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Mens et Mania

Mens et Mania: The MIT Nobody Knows

Samuel Jay Keyser
foreword by Lawrence S. Bacow
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    Mens et Mania
    Book Description:

    When Jay Keyser arrived at MIT in 1977 to head theDepartment of Linguistics and Philosophy, he writes, he "felt like a fishthat had been introduced to water for the first time." At MIT, acolleague grabbed him by the lapels to discuss dark matter; Noam Chomsky calledhim "boss" (double SOB spelled backward?); and engaging in conflictresolution made him feel like "a marriage counselor trying to reconcile aunion between a Jehovah's witness and a vampire."In Mens et Mania, Keyserrecounts his academic and administrative adventures during a career of morethan thirty years. Keyserdescribes the administrative side of his MIT life, not only as department headbut also as Associate Provost and Special Assistant to the Chancellor. Keyserhad to run a department ("budgets were like horoscopes") andnegotiate student grievances -- from thelegality of showing Deep Throat in a dormitory to theuproar caused by the arrests of students for antiapartheid demonstrations.Keyser also describes a visiting Japanese delegation horrified by the disrepairof the linguistics department offices (Chomsky tells them "Our motto is:Physically shabby. Intellectually first class."); convincing a studentnot to jump off the roof of the Green Building; and recent attempts to look atMIT through a corporate lens. And he explains the special faculty-student bondat MIT: the faculty sees the students as themselves thirty years earlier. Keyser observes that MIT is hard toget into and even harder to leave, for faculty as well as for students. Writingabout retirement, Keyser quotes the song Groucho Marx sang in AnimalCrackers as he was leaving a party -- "Hello, I mustbe going." Students famously say "Tech is hell." Keyser says,"It's been a helluva party." This entertaining andthought-provoking memoir will make readers glad that Keyser hasn't quiteleft.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-30006-3
    Subjects: History, Education

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-x)
    Lawrence S. Bacow

    By any metric, MIT is a special place. Widely regarded as one of the finest universities in the world, MIT is, in the words of its former president James Killian, “a university polarized around science, engineering, and the arts.” MIT students, faculty, and staff have won a total of 75 Nobel Prizes. MIT alumni have founded over 25,000 active companies that employ approximately 3.3 million people and generate worldwide sales of $2 trillion. If all the companies founded by MIT alumni formed an independent nation, their economy alone would be the seventeenth largest in the world.

    MIT as an institution...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. Preface
    (pp. xvii-xxiv)
  6. I Mens

    • 1 The Wrecking Ball
      (pp. 3-12)

      On a mid-April day in 1999, almost nine months from the time I had formally retired from the faculty of MIT, I was walking along a path that took me behind Building 20. At MIT all buildings have numbers. Some are known by their numbers. Some are not. How they are divvied up is interesting. I’ll get to that in the next-to-last chapter. For now let me say that Building 20 was the place where I spent seven years as head of the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. The building was being demolished to make way for the new and...

    • 2 The Steps of Widener
      (pp. 13-24)

      I met Noam Chomsky in the spring of 1961, on the steps of Harvard’s Widener Library. We went across the street to Nedick’s for coffee. Widener is still there. Alas, Nedick’s is not. I was there because Noam and Morris Halle were thinking about writing what, in my view, was a seminal work in twentieth-century linguistics,The Sound Pattern of English. For me that book is as important to linguistics asPrincipia Mathematicais to philosophy. Sadly, most linguists working today haven’t even read it. By the same token most philosophers haven’t readPrincipia. No matter. The book will rise...

    • 3 The Making of a Department Head
      (pp. 25-32)

      No one is ever trained to be a department head. I don’t know how this stacks up against comparable jobs in the private sector. Probably there are no comparable jobs. In academia you usually come to the position because you impress others as not being a threat. I suspect it is exactly the opposite in the corporate world. You get to the top (or near it) precisely because you are a threat.

      There is another requirement. In academia you have to be good enough in your field so that you are not an embarrassment. Those are the sine qua non...

    • 4 The Life of a Department Head
      (pp. 33-40)

      In the spring of 1977 MIT offered me the headship of the newly created Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. Morris Halle, my mentor and friend, called to give me the news.

      “I can’t tell you why you should take the job, but I can tell you why you shouldn’t.”

      “Which is?” I asked.

      “You have it made where you are.”

      Morris was a cunning man. The last thing in the world I wanted was to “have it made.”

      I took the job at MIT.

      The department that I was leaving, the Linguistics Department at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst,...

  7. II et Mania

    • 5 To Be or Not to Be a University
      (pp. 43-54)

      In 1985 MIT’s new provost, John Deutch, asked me to become associate provost for educational programs and policy. I had been department head for seven years and the idea of a new job was appealing. I had been deeply influenced by Leonard Woolf’s five-volume autobiography. In one of the volumes (I think it wasGrowing: An Autobiography of the Years 1904 to 1911), he said that he had made it a point to change professions every seven years. It was how he stayed mentally young. That seemed like a good idea to me. After seven years I’d pretty much gotten...

    • 6 Housemaster
      (pp. 55-72)

      I became housemaster of Senior House in 1981. Constantine Simonides was the one who offered me the job. Constantine later became a very close friend and advisor. You might not have predicted that if you had been a fly on the wall when he offered me the job. To put it bluntly, when I became housemaster at Senior House, the dormitory was functioning as a storm drain for the other MIT living groups. All the difficult students were funneled there. These were the students who were incapable of living harmoniously in the more normal dorms. These were the students who...

    • 7 Pornography and Free Speech
      (pp. 73-94)

      Paul Gray became president of MIT in 1980. Undergraduate women made up something like 16.5 percent of the student body. Five years later, thanks to Paul, a third of the incoming class was women. Today the number is close to half. This shift in the character of the undergraduate population had a profound effect on MIT though, at the time, no one really realized what was happening. It was as if MIT were a ship on the ocean while a tidal wave was passing underneath. One tiny indicator was the change in my job title. I began my tenure with...

    • 8 Hacking
      (pp. 95-106)

      Although a well-known book describing the history of hacks at MIT is entitledThe Journal of the Institute for Hacks, TomFoolery, and Pranks at MIT, the hack is anything but a prank or tomfoolery. It goes far deeper than that. It is a kind of weapon in the hands of the MIT student, but of a special kind like, for example, a tranquilizing gun. Skillful student marksmen and -women select their targets from the very top of MIT’s administrative elite.

      Oddly, for Lord knows how long, the only time the president ever addressed a class was when they graduated. In...

    • 9 Role Compliance
      (pp. 107-114)

      For as long as I have been at MIT the administrative pulse of the place has beat in the life of its committees. Not everyone at MIT serves on committees. In fact, not everyone should. Certainly junior faculty members, who are trying to fight their way up the tenure ladder, need to keep their noses to the grindstone. (I think it is fun to mix metaphors.)

      Roughly 20 percent of the faculty are civic minded enough to volunteer for committee assignments. Serving on committees is how people get to know one another in a university where the occasions for collegiality...

    • 10 ʺDonʹt Tell Me What to Doʺ
      (pp. 115-122)

      In early November 1989 Jake Jacoby, the chair of the faculty at the time, visited with members of the MIT Undergraduate Association. The issue was MIT’s pornography policy. His was a reaching-out exercise. Jake wanted to engage the students in a conversation about pornography in general, hoping that by doing so he could muster student support for “an abuse and degradation free community.” On November 16 Jake wrote a memorandum to file, an elaborate note to himself about the meeting. It ended:

      Finally, it occurred to me after the meeting was over that a major thread of discussion was not...

    • 11 Apartheid
      (pp. 123-136)

      The business of having to deal with people who never see you but instead see their theory of you was at the heart of many if not most of the conflicts I dealt with. That is undoubtedly why, for most of my senior administrative life, I had the impression that I was a character in a play written by someone else. Who knew that psychiatrists had plastered a label on it? One of the major conflicts of my Institute life had “role compliance” tattooed across its forehead.

      On Wednesday, November 20, 1985, a motion was introduced into the regular monthly...

    • 12 The Aftermath
      (pp. 137-144)

      At Olympic skating competitions, the skaters perform. Then the judges hold up their scorecards. That is pretty much how faculty governance works at MIT. The senior administration performs. When they do something really big like dismantling an academic department or a shantytown, the faculty votes. So it was that five days after the administration dismantled Alexandra Township and arrested eight students, the faculty held up its scorecard.

      Faculty meetings typically began at 3:15 p.m. on the third Wednesday of every month during the school year. At 2:30 on the afternoon of Wednesday, March 19, 1986, just forty-five minutes before the...

    • 13 After the Aftermath
      (pp. 145-156)

      As they say in the movies, “Four Years Later.” The arrests of 1986 happened close to the end of the spring term. The summer came and went. But the beat went on. In February 1987 the Institute sponsored a colloquium entitled “Ending Apartheid.” A representative from the African National Congress was the featured speaker. He argued for divestment. President Paul Gray, on a panel, argued against it. But then apartheid seemed to fade from view, taking a back seat to local issues like pornography, harassment, and homelessness. As the student newspaper, theTech, put it in its 1987 Year in...

    • 14 Whatʹs Going On Here?
      (pp. 157-164)

      It was the specter of “apparent consent” that guided MIT in 1990. There was no way MIT was going to let students build a shanty and occupy it for an indefinite length of time. You put it up. We take it down. That was the long and the short of it. The only problem was that nobody had bothered to inform me. I actually thought I might be in a position to make a difference, that in all those endless discussions about what to do there was actually the possibility of influencing the Institute’s actions. Perhaps there was. Perhaps Bill...

    • 15 Recommendation 14
      (pp. 165-174)

      At 9:30 a.m. on June 1, 1987, I was standing inside the MIT armory (a.k.a. the du Pont Athletic Center) at the corner of Vassar Street and Massachusetts Avenue waiting for the Commencement procession to begin. I wore my academic robes with the deep blue hood that tagged me as a Yale PhD. Being associate provost, I was close to the head of the procession, just behind the major dignitaries of the day, the so-called Commencement principals. For this, MIT’s 121st Commencement, those principals included David Saxon, chair of the MIT Corporation; president Paul Gray; honorary chairman Howard W. Johnson...

    • 16 A Good University Is a Bad Business
      (pp. 175-182)

      Portia is a mechanism for handling crises efficiently, one that I would recommend to every institution of higher learning as a way of dealing with the cultural and behavioral upheavals that are unique to students away from home for the first time. They are attempting to acquire a decent education amid the background noise of growing up. It is a bit like whistling in a wind tunnel. But mechanisms like Portia are only the tip of the iceberg of what a university needs in order to run smoothly.

      Like so many institutions of higher learning, MIT has to worry about...

    • 17 They Are Us
      (pp. 183-194)

      While the economy may be MIT’s bugbear, MIT is its own worst enemy. Paul Gray said as much on September 26, 1980, in his inaugural address as MIT’s fourteenth president. Addressing an issue that had long been a concern of his, he stated:

      The pace of MIT contributes, I believe, to those centrifugal forces which weaken our shared central purpose and which impair the coherence of our educational programs. We must take care that we have the time and the commitment to educate the person—as well as the future professional in a specific field.

      Paul’s comment reminds me of...

    • 18 Chūshingura and Catastrophes
      (pp. 195-214)

      Whenever people asked me how shifts in the prevailing culture are effected at MIT, I looked wisely at them, tapped the side of my nose with my index finger, and whispered, “Chūshingura.” They would look puzzled, as I knew they would. I gleefully launched into my explanation.

      Chūshingura is the name of a historical event in Japanese history depicted in all sorts of genres—bunraku, kabuki, films, novels, ballet. It is a long, long story that can take several days to perform on stage. I’ll put it into a nutshell. The evil senior lord Morono goads the good daimyo Enya...

    • 19 ʺHello, I Must Be Goingʺ
      (pp. 215-223)

      Groucho Marx sang that Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby song inAnimal Crackers. It is my favorite Marx memento. It expresses how everyone feels about a party at one time or another. It also expresses how people feel about MIT. It’s a helluva party in both senses of the word “hell.” As the students say, “Tech is hell.” After four years almost all students are glad to go. Not so with the faculty. It takes a long lever to pry them out. Faculty members or administrators forced to leave don’t go without a fight. Of course, I am speaking about...