MIT's tight-knit feel in the early 1900's

[originally to ua-history-interest]

This week in STS.050 we're studying the tenure of President Maclaurin, which is essentially the story of locating, financing, building, and moving to the Cambridge campus. (One of our assignments was to watch a 20-minute short film about the relocation story, which will hopefully be in tomorrow's Byte.)

One thing I'm mystified by is the "intensely loyal" feeling among the student and alumni bodies that's conveyed by all of the documents we read, especially from the decade before when there had been a vociferous campaign by alumni to resist a proposed MIT-Harvard merger. I took a quick look through Institutional Research's public data to see if there was any way I could compare modern student/alum "loyalty" to that of 100 years ago, but I don't think it's an easy question; the best I could find is that since 2002, graduating seniors generally have been getting more and more satisfied with their MIT education each year.

But, like, here are some excerpts. Most of them are from a book by Philip Alexander, which has a chapter for each MIT president.

Excerpt 1. School songs being penned at a breakneck pace. (from a section on people shifting from "Tech" to "M.I.T.")

After that, older school songs - "Tech forever" (1903), "Tech men" (1914), "Technology rag" (1915), "O Institute, Technology!" (1916) - made way for "Alma mater" (1923, with references to both Technology and M.I.T.), "The courts of M.I.T." (1925), and "Hail! M.I.T." (1927). By the late 1920s, the shift was all but complete.

Do any of you know school songs other than the drinking song? I'm sure we have them, but certainly they're not widespread.

Excerpt 3. The President of MIT being an accessible figure.

Maclaurin focused as much attention on social aspects of student life as on the academic side. Students gravitated toward him and his family, just as an earlier generation had felt drawn to the Pritchetts. Alice Maclaurin was an eager surrogate mother, visiting sick beds and hosting many a Saturday-evening get-together at the president's home on Bay State Road, then, as of 1917, at the official residence in Cambridge. These events usually ended with folks gathered around the piano belting out "Take me back to Tech" and other patriotic songs. Students adored Mrs. Maclaurin's style, the way her "glow warmed the hearts of many a weary, homesick freshman, and cheered to better endeavor some lagging upper-class-man." At Christmas the Maclaurins regaled students who could not get home for the holidays with food, drink, gifts, and a special surprise treat - in 1910, for example, a quasi-staged reading of Dickens's A Christmas Carol by professor of English Arlo Bates. Rupert and Colin [President Maclaurin's sons] were every Tech student's little brothers. Two weeks after Colin was born in December 1914, an alumni group presented a silver porringer and spoon underscoring how deeply affection for the family ran.

I think I've heard a story about Killian's daughter acting in a Shakespeare production in Senior House in the 1950's, but nothing of that scale more recently than that.

Excerpt 3. Closeness with faculty.

One compensation for the highly congested conditions that had existed for many years at Boston Tech was the intimacy of contact between students and staff. Students transferring from other colleges, accustomed to meeting professors only in class, frequently commented on the cordial relations they found here. The compact quarters, the fixed curriculum, and the intensive work required had always brought student and teacher together in a way not common in other types of schools, and led to many valuable and lasting associations.

In a later section, it's mentioned that the bursar was known as "Uncle Horace". I'm not making this up.

It's all so ... jolly ....

Certainly the fact that research wasn't so much a priority of MIT at the time would have made a difference, as well as the fact that there were very few grad students, and that even the undergraduate population was about half of what it is today.

But that was largely true of a lot of other schools at the time, too. And the data shows that nowadays, we have worse student-faculty closeness than our "peer institutions". So I wonder what happened.


P.S. President Pritchett, who served in the mid-1900's, went to school in Germany, where they had a tradition called Kommers of social-academic-scholarly-mingling-with-beer. He introduced it at MIT. The students loved it. Many onlookers and Bostonians disapproved.

Also, I keep reading references to smokers. Apparently that was a big thing. Everyone would get together in a room and smoke. There would be "All-Tech Smokers" at important events, and there would be ads for "Freshman Smoker" like we would normally hear about a Junior Formal.

Also, apparently, in the early days (1870's) of MIT, the schedule was very much like high school - classes/labs all day, homework at night, teachers calling on students by name.

P.P.S. Fun fact about "peer institution" Caltech: two instrumental figures in its founding were Hale and Noyes. Noyes had been acting president of MIT before Maclaurin, and left MIT in frustration with its increasing industry ties and increasing neglect of research. Hale had also been involved with MIT, although I don't quite know in what capacity.