When journalist Karen Arenson accepted the New York Times’ higher-education beat, the job came with a caveat: she had to cut volunteer ties to the Institute. That was 1996, and she was partway through her yearlong term as Alumni Association president and serving on the MIT Corporation. Volunteering had been an interest for her and her husband, Greg Arenson ‘70, since graduation. She’d held leadership roles for her class and the New York MIT club, served on the Corporation’s executive committee, and interviewed prospective students.
The Times let her finish her Alumni Association presidency, but she resigned from other volunteer roles. Before long, her stories were helping boost the paper’s reputation for higher-education coverage. Arenson was one of the first mainstream-press journalists to uncover startling trends in early-decision admissions and aggressive endowment management. “Because I like to look at data, I tend to see things others might not,” she says.
Though Arenson had been editor of her high-school paper and managing editor of the Tech, she always considered journalism a side interest. She majored in economics at MIT and received a master’s in public policy at Harvard. But her perspective changed when she landed a summer internship surveying delegates to the 1972 Republican National Convention for the Miami Herald. “I liked the way journalism got me out and talking to people and in the middle of things,” she says.
She worked as a reporter for BusinessWeek for five years until the Times’ business section hired her away. After her daughter, Morgan, was born, Arenson became an editor, working for 10 years on features and business stories before eventually returning to her first love, reporting. Though she never took any writing classes at MIT, the Institute “helped me to be analytical,” she says. “And a lot of my journalism was about being analytical.”
In 2008, she accepted a buyout offer from the Times and retired—and soon began volunteering for MIT again. She helped plan her 40th class reunion and was tapped to conduct dozens of interviews for the MIT150 Infinite History project, a video archive offering recollections from some 100 people who have shaped MIT and made significant contributions to their fields. Her interviews included biomedical-engineering pioneer Robert Langer, ScD ‘74; Museum Institute for Teaching Science (MITS) president Emily Wade ‘45; former MIT Corporation chair Dana Mead, PhD ‘67; and Tufts University president Larry Bacow ‘72. Arenson herself was interviewed for the project, though she’s more comfortable on the other side of the microphone. “I prefer to ask the questions,” she says.