MIT Presidential Task Force
on Student Life and Learning

Summary of Discussions from the 1997 Task Force Junior Faculty Workshop

On January 21, 1997, the Task Force on Student Life and Learning sponsored a workshop for junior faculty for the purpose of soliciting junior faculty input to the Task Force through non-traditional interaction. In a letter inviting all junior faculty to participate, President Vest wrote:

It is important that members of the Task Force hear from you the generation of faculty who will shape the university of the next century. This workshop will provide you with an excellent opportunity to become involved with the process of defining MIT's future and will challenge you to think broadly about MIT's mission. At the same time, this is an opportunity for you to reflect on your own career in a broader context and to meet your colleagues.

Approximately 75 participants (nearly one-third of junior faculty members at MIT) attended the workshop. After Task Force co-chairs R. John Hansman and Robert J. Silbey provided a brief summary of the history, charge, and activities-to-date of the Task Force on Student Life and Learning, Professor Jesus del Alamo, who coordinated the event on behalf of the Task Force, explained that participants would be separated into six breakout groups to discuss and report back to the larger group on the following six questions:

Group 1

What establishes MIT's reputation in its various areas of activity? Where does MIT stand in comparison with other institutions in these different areas?

Group 2

What are the personal goals of faculty members and how do they relate to MIT's educational mission? How does MIT support these goals?

Group 3

What are the forces for change that are likely to affect MIT over the next 20-30 years? What are the implications for MIT? Are there barriers to change?

Group 4

What are the elements of the job description of an MIT faculty member? What percentage of a faculty member's effort is typically dedicated to each element? Which of these elements impact learning? How should this change to further MIT's educational mission?

Group 5

What is the quality of the undergraduate and graduate student experience at MIT? What can we do to enhance the experience?

Group 6

What will define a well-educated person in the 21st century? How do we deliver such an education?

During the breakout sessions, each group elected a representative to present a summary of their discussions to the larger group. Summaries presented by each of the groups are as follows:

1. MIT's Reputation

The five leading elements that have established MIT's current reputation are, in descending order:

MIT's reputation in the future will depend on: t

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2. Goals of Faculty Members

Members of the second group, who discussed personal goals of faculty members, suggested that the goals of faculty include "inner-originating" and "outer-originating" goals.

"Inner-originating" goals of faculty include:

"Outer-originating" goals, or those which are part of the Institutional structure include:

As regards these goals, group members outlined the support MIT provides its faculty:

They suggested that MIT could enhance the environment for junior faculty by providing:

  1. broadened (not increased) tenure criteria that integrate the value of teaching and curricular development
  2. better opportunity for "life outside MIT"
  3. opportunity to better develop a sense of ownership
  4. clearer criteria for advancement and better mentoring
  5. a better balance of life inside vs. outside MIT, and research vs. teaching

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3. Forces for Change

This group classified the forces affecting MIT as technical, economic, and social.

Technical forces for change included:

  1. an increasing knowledge base
  2. increasing complexity of how scientists interact
  3. the need for life-long learning caused by the rapid change of information
Economic forces for change included:
  1. reactions to tuition
  2. the changing nature of funding sources
Social forces for change included:
  1. changes in student demographics (ethnic, cultural, academic preparation levels)
  2. changes in life-cycles (i.e., timing of post high school and graduate school attendance
  3. a rise in the part-time student population
  4. changing definitions of basic literacy levels
  5. heightened interest in environmental sustainability
  6. higher levels of computer skills and understanding amongst students;
  7. a rise in the number of female professionals
  8. more people trying to balance family and career obligations (male and female)

Cutting across areas, members suggested that the declining perceived value of basic research is both an economic and social force for change, and that the job demands of the 21st century (the fading concept of life-long jobs creating a need for changing skills) is a social, technical, and economic force for change.

Given the above forces for change, group members suggested that MIT should consider:

Group members suggested that barriers to change included:

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4. Faculty "Job Description"

The job description of a faculty member at MIT includes the following five elements:

There was no clear consensus on a unified description, as it seemed to vary amongst disciplines and departments at MIT. There was, however, agreement on the "ultimate job description", which is "to become a leader in the world and to teach."

This group noted several conflicts in trying to meet this job description:

The group summarized two additional points of consensus:

  1. teaching is an attractive part of the job, as it has direct impact
  2. MIT should develop a way to assess the impact that faculty members have on the lives of their students

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5. Quality of the Student Experience at MIT

As regards the quality of undergraduate life, this group identified several negative cultural elements of MIT:

Positive cultural elements for undergraduates included one-on-one interaction with faculty available through programs such as UROP and the external relevance to students' work.

The group commented that faculty can help students by providing:

As regards graduate student life, group members suggested that negative cultural elements included:

Group members noted that Masters students are becoming almost a category of their own and that new campus dormitories are a necessity.

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6. Elements of an Educated Individual

Group six discussed the elements of a well-educated person in the 21st century and how do MIT might deliver such an education. Group members commented that, working under the assumption that knowledge bases are increasing, MIT must realize it can't teach everything and must be able to teach flexibility.

Defining qualities of well-educated person in the 21st century included:

Members noted that in addition to the above (the tools), students still need discipline specific learning (the core), and suggested that MIT could deliver this by offering:

  1. interdisciplinary courses
  2. continuing educational courses and programs
  3. distance and remote learning options
  4. a variety of size of subjects
  5. "in context" delivery through internships
  6. partnerships with industry
  7. hands-on courses, and by maintaining its depth of expertise and teaching real-world contexts and global implications

Possible teaching models include:

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Following the group reports, Professor Silbey thanked participants for their valuable input, and opened the floor for questions and comments.

World Change

Following a comment regarding world change, some participants suggested that MIT should become an innovator and a leader as regards world change, rather than simply adapting to it.

Curricular Development

Following a participant's comment that although many junior faculty would indeed like to be involved in the development of the 21st century curriculum, they must devote their time to activities necessary for tenure, another participant suggested that curricular development should be given a higher level of institutional legitimacy.

Valuing Teaching

Participants agreed that:
  1. Teaching should be given more value at MIT.
  2. MIT should design mechanisms to measure the success of students and the impact of teaching.

Responsibility to Students Outside the Classroom

Professor Hansman noted that faculty tend to talk about the academic part of their responsibility and suggested that the group should discuss briefly their responsibility to students outside the classroom. Many participants agreed that the Faculty has distinct non-academic responsibilities to students, but commented that the institutional incentive system does not value these non-academic factors. One participant pointed out that UROP is one of very few points of interaction outside the classroom between undergraduates and faculty. Others commented that the quality of student advising at MIT is quite poor; there is little opportunity to teach in the advising role unless faculty realize the opportunity.

International Exposure/Experience

A participant commented that MIT should better prepare its students for careers and lives in international settings. Those present agreed that, given that approximately 25% of the MIT faculty was born outside the U.S. and approximately 25% of MIT students come from homes where a foreign language is spoken as the primary language, MIT already has tremendous resources in this regard.

Updated 11/6/97