Still Surprised #2: MIT’s Habits of Success

After WW2 and Antioch, Bennis encountered another crucible experience at MIT.  His very choice of MIT over Harvard troubled his parents and surprised many of his peers and mentors.  He notes, “Unlike Harvard, MIT had humble origins as a vocational school, Boston Tech.  There was little tradition to live down or live up to.  I think most of us at MIT thought of ourselves as less sophisticated than Harvard men, as social klutzes really.  But nobody dwelt on it.  And unlike Boston University and Tufts, MIT didn’t aspire to be Harvard.  It was content to be itself.”

He quotes the late MIT engineering legend Vannevar Bush: “You know, MIT is never going to be known for the elegance of its buildings.  Its greatness has nothing to do with a fancy campus.  Even our distinguished faculty is not what makes this institution great.  What makes MIT a great university are its habits of success.”

These observations triggered memories of my brief experience as a semester-long intern in the MIT Planning Office as a graduate student at the Harvard Ed School in the early 80s.  I remember walking from our Central Square apartment and wondering just how quickly they would see how much of an imposter I was.  (“Ah, son, you’re not supposed to be here.”)  Not only had I been a history major sporting decidely average SATs, I was a Harvard guy.  (And as the saying goes, “You can always tell a Harvard man, but you can’t tell him much.”)

Anyway, upon my 8:30 arrival, my supervisor introduced himself and gave me my only assignment for the day: “Take the whole day to wander the campus, dropping in on classes, meetings, lunch at the F&T Diner (since closed), sports practices, etc.  Then meet me back here at 4:30 prepared to describe the culture of MIT.”  While I remember summarizing the place with something like “everything is utilitarian” — And it really is!  I mean, you’ll be in this magnificent building that at most schools would have some long distinguished name on the front, but at MIT it might be simply called #56. — I concluded the day with a profound respect for any institution that was both confident and humble enough to so much as engage in the very act of having a guy like me conduct such an experiment and then genuinely want to hear what I had to say.

While I don’t think I have ever been so thoroughly immersed in a community of so many very (!) smart people at any other time in my life, I also don’t remember feeling uncomfortable in any way.  They were focused, almost exclusively, on how I might enhance their work.   Great people. 

Onward,  Malcolm Gauld