Monday, January 21, 2013

Campus Culture

John Sununu has a terrific, apolitical column in the Boston Globe today entitled A Crisis of Values at MIT, about the Aaron Swartz case and what it says about changes in the "campus culture" at MIT. His  observations about culture apply much more broadly. Colleges have become, much more than they once were, captives of rule systems, their own and those that governments push on them. Professionalism in higher education administration now means sticking to the rules, even when they make no sense in the context of the presenting situation and do not serve the interests of the individuals most affected by them. If you respond to something one way, you had better respond to similar situations in the same way, without thinking too hard about whether the new situations may actually differ in important respects. As Sununu says,
How do we return cultural norms at institutions like MIT, and in our society at large, to those that value common sense above the letter of the law? 
Sununu reminds us of the famous MIT inflating-balloon prank during a football game in Harvard Stadium. I was there, and remember well the bewilderment in the crowd. Once the letters "MIT" became legible, we all got the joke. (I could read the letters from where I was sitting. I imagine people sitting far away couldn't but eventually figured out that we were laughing.) The game went on, and as far as I know no MIT students were charged with criminal trespass or (as happened a few years later to Star Simpson when she wore a flashing circuit board into Logan Airport) charged with a bomb hoax.

But "institutions like MIT" would include Harvard, which seems to have lost all sense of proportion in its prosecution of the scores of students alleged to have cheated in Gov 1310, a course that seems to have been so mismanaged in the way it set expectations that it was all but impossible to respond fairly to the great variety of overlapping elements alleged to have existed between students' take-home exams. I wish Harvard had responded paternalistically rather than legalistically. I am sure the College was operating within its own rules when it strung out into December its adjudication of exam papers written in May. But did it make any sense to do so? Does the University really think those students who were kept waiting with a cloud hanging over them for month after month after month will really be served well by being rusticated for a year? Won't they always doubt that the judgment was fair, simply because it took the University so long to reach it?

I don't know what led MIT to co-operate with the federal prosecutors in the Swartz case. After all, as Sununu asks, "Has anyone ever served a day for unauthorized use of MITs computer facilities?" I would speculate that one reason is that MIT, like Harvard and other research universities in the public eye, increasingly sees Washington, not its own students or faculty or alumni, as its point of reference when navigating treacherous waters. Whether the issue is research funding, or how tuitions are set and financial aid is awarded, or whether to co-operate with federal prosecutors, there is more likely to be some senior figure in the senior level of the university administration whose job it is to say, "Well, let me tell you how this will play in Washington …."

The sense that every decision must stand up to outside scrutiny pushes institutions toward literal-mindedness. Another sources of scrutiny is lawyers, in student disciplinary cases where careers can be at stake. Oddly perhaps, the sense that everything may wind up in court, or in the papers, disposes universities to be uniformly harsh, rather than risk having later to defend being selectively lenient. And if (cf. The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University) crucial decisions are left in the hands of a bureaucracy that lacks the confidence to step back and look at the big picture, those decisions are more likely to be rule-bound and literal-minded. Nobody ever got fired for going by the book. At this point the mindless execution of rules becomes an end in itself, disengaged from the educational ends the rules were intended to serve--even if, because of technology or social change or faculty fumbling, the text of the rules is now being applied in an unanticipated scenario.

So I come back to the question I blogged a few days ago. What would be the response today, at either Harvard or MIT, to what Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg did at Harvard, or Robert Tappan Morris did at Cornell? Probably not to look the other way, as Harvard did in each case.

When I speak in Asia about the greatness of American universities and what China and Korea need to learn from them, one of the things the audience has the hardest time understanding is our indulgent attitude about students who will not stay within the lines. Asian nations will not be able to capitalize on the brilliance of their students, I explain, if they treat every nonconformist as a nail to be hammered down flush. I wonder if I need to start giving that talk in the U.S. as well.


  1. I agree with you, but would add that this mindset is a natural consequence of the current system where federal money provides so much of a university's funding. With funding naturally comes control, a loss of freedom, and desire to protect that funding source at all costs. I suspect the problem will only get worse unless another way to fund higher education in the the US is discovered.

  2. Please invite Noam Chomsky to post on this.