Can We Make Smart = Nice?
MIT is known for taking on challenges and, using “inventional wisdom” – the phrase chosen for the Institute’s 150th anniversary in 2011 – to find solutions for difficult problems. Let me describe a vexing and perplexing challenge that MIT itself faces and ask if we can take it on, individually and collectively.
As a long-time host to international visitors of all ages, from students through emeritus faculty, I hear many say how cold and unwelcoming they find the Institute community.
Guests in my home have told me that lab mates do not return their greetings, never mind initiate conversations or organize social gatherings, and that, more often than not, fellow researchers eat alone at their desks. Of course people come to MIT to work, and work hard, but shouldn’t informal interactions be part of a visitor’s experience? It is true that many departments and centers do organize regular, informal get-togethers, but not all.
The International Scholars Office (ISO) staff does a top job orienting Institute visitors and this is a big undertaking. As the ISO’s online posting says, over 2000 international scholars – visiting researchers, professors, and lecturers and accompanying family members – are affiliated with the MIT community. In 2012-2013 they represented 90 different countries and worked in 77 different MIT departments, laboratories, and centers.
What does the ISO tell our visitors? One element in the orientation describes the culture shock they may experience as a disease, with symptoms that may include feeling anxious, irritable, homesick, even depressed. Visitors are advised to seek help if they are sleeping or eating too much or too little, or drinking alcohol excessively. This is excellent advice, but what about the proverbial ounce of prevention?
Many Institute visitors come alone and do not have the support of family to cushion the loneliness they may experience in their work.
Students, especially undergraduates, American and international students alike, for the most part live on campus and have a ready-made living group “family.” Individual visitors do not have such support and many have told me they feel estranged from the very work groups they have come to join.
The characteristics and habits that get people, including visitors, to MIT in the first place – being work-oriented and competitive – may, I believe, stand in the way of their getting the most out of the experience of being at MIT. I have to ask, does MIT culture unintentionally give people an excuse to be rude? A personal sense of wellbeing comes not only from individual achievement but from a sense of connection to others. A month-long or a six-month visit to the Institute is actually quite short. If we are to both manage and meet the expectations of our visitors, perhaps the rest of us could benefit from repeated reminders, if not regular orientations, on being more welcoming, and therefore more effective, hosts.
An article in The Economist, entitled “Bumpkin bosses” (May 10, 2014), says that leaders of Western companies are less globally minded than they think they are and that “parochialism at the top can impose huge costs in terms of reduced creativity, missed opportunities and cultural blundering.” The article concludes, “It is always tempting to think that multinational companies are cosmopolitan by nature; in fact, they have to work hard at debumpkinising themselves.”
Let’s work on this. MIT graduates lead and found companies with worldwide impact. The experience of doing exciting, rewarding, and important research here should be more than a two-line entry in a CV. Can we offer more collegiality and friendship to our visitors?
We don’t need another program, which people are inevitably directed to find online . . . sigh. I am asking for a renewed commitment at the top level – policy – and at the individual level – practice – to be more welcoming. Why not ask your next visitor: Is this your first time in the U.S.? How long will you be here? What do you miss most from back home – or – like most about MIT? (and maybe) Would you like to have coffee together?