Opinion editorial

MIT 2030 and MITx

With dining firmly behind us and orientation plans still in the works, it’s time students turn their attention to the bigger, more transformational things happening at MIT. We’ve pointed out the need for students to talk about big issues before. It’s now time to get more specific.

First up: MIT 2030 and MITx. MIT 2030 — a loose framework for the Institute to envision what our campus will look like in 20 years — and MITx — an online educational platform that may dramatically change the face of a residential education at MIT — are more closely linked than they might seem. So, we will address them together.

MIT 2030, fundamentally, is just a label. The top-level administration has collected disparate plans for campus renovation, new construction, and commercial development in the area and put them under a fancy-sounding header in order to get a better “bird’s-eye view” of how MIT will change in 20 years.

But the label has so far been useful. So useful, in fact, that late last year the faculty wrote a coordinated set of columns and editorials in their newsletter pointing out 2030’s emphasis on real estate development by the MIT Investment Management Company (MITIMCo) over academic development, and a lack of direct faculty involvement in the 2030 planning process. In fact, few of the construction and renovation plans in MIT 2030 are fundamentally new, but in putting them all side-by-side, the administration, perhaps unwittingly, highlighted how MIT’s strategic vision might be more about Pfizer and Novartis than teaching and research. The faculty noticed this focus, and expressed deep concern that the administration has not considered “the long-range implications of the creation of high-value real estate in areas earmarked for ultimate academic use,” in the words of Ovadia “Bob” Simha MCP ’57, former director of MIT’s now-shuttered planning office.

Commercial and real estate development is not a bad goal. Encouraging the growth of high-tech industry in Cambridge, as President Susan J. Hockfield argues for frequently, is sure to have collateral positive benefits for MIT. MITIMCo’s investment activity ultimately does flow back to help MIT in some form or another. And everybody would like to see a more vibrant Kendall and Central Square, as MIT 2030 promises. But we share the faculty’s concern that balance between real estate and academic development, as it stands now, is far from fair.

As students, you should care. The current MIT 2030 vision (which, certainly, is subject to change drastically) includes nearly two million square feet of new commercial buildings in about four distinct places — that number doesn’t count substantial renovation projects in existing properties. The number of square feet earmarked for new nonacademic residential life buildings? Zero.

It is true that several dormitories are slated for renovation by 2030, and the recently-renovated Maseeh Hall is counted in the 2030 vision. But, as the undergraduate population will continue to grow over the next couple of years, we’re concerned that there appears to be no bold vision for the future of non-academic life at MIT. President Hockfield wants to transform Kendall Square into an innovation cluster, but how does she want to transform the residential experience? By renovating a few dormitories?

The administration is not entirely to blame. As far as we’ve seen, they’ve faced virtually no public pressure from the student body to consider residential life in their vision for 2030. Students, especially student governments, need to make strong, public calls for increased student interest in MIT 2030.

It’s not a matter of “asking for greater student input.” If students present intelligent, bold, or creative visions for the 2030 campus, the administration will listen. Take, for instance, the growing student population but the static (or, potentially, shrinking) space allocated for student groups, mostly in W20 and Walker Memorial. The administration has just outlined the next 20 years of campus expansion and is asking for your input. Want more student group space? Ask for it. Then ask again. Find potential alumni donors. Sell your plan.

Most of you won’t be here in 20 years. But being proactive about student life issues now is your obligation to future generations of MIT students, who deserve just as much of an awesome experience as you’ve had. The Class of 2034 can’t ask for these things because many haven’t been born yet.

How do MITx and MIT 2030 connect?

But the job doesn’t end with MIT 2030. Closely linked is the MITx initiative, which seeks to transform distance education and the residential education experience here at MIT. Provost L. Rafael Reif has said that MITx will let faculty use online tools to convey their subjects’ basic knowledge and concepts (“chalk-and-talk”), freeing up time for more direct student-faculty interaction. Reif and his MITx collaborators have a vision of a sophisticated, dynamic online learning environment that can truly enhance the MIT experience — and that’s great.

However, we’re concerned that insufficient time has been devoted to the offline component of the equation — what will MIT students and faculty do when MITx can supplant much of the lecture-assignment-exam learning that happens on campus now? How will students and faculty use their extra time? The provost has only suggested possibilities in the vaguest of terms. To quote Chair of the Faculty Samuel M. Allen PhD ’75’s editorial from the November/December faculty newsletter, “The question is, in what ways will faculty redirect their efforts to ensure survival of the residence-based education model?”

It’s almost ironic that MITx, which promises to change the face of a residence-based education at MIT over the next 20 years, is complemented by a fundamentally unchanged campus environment as outlined in MIT 2030. We should see bold visions for new facilities that encourage dynamic faculty-student interactions in MIT 2030, not nebulous promises for “renovation and capital renewal” of academic buildings in the shadow of glistening new Novartis and Pfizer complexes.

In that vein, we expect the provost’s office to present MIT with a clear and detailed plan for the offline component of the MITx vision. Such a plan will necessitate deep involvement of students and faculty alike. We eagerly await results.

Finally, students should realize that they have a strong ally in the faculty. We recommend reading the most recent issues of the Faculty Newsletter, which were themed around MIT 2030 and MITx, respectively. Allen, in particular, has raised important points about how undergraduate education will evolve in the light of MIT 2030 and MITx, and he should be commended for those efforts.

For all students who want to see MIT thrive, we urge you to take an active role in the evolution of our school. There’s too much at stake to afford not to do so.