Did the Pandemic Kill Caltech Culture?

Cultures reflect how persons in communities interact to form special bonds and experiences. Caltech has always had a distinctive culture, much of it lodged in its undergraduate experience and carried forward by its alumni. The distinctive features of this culture go far to make Caltech special and to distinguish Caltech from other top science institutions like MIT. Yet, there are strong signs that much of the best of Caltech’s culture has not survived the pandemic.

Significant cultural losses seem to be proceeding on at least two fronts — alumni and undergraduate. First, for alumni, the formerly robust experience of the Alumni Weekend and Seminar Day in which alumni of all years could interact and catch up on the Institute yearly and at one time has been transformed into two anemic events (a much-diminished event still called Seminar Day and a separate Alumni Weekend in the fall where few alumni but those attending major class reunions attend). The former format of the Seminar Day/Alumni Day Weekend was not maintained for decades because of happenstance but because it was the best way that numerous Alumni Association administrators found to ensure that the dual goals of alumni connection and alumni updates were achieved in one weekend. It was our homecoming — a chance for alums to see persons from all of the classes they shared Caltech with and to be inspired by the Caltech of today. It reflected a core part of the alumni culture that was crafted and maintained year after year by the Alumni Office (because it was a wise choice) and enjoyed by numerous alumni in attendance.

While the pandemic understandably interrupted events in this time-tested format, the assumption of many alumni was that the former Seminar Day/Alumni Weekend format would return with the return of live campus events. But, now that live events are back, it is clear that Caltech administrators have little interest in returning to the old model. Concerns raised about the cost and difficulty of administering a combined Seminar Day/Alumni Weekend seem misplaced; is it possible that the Caltech of 2024 cannot do what Caltech did successfully in 2019 and in many prior years (and was organized to do again in 2020 before the Seminar Day/Alumni Weekend for that year was cancelled due to the pandemic)? Efforts by alumni organizing recent class reunions to advocate a return to the old model have been rebuffed by the administration (even to the point of refusing a meeting on this topic with one organizing committee of which I am a member). Thus, perhaps because current administrators do not remember it, the Caltech cultural strength of the Seminar Day/Alumni Weekend is being squandered. Administrative fiat has prevailed over cultural distinctiveness and Caltech’s culture is diminished for it.

The second front apparently suffering cultural diminishment involves undergraduates. At a recent event involving Caltech Gnomes — alums and other individuals who were campus leaders in their day — I was able to speak with several current campus leaders in the senior graduating class who were joining the Gnomes. They told remarkably similar stories of experiences with campus administrators in which the common theme was diminishment of student house and student life experiences without regard for any sense of loss when long-standing traditions were denied. The current seniors with whom I spoke have had a particularly difficult Caltech experience — two years of online classes and two years of live experiences. Given that they would have only two years of relatively normal life experiences at the campus, it would have been appropriate for the administration to expend extra care and resources to ensure that these two years were filled with more than usual traditional activities as a means to compensate for the students’ lost two years of live experiences. Instead, the stories I heard were of several traditional activities attempted to be undertaken but either then banned by the administration or opposed via overblown charges asserted for claimed damages.

This seems like a world in which petty bean counters have been put in charge of the Caltech student experience. It is unrecognizable to an alum like me who cherishes stunts and potentially messy conduct in the student houses as part of a Caltech experience that not only allowed individuals under intense academic pressures to blow off steam but also to bond with fellow students in the same boat. The essence of the student house experience is joint enterprise, no matter how messy — exemplified for me by the organized effort in my era not only to break into one senior’s room on ditch day but to turn it into a pig stye in preparation for his return (a transformation which was facilitated by clever research on one undergraduate’s part that determined one could rent a pig for a day in LA; the pig was held in reserve all day waiting for its starring role and almost did not get its gig until underclassmen and women broke into the relevant room at the last minute and quickly arranged the preassembled room “decorations”). This is Caltech culture; has it gone away in favor of administrators with narrow cost-containment goals?

What is to be done? I have several suggestions:

  1. Persons at the top levels of the administration need to get more information on the developing cultural losses and disaffection in both the undergraduate and alumni segments of the community. This information will need to come from independent fact finders outside the staffs of the Alumni Association and Office of Student Experience who, as with all members of bureaucracies, have reasons not to gather and report the information that paints their efforts unfavorably. Find a factfinder that is trusted and talk to the present ASCIT officers and house presidents (to gain undergraduate perspective) and to the alumni teams that have been organizing recent alumni reunions (to gain alumni perspective).
  2. Members of the Caltech Trustees need the same type of independently generated information to complete their oversight of the Caltech student experience and how it has recovered (or has not recovered) since the pandemic. Fact-finding initiated from this perspective would ensure that both the fact-gathering and resulting findings receive attention from the administration.
  3. The faculty needs to give stronger attention to the student experience. Formerly, a Master of Student Housing (a tenured faculty member) played a key role in shaping the student house experience. This post is apparently gone and it is unclear how the faculty exerts input into crafting the house experience. If the faculty wishes to lead in shaping the academic environment of Caltech, it needs to lead in shaping the house environment where students not only engage in social interactions but actually learn to think and work together (presumably key educational goals in their Caltech experience).
  4. The Development Office needs to be aware of the increasing disaffection of alums at the same time that the Development Office is seeking donations from the same parties. On the day of the Gnome event mentioned above, I ironically received a mailing encouraging me to provide for Caltech in my will, and then at the event heard of a Gnome (a campus leader from my era) who did not attend the event because he refuses to come to campus events given his anger about the evolution of alumni activities and other affairs at Caltech. Clearly, persons with this level of anger are not likely to be future donors.
  5. Finally, the parties who should be most concerned about the decay in Caltech culture are the Admissions Office staff responsible for promoting Caltech and recruiting future classes of elite science students among high school grads with many colleges to choose from. The special cultural features of Caltech — the pranks, the informality, the small community of undergraduates pursuing special traditions — are what set aside Caltech from MIT and other science-oriented schools that many of our targeted high school students can choose from. Word about the decay in Caltech culture will get around, in which case Caltech will look much like every other bureaucratically dominated educational institution. Recruiting an exceptional incoming class will be that much more difficult.

In the past, Caltech has been better than this and we, as Caltech graduates, were better for it. Has the Caltech culture that benefitted us simply died with the pandemic?

Author: Richard Gruner (BS 1975), Former Co-Editor-in-Chief, The California Tech

Photo of Richard Gruner