Sunday, July 31, 2011

Grease Trap

There were many layers of student politics at MIT. I'm not referring to the radical activism that paraded through the door of the thursday offices with hot leads on one Institute outrage or another. I'm not referring to the Campus Crusade for Ayn Rand or the ever-present conspiracy theorists who adhered to Lyndon LaRouche. Student politics meant the Undergraduate Association and the various groups associated with it. It also meant the various and sundry different agencies that affected campus life and to which student representatives were nominated - an outgrowth of the '60s liberalism, in which the Institute attempted to cater to its restless student body through reforms that gave them a modicum of participation in the process of education.

But we were not children of the '60s. We were, instead, children of the '70s. By the time I got to MIT, the Vitenam War was over and Nixon had resigned from office, so all the big battles had already been fought. So we settled down to the usual pursuits of trying to get good grades and partying till we puked on the weekends. Thursday itself was less interested in campus radicalism and more interested in promoting the cultural and counter-cultural doings in its midst, which meant lots of pinball, Bruce Springsteen ("Born to Run" came out in my sophomore year) and Marvel Comics (oh, we still had plenty of that hippie material R. Crumb penned, but none of it could compare with Howard the Duck!). We had an Arts Section, a literary corner (RSV-P!), a wildly popular back page feature of famous quotes called The Last Word and a couple of feature columns of social commentary and non-specific rants authored by a couple of our managing editors. But the political activism of the Battering Ram (a Dean's Office takeover in the late '60s) was mostly gone, except as a reminiscence.

Student politics - at least the official kind - was an Undergraduate Association affair. In my senior year, I actually became a participant in UA politics when I decided to become a member of the Student Center Committee. I think my motivation was the chance to DJ the Strat's Rats mixers, but I found myself engaged in other activities such as helping select Midnight Movies and picking furniture for the Coffeehouse. In those days, you didn't just join the Student Center Committee, you had to be nominated and approved by the Committee for membership. The way you got your card punched was to be a volunteer and do all the gruntwork that comes with running Student Center events. In that regard, it was much like a committee of the Transportation Research Board - with a vast network of friends and a limited number of official members. If the Student Center Committee liked your spirit (and was reasonably assured that you were not one of those campus radicals from the Social Action Coordinating Committee), they'd approve your membership. I know, because I had to be nominated twice, and one of my friends went through three rounds of voting before he was admitted to membership.

People weren't very interested in the rest of the Institute committee structure. In fact, we had a name for all forms of student politicking, from UMOC (ugliest man on campus) to the various student committees; we called it "grease" (yes, "grease" was the word). "Grease" was anything that had to do with any form of involvement in things like the Technology Community Association, the Student Center Committee, the Lecture Series Committee and the administration of the Institute. A lot of it was the province of the fraternities (and Delta Upsilon was regarded as the frat most heavily involved in the committee structure). The only people who cared about the committees were the pre-law and pre-med students (and even the business school wannabes), for whom serving on a committee was a credential that you could put in your application for grad school. If grade-grubbing hadn't given you enough of an edge, serving on something like the Committee for Visual Arts might be just the thing to get the attention of the Johns Hopkins Medical School. At least that's what a number of Course 7's (biology majors) always claimed. One member of our class managed to parlay his chairmanship of the  Nominations Committee all the way to a seat on the Federal Communications Commission.
Incidentally, this cartoon is based on a rather incensed letter to the editors of the Tech that complained about the tendency of nerds to arrive at the class lectures early and take all the aisle seats. This behavior was mightily inconvenient for all of us slackers who would arrive just as the class began and would have to negotiate our way over the bodies of the extraordinarily diligent to get to an empty seat.

One would have thought the entire student body would be falling all over themselves to capture a plum position on one of the Institute committees, but the truth is that most of us had other things on our minds, and serving on a committee was a chore. Consequently, the Nominations Committee, or NomComm had a bit of a challenge finding well qualified students to serve.
I should mention that the "you're not a racist, are you" quip dates to the Harvey Grogo incident. As I mentioned in a previous posting, Grogo the gorilla is a long-standing mascot of Technique, the student yearbook. In 1977, he was pictured in the freshman yearbook as a member of the Class of 1981 from Kampala, Uganda. White students saw it as a poke at then-dictator of Uganda, Idi Amin. Black students saw it as more institutional racism, in which insentivities to black stereotypes were clearly on display in an official MIT publication. After much uproar, one student on the Technique staff was disciplined; coming so soon on the heels of the thursday "Consumer Guide to MIT Men", the Institute was on high alert to avoid more examples of political incorrectness.

There were other committees of interest besides NomComm. The Finance Board, or FinBoard, handled the Undergraduate Association's money and parceled out stipends to each of the campus activities. Thursday was one of those activities, and if their politics didn't raise hackles with the FinBoard, the balance on their books was always a source of consternation. Thursday never made money, even in the best of times, and they would occasionally have to go begging to FinBoard for more. There was a Facilities Use Committee (FUC, according to one Bexley wag) that made spaces in various buildings available to student groups and others, and there was a Committee on Academic Performance (cue the "Dragnet" music). There were doubtless other committees, but my inability to recall any of them is a testament to their importance in my life back then. But don't be surprised to see a medical student with a membership on the Committee to Assess the Length of the Infinite Corridor on his resume; it means he's special.


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