Soundings is a publication of the School of Humanities and Social Science at MIT
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Graduates of the School of Humanities and Social Science are making a difference in a multitude of arenas. With distinction and panache, they are shaping the course of events - as teachers and writers, inventors and entrepreneurs, developers of national policy, and creators of new social agendas. We profile some of the School's eminent graduates and their achievements.
In the center of things
It was the late sixties, a turbulent time on college campuses across the country. Karen Arenson, then an economics major at MIT and a student spokesperson, remembers having a flash of insight as she stood up to address the crowd at a faculty meeting. "It suddenly went through my mind that I'm better in the middle of things than on either side. Though I was speaking as a student representative, I realized I'm an explainer at heart. I like being at the center of the action, but my comparative advantage lies in stepping back and saying, 'Here's what's going on.'"
For the past 25 years, Arenson has been explicating 'what's going on' in top-ranked journalistic venues. A veteran of The New York Times since 1978, and previously a correspondent with Business Week, Arenson has parlayed her comparative advantage to the center of action in a variety of reporting and editing posts - first in the world of finance and economics, and more recently in higher education.
Drawn to journalism for the "license it offers to find things out anywhere and everywhere," Arenson is passionate about "asking questions and deciding what to focus on, and why, and how to convey it amid all the noise one hears. It's a heavy analytic task that I enjoy."
Gravitating to math and science from an early age, Arenson nurtured her journalistic penchant on the side. Her first media stint was with the exuberantly named Let's Shout, her junior high school newspaper. At MIT - she chose the school because "it had the best economics department in the country and people seemed to speak my language, which is very analytical" - she was managing editor of The Tech.
Bit of serendipity
Arenson's arrival to professional journalism was nevertheless something of a fluke. After graduating from MIT in 1970 with a bachelor's in economics, and from Harvard two years later with a master's in public policy, Arenson felt at a crossroads: "I knew I didn't want to sit behind a desk and be a government bureaucrat." Then a bit of serendipity intervened: She came across a poster announcing a summer fellowship for graduate students in the social sciences to work in journalism. She applied, was accepted, and spent the summer at the Miami Herald - a decisive experience that lured her with the newsroom's thrill.
The career launch wasn't immediately meteoric. In Chicago, where she had moved in 1973 with her husband (Gregory K. Arenson, economics '70 and member of the MIT Corporation), Arenson found she could barely get appointments at major media outlets. "The Wall Street Journal wasn't hiring women.
AP [Associated Press] and UPI [United Press international] said junior staff start off working nights, and women can't work late at night. The dailies told me to go to a small paper and come back in five years. Time, Newsweek, and Business Week didn't even respond to my applications."
The tide turned one year later with a call from Business Week.
"The media was under pressure to bring in more women and there weren't many women who knew business and economics. I was a résumé in a drawer, but they were desperate and there I was."
So began Arenson's steady ascent through the ranks of the fourth estate. For the next five years she learned the intricacies of commodities, options, and Wall Street, evolving from neophyte reporter to seasoned correspondent. In 1978 another decisive call came - this time from The New York Times, which was launching its Business Day section. "Daily journalism seemed exciting and The New York Times was special. How could I say no? I was walking on air," she says. Covering the economy and the development of money and mortgage markets - as well as authoring The New York Times Guide to Making the New Tax Law Work for You (1981) - Arenson began as a reporter, and over the years hopscotched through various editing positions, including editor of the Sunday Business section and deputy and acting editor of the Business/Financial section. "As a reporter, I had a front-row seat covering some major changes in the financial structure of the American economy. As an editor I could watch the transformations across not just one field, but many. I was the conductor of the orchestra, in a position to move quickly and deploy resources. It was fun."
Into the thick
By 1994, however, Arenson was "ready to go back into the real world and learn about something new." She began covering higher education, an area that "had been covered at The Times prior to Karen, but not adequately," comments Dinitia Smith, a culture reporter at The Times. "By putting a heavyweight on the beat, someone who is very strong intellectually and isn't going to take any nonsense, [NYT management] got results."
Arenson came to higher education with a "long history of attachment." Her father was a professor and dean of the School of Business at Hofstra University. She also has involved herself with MIT, serving as a member of the Corporation and its executive committee and several visiting committees, as well as president of the Alumni Association. Since becoming a higher education reporter, she has "with great pangs" dissociated herself from the Institute, to avoid a perception of conflict of interest.
Her attachment to higher education also centers on issues integral to the subject. "One of the most critical is the question of access: Who is college for, who can afford it, how and whether to support people who can't, and who should pay for it - these issues are being fought all over the country, but New York City and New York state have some of the biggest, most political battles." Her agenda for the coming year is to "do more comprehensive articles that relate these events to a larger, national pattern."
Seeing the pattern, and analyzing the data that support it, are central to Arenson's vision of herself both as a reporter and a person. "I say, let's look at the data and draw conclusions from that. Journalism has moved more and more to anecdotes and narratives. But I think journalists would be well served if they moved more towards the analytic."
MIT, she adds, was instrumental in developing her in this arena. "The School gave me the language and the tools to understand economics and economic policy. It helped sharpen my analytic skills, which not only served as a firm base for journalism, but also helped cultivate my approach to the world. There are institutions - and I'd put Harvard among them - where appearance seems more important than substance. At MIT, facts take precedence over appearance. It's an unpretentious, feet-on-the-ground approach - and that's my style."