the language I learned at MIT and in the years in business and I find I have input into policy that will make a difference," she said.
As for retirement, Ms. Horton just laughed. "I guess I'll just stay in the village. There's plenty of rice and fish."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 7, 2000.