Why I wrote this
I recently began to receive reminders about the Caltech Reunion Weekend scheduled for May 15-18, 2014. I would like to attend, but it would require a special trip back from Hong Kong. We’ll see. Combined with my involvement with undergraduate education for the last 17 years or so at UCLA and now at HKUST, and a recent visit to the Caltech Oral History site, these emails triggered a flood of recollections and reflections about my time at Caltech.
Before I get rolling, a note: If you’re considering applying, go talk to the students who are there now. If you’ve already been accepted, just go. I have visited Caltech on a number of occasions in the time since I graduated, and had conversations with a variety of students, and it seems like it offers an even better undergraduate experience than when I was there. The curriculum has been improved, the students are just as committed and talented as ever, there are better housing options, and other changes have taken place as well. Whatever you do, don’t treat anything I have to say below as useful or relevant for your own decision-making, since I am talking about the situation as I remember it nearly three decades ago, and there have been a lot of changes, as far as I can tell mostly positive, since then.
To the extent I have any goal here, it is to counter what I sometimes think is a tendency on the part of alumni, myself included, to compare whatever they hear about Caltech now with an idealized, sentimental and somewhat selective recollection of what it was like when they were there, and then go on to claim that the era during which they attended, whenever it was, really were the glory days. To anyone who wants to claim that the undergraduate experience was much better years or decades ago during some half-remembered golden era that happened to coincide exactly with the four years they attended, I’d like to offer some reminders about some of the problems that existed back then. To the extent there is any critique here, it is self-critique, since I think the problems back in the day were more about the environment in the residential houses than with the education we were provided.
Along these lines, I also wanted to offer a reminisce and reflection that is a little deeper than the usual anecdote sharing that goes on when alumni gather. Alumni, myself included, nearly all seem to have a repertoire of stories about pranks, over-the-top homework assignments, outlandish incidents during parties, and Feynman encounters. There’s nothing wrong with that since it was indeed a remarkable and unique experience, but I do think that given popular interest in Caltech, it is time to offer more nuanced and thoughtful recollections which focus on the overall experience.
Caltech was and I believe is absolutely unique. Caltech’s single-minded focus on excellence and the opportunities for involvement in research attracted me in the first place. It is a small, highly specialized institution with a clear focus on excellence. I doubt there is anything quite like it, anywhere. I’m not normally given to hyberbole, but I feel completely comfortable saying that. I have had a number of opportunities to meet current or recent Caltech undergraduates in the last few years, and everything I hear from them sounds very positive. Indeed, the environment they describe sounds much better than the one I experienced in terms of the focus on teaching and overall environment. I continue to be pleased that of the elite private universities, Caltech has by far the largest share of students coming from economically less privileged families. I put my money where my mouth is: I send money to the Alumni Fund every year, and encourage my classmates to do so as well.
Why I chose Caltech
My interest in Caltech was cemented at some point in the summer after my junior year. I was going to high school in a small town in northern Illinois, Dekalb. My father, a professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, attended a meeting in Las Vegas right after I finished my junior year in 1984. I went with him. While he was in his meetings, I lounged by the poolside, and occasionally tried my hand at the slot machines. When my father was done with his meetings, we rented a car and went on a long, looping tour that included stops at Harvey Mudd, Caltech, Stanford, Berkeley, and Deep Springs College.
By this time, I was also interested in pursuing studies on China, though mainly as a sideline. My father, who was in computer science, began to have visitors from China in the early 1980s. Many of them were mid-career professionals who had been sent out to update their skills. Many of them had suffered terribly during the Cultural Revolution because they were highly educated and/or from families that had been very high status before 1949. My father also visited Beijing twice as part of academic delegations, I think in 1982 and 1983, and came back telling me that China was a country that I needed to learn more about, because it was on the move. Based on conversations with my father’s visitors, and my father’s stories about his visits, I became interested in China, and began reading up on my own. I decided that when I went to college, I wanted to take courses on its history and society.
My brief visit to Caltech convinced me that it was the place for me. Between talking to the student guide for the campus tour, and an appointment with someone in Admissions, I was sold. As fate would have it, while I was touring Caltech, the student who led the tour told me that there was a young assistant professor at Caltech named James Lee who was doing quantitative research on Chinese history. My father advised me that if I really was interested in China, or the humanities and social sciences in general, at a place like Caltech I would probably have the relevant faculty to myself. Everyone else would be trying to attract the attention of faculty in Physics, Engineering and the life sciences. Conversely, if I went to Berkeley or Stanford, I would probably be one of many eager young undergraduates struggling to attract the attention of prominent humanities and social sciences faculty.
Another motivation for coming to Caltech was that I wanted to be as far from the Midwest as possible. Between the time at Harvey Mudd and Caltech and our drive up the coast on the 1 and 101 and our stay in the Bay Area, I quickly decided that California was the place I wanted to be, and I really didn’t want to stay in the Midwest. I was attracted by the weather, the food, the diversity, and like many others who moved to California before me, the boundless sense of possibility.
One way or the other, I really wanted a career as an academic and never thought seriously about any other line of work. My father was a professor and from what I saw, it was the best job in the world, even if it didn’t pay that well. Based on my visit to Caltech and what I read about it, I thought it would be the best place to acquire a training that would lead to graduate school and then a career as a professor, most likely in electrical engineering or computer science.
In the fall of 1985, I applied early decision to Caltech. I also applied to UC Berkeley, and completed the first stage of an application to Stanford. I attended some recruitment events organized by MIT and other schools, but they didn’t excite me. I received my early acceptance from Caltech at some point in December, so never completed my Stanford application, and didn’t apply anywhere else. I was accepted at Berkeley and offered a very generous scholarship, but by then my mind was set. It was only later when I became part of the UC system and taught at UCLA that I realized how unusual it was for an out-of-state student to be offered a scholarship like the one that Berkeley offered.
I began the summer after my high school graduation in an absolutely disastrous job delivering pizzas. I quit after only a few weeks. I spent the rest of the summer in a much more satisfying job mowing lawns. A friend had built up a nice business mowing lawns during the summer, and turned it over to me after going off to college. I liked it because I set my own schedule. I would drive by my customers’ houses in my 1971 Dodge Coronet, and if I thought their lawns needed mowing, I would stop, get the lawnmower out of the trunk, mow their lawn, and leave a bill for them. My customers seemed happy with my service and paid promptly.
Finally, in September 1985, I took the Amtrak train from Chicago to Pasadena so that I could start at Caltech. At the time, the Amtrak train from Chicago to LA still stopped in Pasadena. It ran along a right of way that is now used by the Gold Line. I disembarked in Pasadena, and by previous arrangement, a student associated with the Caltech Y picked me up and drove me to Caltech. Upon arriving at Caltech, I checked in, and was assigned a temporary room in Lloyd House. I stayed in this room while in Rotation, which would determine which of the seven residential houses I would end up in.
Soon after my arrival at Caltech, we all left for Frosh Camp, at Camp Fox on Catalina Island. My memories of Camp Fox are disjointed, and possibly completely wrong. I remember some sort of well-intentioned but misdirected effort at education in dating etiquette and sexuality that inexplicably included people dressed as toads. The name of the skit was Love Toads. I also remember Gary Hindoyan of Burger Continental fame at a grill cooking chicken for us, and open-air sleeping pavilions. I don’t remember getting seasick on the way to Catalina Island, which is surprising, since I tend to get seasick easily.
We returned to Caltech for Rotation after Frosh Camp was over. At Rotation, over the course of one week, we visited each of the seven residential houses and ate dinner in each of them and attended a reception afterwards. I developed a strong preference for Ruddock, Lloyd, and perhaps Blacker. I didn’t have strong preferences between these three houses, but I did know that I wanted to end up in one of them, and didn’t want to end up in any of the remaining four. I ended up in Ruddock, along with several other incoming freshmen I had come to know during Rotation.
Once we were in Ruddock, we had some kind of initiation. I don’t remember many details. I seem to think it may have included a scavenger hunt or some other fairly innocuous activities intended to introduce us to the older students. I don’t remember anything in Ruddock that would have come anywhere close to hazing.
Initiations in other houses may have been more problematic. While most friends in other houses reported enjoyable experiences that helped integrate them, some did report more disturbing experiences. Again, my information is all 25 years old, so take it with a grain of salt. While apologists for initiation rituals at colleges or other organizations now typically reply that participation is consensual, it isn’t clear to me what ‘consent’ means when you have wide-eyed entering freshman who are away from home for the first time, and may be scared, lonely or confused, and desperate to impress older students or other classmates. I’ll come back to my concerns about the houses later.
Silly initiation rituals are hardly unique to Caltech. Leaving people of college age isolated from engagement with the world outside is most likely to result in some combination of the Stanford prison experiment and Lord of the Flies. Unfortunately, the sort of dysfunctional group-think that leads to hazing in immature and socially isolated groups seems to be human nature, as various awful examples of the results of hazing at various institutions and organizations seem to attest. While incidents like the one with the FAMU marching band are especially awful and thankfully rare, every year there are problems at many institutions at which student organizations are allowed to take charge of welcoming new students. Even my current institution doesn’t seem to be immune from problems.
I have many fond memories of freshman year, the best of which involve getting to know my remarkable classmates. I went to middle and high school in Dekalb, Illinois, a small, relatively homogeneous town, and I attended elementary school in Winnipeg, Manitoba, which was similarly homogeneous. At Caltech, I met people from all sorts of backgrounds, with diverse interests. The only thing that everyone else had in common is that they were smarter than me, and they were all interested in the pursuit of knowledge more generally. As difficult as the classes all were, I never had the sense that we were competing with each other. Rather, we were all engaged in a common, collective enterprise. There were always classmates willing to lend a dimwit like myself a helping hand, and patiently explain for the Nth time some derivation that I was struggling with.
Many of my best memories of my first two years are somewhat fragmentary: house-organized events like a Secret Santa at the end of fall quarter my freshman year; late night trips to eat at Lucky Boy’s, Tommy’s, and cheap restaurants in Monterey Park and sometimes Little Tokyo; late-night explorations of Los Angeles with classmates or friends who had a car. My favorite memories from my four years at Caltech are of walks around campus in the evening with a classmate, when a breeze was blowing and the palm trees were swaying. On evenings like that, I felt like I had walked into Steely Dan’s Gaucho or the Eagles’ Hotel California. At the same time, carrying out a synthesis in Chemistry Lab and ending up with a yield greater than 100% was an embarrassment. I also managed to break expensive glassware in Chemistry lab. I still remember a quiz in Chemistry on which I scored 9 out of 100, followed by my chasing around a classmate who had scored 8 out of 100 waving my quiz paper and yelling “I kicked your ass!”
Academically, freshman year at Caltech was a shock. I had done well in high school, but compared to my fellow Caltech classmates, I was average, or below average. I didn’t have any particular problem with being in the middle of the pack. I’d rather be surrounded by people smarter and more creative than myself than dimwitted, unmotivated dullards. While all the classes were challenging, it was frustrating that at least some of them were clearly designed to scare away anyone who wasn’t in the top tail of the distribution, and even more frustrating that the relevant distribution sometime had little to do with skills that mattered.
The worst offender by far was the required course in electrical engineering, EE 14ab. Note: if you’re thinking about applying to Caltech to study EE, ignore the following rant, and keep in mind that they have reformed the curriculum several times in the nearly 25 years since I graduated to reform the most problematic aspects and replace them with more thoughtfully designed components. From talking to recent graduates at alumni gatherings and so forth, the major sounds much, much better designed now.
In retrospect, EE14ab as taught in the late 1980s must have been designed deliberately to drive students away from the major. It was taught by an adjunct professor early Monday mornings and late Tuesday evenings. I passed the class, but only barely. I was actually OK with the easier material involving the classic discrete components such as resistors, capacitors, and inductors, mainly because I previously had some introduction to circuits, but when we hit transistors, I was lost. The strange thing about this as a gatekeeping course was that many if not most of the students would never have to characterize a network of discrete components, including transistors, again. Even the later coursework that was in the analog/continuous domain like power electronics or waves and antenna was largely independent of the content of EE 14, and could have been taken without it. And EE 14 had nothing to do with any of the digital/discrete domain courses that we took for the rest of our time. When in another context I came across this manuscript on the role of poorly designed gatekeeping courses in STEM majors in reducing diversity, I thought of EE 14 immediately.
Many classes were much better. I was very impressed with the required physics sequences, even though I didn’t do as well as I would have liked. The freshman and sophomore physics sequences were extremely challenging, and my performance wasn’t much to write home about, but it was obvious that tremendous thought and effort went into them. Physics even had an ombudsman program with representatives from each TA sections invited to lunches every month to provide feedback. The instructors and TAs each quarter attended. I have never seen anything like it since, and quite frankly, can’t imagine doing anything similar at UCLA or my present institution, HKUST. In retrospect it seems amazing that people like Tom Prince, Robert McKeown, and Ricardo Gomez, to name a few, took a required physics sequence so seriously. And my TA my freshman year was actually a professor, Brad Filippone.
Chemistry, math, and applied math were more uneven, at least for me. The instructors meant well and worked hard, but none of these sequences matched the physics sequence in terms of efforts to solicit feedback and improve teaching. The instructors were doing their best, but as outstanding researchers in their various areas, were probably not the best people to communicate with mere mortals like ourselves. Many of them, like Harry Gray or Sunney Chan, were engaging and entertaining even when I had no idea what they were talking about.
Now that I teach large lecture courses, I’m not going to complain about anyone else’s lecture style. I’m not about to cast any stones. I know how difficult it is to teach a required lecture course that both holds the attention of undergraduates and actually seeks to teach something. In my experience, lectures seem to be entertaining or pedagogically useful, but rarely both. I put many of my own students to sleep. And my own study habits left much to be desired. Perhaps if I had been more diligent, paid attention during lecture, and started problem sets more than a day before they were due, I would have learned more.
By spring of freshman year, I was discouraged about my prospects, and contemplated transferring. I owe it to Chris Brennen, the Master of Student Houses (MOSH), and Ed Callaway, my RA, that I didn’t. Spring quarter, I had been talking to my parents about my concerns. My father was concerned enough that he contacted Chris Brennen (http://www.its.caltech.edu/~brennen/brennen.html), who at the time was our MOSH. Brennen contacted the RA in Ruddock, Ed Callaway (http://www.salk.edu/faculty/callaway.html) who came in and talked to me. One way or the other, I pulled myself together and set aside my thoughts of transferring.
One vivid memory I have is of a remarkable lab class (I think APh 9) where we fabricated integrated chips. We worked with hydroflouric (HF) acid, without gloves. David Rutledge’s philosophy, which I think was correct, was that using gloves would lull us into a false sense of security. He preferred that we wash our hands and forearms thoroughly and repeatedly. I was so terrified by the prospect of having HF burn down to the bone in my hands and forearms that I continued washing well after lab was over and I was back in my dorm room. When I woke up the next morning after lab, the first thing I did was check my hands and forearms to confirm that no holes had opened up overnight. Recently I saw some photos of damage caused by use of krokodil, and it was exactly what I had nightmares about when it came to working with HF. At the same time, I was so worried that my own clumsiness would cause me to fail the class that my hands shook when I tried to put chips into the boron furnace, and I kept dropping chips and having to start over. Finally the TA told me that I was probably going to pass the class no matter what. Somehow, the knowledge that I couldn’t fail the class lifted a weight from my shoulders. My hands stopped shaking when I was trying to insert the chips into the boron furnace. No longer living in fear that my clumsiness was going to cause me to fail the class, I sailed through the remaining fabrications with ease, and ended up doing quite well.
Sophomore year and beyond
Sophomore year and junior year, my future in the social sciences began to take shape. I ruled out a career in traditional electrical engineering, mainly because I had no aptitude for work in the analog/continuous-time domain. I struggled in the Applied Math Analysis course (AMa 95). I could try to blame the instructors, including Cohen and Wu, but my study habits definitely left something to be desired. Regardless of the reason, I struggled in all of the courses that were continuous-time/analog. The worst was the wave and antenna course in electrical engineering (EE 151). To this day, based on that experience, I think there is some element of voodoo in wireless, and I am amazed that mobile phones, let alone AM/FM radio, actually work. I think there was another continuous-time/analogue class in there somewhere that I muddled through, but I forgot its number. For some reason I think it was EE32ab, on linear systems. I will come back to that later when I discuss some of my concerns about the environment at Caltech, at least at the time I was there.
I decided that if I was to stay in engineering, I wanted to remain in the discrete-time/digital domain. I was influenced by some of what I thought were the best taught courses I ever had. Maybe it was just me, but they were all in the discrete/digital domain, not the continuous/analog domain. This included a really excellent digital signal processing course taught by P.P. Vaidyanathan (http://www.systems.caltech.edu/dsp/ppv/) that I think was EE 112. Even more exciting was a course on information theory (EE/Ma 126) taught by Yaser Abu-Mostafa (http://work.caltech.edu/) that I think was probably one of the two best taught courses I ever took, along with Robert McEliece’s (http://www.ee.caltech.edu/EE/Faculty/rjm/) course on error-correcting codes (EE/Ma 127ab). Abu-Mostafa’s and McEliece’s lectures among the best, most carefully planned, and most elegant I ever heard. To this day, I wish I could lecture like Abu-Mostafa. He didn’t use anything but chalk and a blackboard, but his points were crystal clear. More importantly, the problem sets were absolute models of what homework should be like. They always started with fairly straightforward exercises, then built in a careful and deliberate fashion to very sophisticated problems.
I still remember with pride being one of the first in my house to realize that a proof for an assignment in EE/Ma 126 required two separate proofs, each for a separate but overlapping range of numbers. In essence, a proof that something was true for all numbers required proving that it was true for all numbers less than a, and separately proving that it was true for all numbers greater than b, but b was less than a, so there was a range of numbers between a and b for which the proof was ‘double.’ I had never seen anything like it, but once I realized that the problem was separable in this unusual way, it was easy.
Abu-Mostafa’s course was especially influential on me as a budding social scientist because that is when I realized that any dataset really was just a string of bits, with a finite amount of information determined by its complexity. This led me to conclude that there was only a finite amount of new knowledge that could be extracted from any given dataset, and that anyone who purported to have an amazing new technique for extracting new insights from an existing dataset that had already been worked over and milked dry was probably selling snake oil. Obviously that wasn’t the goal of the course, and Abu-Mostafa might be surprised that I made such a connection, but in retrospect I think it was important.
More importantly, during sophomore year I finally had the opportunity to pursue work on China. I took a course with James Lee, at that time an assistant professor. He was collecting and analyzing household register data from Liaoning. At some point in winter or spring of my sophomore year, he told me that the student who was working with him to help organize the data he was collecting was going to move on and look for an opportunity in a physics lab. Lee had accumulated population register data that at the time was in rectangular flat files and being analyzed with programs written in C, and he was looking for someone to manage the data. I had some experience in database management, and jumped at the opportunity. I rewrote all of the code that was being used to manage the data in dBase III+, and never looked back. The summer after sophomore year, I had a SURF, and joined Lee when he went to Beijing and Shenyang for research. That was my first time outside North America, and is worth a blog post in its own right.
By senior year, I made up my mind to pursue graduate training in the social sciences. I ended up not majoring in Electrical Engineering because I didn’t take the power electronics course (I think EE 40) and didn’t complete the senior project course (I think EE 91abc). Rather, I ended up with a degree in Engineering and Applied Sciences, and a second degree in History. I applied to and was accepted at sociology and/or demography programs at a variety of schools. I decided on Penn. I did apply to graduate schools in electrical engineering and computer science, and was accepted at Columbia. I still remember the silence at the other end of the line when I told the Electrical Engineering professor at Columbia who called me to offer admission and a fellowship that I had decided to pursue a PhD in sociology and demography. Because of opportunities that were available to me through Caltech, in particular a Durfee and a Watson Fellowship, I received support to spend the year after graduation in Taiwan and then Beijing studying Chinese, before I showed up in Philadelphia for graduate school.
Looking back, I’m glad I went to Caltech, and I don’t have anything to complain about in terms of how I was treated. It is impossible to imagine that I could have ended up where I am now except as a result of being at Caltech. Much of this, of course, was luck. At Caltech I happened to run into one of probably a handful of historians working on China who were doing work where I had a comparative advantage. If I had approached a more traditional historian of China at some other institution, I probably would have been ignored, or would have been competing with dozens of other bright young things.
The willingness of faculty and even graduate students to involve themselves in undergraduate student life was one of the most remarkable features of Caltech. In what other institution would such a distinguished and productive faculty member as Chris Brennen take the time to oversee matters related to undergraduates, and personally intervene in response to a phone call from the parent of a freshman like myself? Nowadays, at almost all colleges, all of the sorts of things that the Master of Student Houses was responsible for are delegated to full-time, non-academic staff. There might be a faculty committee somewhere setting general policy regarding undergraduate life, but certainly no faculty intervenes in the cases of individual students. And where else would you have a graduate student of the caliber of Ed Callaway serving as an RA in an undergraduate dormitory and helping out in a situation like this? Ed was a fantastic RA, and it has been wonderful to see him go on to such a distinguished career. Having spent all of my time after Caltech at large institutions like Penn and UCLA where incoming freshmen are processed like the livestock at a factory farm, not handled on a case-by-case basis, the fact that people like Brennen and Callaway intervened in my case seems unimaginable. Sunney Chan was also much loved by many of us for his clear commitment to undergraduate life.
I look back on some house activities with pride, in particular the geeky humor and various good-natured collective efforts, which overall were probably much more common than the behavior I am concerned about that I will discuss in a moment. Many of our puns or other humor was based on the names of mathematical or physical constants, the names of prominent scientists or engineers, or the names of theorems. Beyond Ditch Day, we also engaged in many fun and challenging projects on the rare occasions when we had too much time on our hands, like painting murals. I was especially proud of my role repainting one of the walls in Ruddock with the cover of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon one winter break when some classmates and I stayed through Christmas and New Year, and was sorely disappointed a few years later to find out it had been painted over. I was also really impressed with classmates who organized complex, large-scale pranks, like changing the Hollywood sign to read Caltech. That took place while I was there, but I wasn’t involved.
My positive experience reflects one of the unique features of Caltech: the accessibility of outstanding faculty, the remarkable opportunities for undergraduates, and the opportunity to be with fellow students who were from widely varied backgrounds and all very smart and committed. There are few institutions where undergraduates have such easy access to faculty. Many of my classmates had the opportunity to work in the labs of distinguished researchers, and take classes with them. In the humanities and social sciences, we had smaller seminar classes with outstanding faculty. I still have fond memories of small classes with Jim Woodward in Philosophy, Phil Hoffman and many others in History, and Bruce Cain, John Ledyard and Rod Kiewiet in political science. And I had Jean-Laurent Rosenthal as a TA. And once I was working with Lee, the SURF program and other opportunities available through the Institute allowed me to continue working on research on China during the summer, and pursue studies in Chinese after I graduated.
As time has gone on, however, I have thought more about how the experience back in the late 1980s could have been better, not for me, but for many others. Others did not have as positive an experience as I did. Some transferred out, or else finished but regretted their decision to attend. My subsequent involvement in undergraduate education and observations of student life at other institutions, leads me to reflect back and think about what the shortcomings were, and what could have been improved, if not for me, then for others.
Looking back, the least distinctive and most problematic feature of Caltech for me was one that many alumni are most enthusiastic about: the seven residential houses. Many of us, myself included, have fond memories of the houses, especially the friendships we formed there, but we need to acknowledge that there were serious problems. There were many positive aspects of the houses, most notably the mutual support and the camaraderie, but there were negative features as well, and we should acknowledge them and hope that they have been remedied, or will be remedied. To help get the ball rolling, I am going to share my own concerns and regrets.
Much of the activity in the houses was silly but not especially harmful. There was a lot of immature but largely innocent nonsense like launching butter pats at the ceiling and throwing buns at each other and dragging people into the shower for playing Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. While I’m not particularly proud of my involvement in such antics, by the standards of college student behavior, especially in contemporary fraternities, such escapades were relatively tame. One way or the other, improving the house environment doesn’t mean that we all should have been sitting in the lounge in smoking jackets, sipping tea and listening to chamber music or thumbing through back issues of the New York Review of Books.
For too many classmates, however, the environment in the houses was problematic, unpleasant, or even hostile. The central problem was that even though we had high standards for academic conduct, we set low standards for our personal behavior, especially in group settings. When it came to academics, we adhered to an Honor Code that set very high standards for our classwork and fostered mutual trust. When it came to social interactions, however, we didn’t have any common standards at all. This was especially the case when we were acting as part of a group, not as individuals.
The houses at the time I was there in the late 1980s were about what would be expected from throwing a bunch of confused, anxious teenagers together in a dorm without any supervision. Students at Caltech may have been better in science and engineering than students at other colleges, but this doesn’t mean that they were wiser, more mature, or otherwise better equipped to manage their own affairs. There simply wasn’t much in the way that the houses organized themselves or set standards for behavior that was commensurate with the high academic standards we set ourselves. While may not be realistic to expect too much from any bunch of adolescents who were left to themselves, what I have seen of undergraduates in other environments convinces me we could have done much better.
The environment in the houses in the late 1980s certainly discouraged good study habits. House life was a dashpot of energy and focus. Given the choice between participating in whatever happened to be going on in the house, or working on an assignment, many of us chose the former. There was always something going on to divert us when we should have been focused on problem sets or preparation for an exam. Many of us, including myself, screwed around when we should have been studying and then completed our assignments or studied for exams in a panicked frenzy at the last moment. Indeed, all-nighters were as much an immature display of machismo as a rational strategy for completing the task at hand. Looking back, it is pretty clear that classmates who maintained normal sleep schedules and organized their work appropriately actually seemed to do fine. The students who did the best, and have had the most outstanding careers since then, were mostly the ones who had the wisdom and maturity to limit their engagement in house activities, or disengage completely, perhaps by moving off campus.
The insularity and self-absorption of the houses at that time rewarded and encouraged inappropriate or immature behavior. In particular, even though most of us exercised sound judgment in one-on-one interactions, now that I look back, judgment often went out the window in group settings. The environment wasn’t Lord of the Flies, or even the Bollinger Club in Scone College that Paul Pennyfeather encountered in Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall, but it could be inappropriate, and it didn’t have to be that way. Perhaps it was different in other houses, and it has certainly improved rather dramatically since then.
I don’t remember that there was ever any individual or collective effort to discourage childish, boorish, offensive or inappropriate behavior, whether on the part of individuals, or groups. If anything, bad behavior was rewarded with attention. Certainly, when my own behavior crossed the line, there was no check from anyone within the house. During one especially regrettable period during the fall of my junior year that I feel sick about to this day, when I treated a classmate very badly for no reason except that I was immature and self-centered, it was only when my classmate confronted me and told me to stop that I came to my senses and realized how far I had fallen.
Tying this back to my discussion of the house environment, there was no check to my behavior within the house at that time. At the time I was so immature and self-centered I may well have ignored any such checks, so I am not suggesting that my behavior was the fault of anyone but myself. Rather, looking back, I am concerned that there were no checks to my behavior, and that at some level, it seems to have been taken for granted. Others who behaved badly were rarely if ever checked. Sensible classmates who might have been a voice of reason and a model to others were mostly wise enough to move off campus or if they stayed in the house, disengage.
The tolerance or in some cases celebration of boorish behavior created an unpleasant climate for many, most clearly for our female classmates. In retrospect, I am amazed that more classmates, especially our female classmates, didn’t move off campus or transfer out. We spent a great deal of time sitting around and whining about the imbalanced sex ratio and wishing that the Caltech administration or someone other than ourselves would do something about it (this classic scene from the movie Say Anything always comes to mind), but I don’t think we ever had enough self-awareness to realize that we were the problem, and weren’t exactly doing much to make the environment a welcoming one. Reading this recent piece in the New York Times on challenges to women pursuing careers in science recently reminded me of our role in creating an unpleasant environment. That few people complained openly is, of course, not evidence that there was no problem. Why would anyone complain or seek change when it was so much easier to move off campus? Indeed, even though we took it for granted when classmates moved off campus, and sympathized, I don’t remember that we ever sat back and wondered what we were doing to produce a climate that was so unappealing.
The tendency for many of the most focused, thoughtful and overall best put-together classmates to move off-campus or stay on campus but disengage made the pathologies in the houses self-reinforcing. As time went on, the students who behaved badly, or didn’t mind bad behavior, accounted for a larger and larger share of the students who remained in the houses, where as juniors and seniors they set the tone for the incoming classes. The fact that so many classmates moved off campus should have been a signal to us that there was something wrong. We should have been asking ourselves what we were doing wrong that was making the environment unappealing to them.
Though we often liked to excuse our individual or collective behavior as a response to the stress we experienced, claiming that it was a way of letting off stream, that was an awful excuse. As I just noted, at least some of our stress was the product of our own bad time management. And in many ways, whatever we thought we experienced pales in comparison to what I saw some undergraduates at UCLA deal with. Real stress is being a first-generation college student taking a full course load, working full-time to pay tuition and fees, serving as an interpreter for parents or other members of their extended family, and still finding time to volunteer. I encountered many outstanding students at UCLA whose family circumstances and personal situations were so challenging and complex that I simply could not imagine being in their shoes and surviving.
We also gave ourselves a pass on the house environment because rather than complain, classmates who were unhappy were free to move off campus, or remain in the house but disengage. Like many social groups in which boorish behavior becomes ingrained, we treated the absence of complaint or objection as evidence of consent. I don’t know if ever occurred to any of us that just because no one who left or disengaged complained openly, they were all happy with what was happening.
Another rationalization that we sometimes offered for our behavior, that the rules that governed others didn’t apply to us because we were smart and different, is downright troubling. It is true that we were highly selected for our potential to excel in science or engineering. That doesn’t mean we were automatically wiser, more mature, or somehow better in general than everyone else. Given the environment that developed in the houses, it certainly didn’t mean that we were better equipped to be left to ourselves to manage our affairs. And to the extent that we were somehow elite, that should have led us to set higher standards for our behavior, not exempt ourselves.
As proud as we were of ourselves, I don’t remember any house events in which we sought to do something for the community. Houses organized parties, field trips, and other events, but I don’t remember any of them organizing anything like volunteering. While many students did volunteer in various contexts, but they did so individually or as members of organizations like the Y. I don’t remember the houses ever doing anything to promote such engagement with the community. The fact that we were busy with schoolwork is not an excuse. At UCLA, I encountered remarkable undergraduates who were not only full-time students, but were working to put themselves through school, and also found the time to volunteer or otherwise do something for the community.
The administration recognized the problems with the houses and tried to address them on a regular basis, but as far as I know, every time they tried to do something about the really boorish behavior, there was a backlash from at least some reactionary students and alumni. It may be that the administration’s efforts were sometimes a bit ham-handed. That said, it doesn’t reflect well on students and alumni that none of these efforts triggered any serious self-reflection, or any acknowledgment that there indeed might be a real problem. I should add that as far as I know from talking to recent graduates, the situation is much, much better now. The environment sounds much more healthy and supportive, I believe partly as a result of sustained efforts on the part of the administration, but probably because the students have changed.
I sometimes wonder if the way we applied the Honor Code was part of our problem. The Honor Code dictated that we should not take unfair advantage of others. The interpretation was fairly clear when it came to classwork: it forbade anything that smacked of cheating. But looking back, I don’t think we ever asked whether the Honor Code should also apply to the way we treated each other outside of class, in house activities, or in interpersonal relationships. Specifically, as far as I know, irresponsible, immature, mean-spirited, and hurtful behavior was not considered to be covered by the Honor Code. This might have been acceptable if we acted collectively albeit informally to promote appropriate behavior and discourage inappropriate behavior, but we didn’t.
We should have had a broader interpretation of the Honor Code that went beyond avoiding taking unfair advantage of other students in classwork, to emphasize thinking about each other’s feelings, and recognizing that people may have been deeply unhappy even if they weren’t coming out and saying so. Rather than taking it for granted that because we were smart, we knew what we were doing and could handle the situation, we should have asked ourselves whether drinking competitions, initiations for new students, or other practices that were reckless and in some cases dangerous were really commensurate with the high academic standards we set for ourselves.
Periodically, the house system comes up as a topic of discussion, and my experiences 25 years ago make me wish that the discussion was more evidence-based and less anecdote-based. What is striking about the occasional discussions I see about the house system is the passion with which alumni who think of themselves as committed to reason and logic will resort to anecdote, assertion, and analogy to come up with all sorts of imagined benefits of the house system as it existed decades ago. I certainly would like to see more evidence: statistics on graduation rates, percent moving off campus, percent going on to graduate programs, starting salaries for those who don’t go on to graduate school, and various measures for outcomes 10 years out by house. Annual, anonymous surveys of students by house would be useful. Tabulate everything and provide the information to incoming freshmen, donors, and anyone else so they can make their own decisions.
I would also like to see a broad and representative cross-section of alumni discuss their experiences. Caltech has a hold on the popular imagination as a result of being featured in movies and TV shows. It would be great to see a real discussion of experiences, not only from the people who made it through Caltech and remember the houses fondly, but also from the people who weren’t so enamored about their time in the houses. We should be hearing from the people who moved off campus or transferred out, not just listening to the people who stayed in the houses or one of the house-affiliated off-campus facilities for all four years. I’d like to see recollections from a cross-section of alumni who will not only tell stories, but reflect on their experiences and think not only about what was special about the houses, but what could have been improved.
Now that my current institution is discussing the creation of residential houses, and already has some residence halls that have identities of their own, I keep wondering whether there is a way to preserve the unique and positive aspects of residential houses, not just at Caltech but at any institution. Residential houses like we had at Caltech have lots of upside potential. There is camaraderie and mutual support, silly and geeky humor, and the commitment to inquiry and knowledge, while also encouraging more engagement with the world outside, and promoting introspection and self-reflection. While most of the humor and collective activity in the houses in the late 1980s was good-natured, and only a portion of it was offensive or inappropriate, it should be possible to create an even better environment where none of the behavior was offensive or inappropriate, and everyone always felt welcome. The question is not whether the house environment in the late 1980s was harmless, or was somehow excused by the stress we experienced or our self-proclaimed elite status, but whether the house environment could have been better, more welcoming, and more conducive to our personal development.
You may very well ask why I have written such a long-winded reminisce, along with a rambling critique of the environment in the undergraduate houses that has likely changed dramatically in the last 25 years. Not only do I want to exorcise lingering regrets about my own failure to recognize problems at the time and behave better, but I keep thinking that the problems in the houses as they were 25 years ago encapsulate some of the issues that are in the news today. Basically, I think the houses are about what you would expect anywhere if you took a bunch of roughly like-minded teenagers or young adults together and left them to themselves. Maybe not Lord of the Flies, If, or Scone College in Decline and Fall, but problematic nonetheless. The contemporary relevance is not just the seemingly unending string of scandals at fraternities, which I think reflect systemic problems that arise whenever a bunch of young people are left to themselves to form their own, insular society, but also other examples where insular subcultures such as the one in some tech companies create an unwelcoming environment.
As fortunate as I feel I was to have had the opportunity to attend Caltech in the late 1980s, I can’t help but think of ways the experience might have been better, if not for me, then for others. As much as I liked my experience, my involvement with undergraduate education at other institutions, including 16 years at UCLA, and a few months at HKUST, leads me to look back and think about how it could have been improved. I have no complaints about my time at Caltech, and indeed I owe almost everything I am right now to the unique opportunities that were available when I was there. Things have changed since I was there, mostly for the better, and from talking to students and recent graduates, it is pretty apparent to me that the undergraduate experience is even better than it was.
Overall, I am glad that I attended Caltech. To paraphrase the lyrics of “Ride Captain Ride” by The Blues Image, I am amazed at the friends I had there on that trip. But I think we could have made the environment in the houses in the 1980s more welcoming and inclusive.