4.0 Leadership and Governance

The men and women themselves who graduate from MIT are by far the most valuable product that we have to give to our country or to the world. They are, in fact, the essential reason for our being, and we shall be judged not only by the quality of their intellectual discipline, but equally by the firmness of their moral fiber, by their attitudes towards the whole of learning, by the manner in which they speak and act, and by their understanding of the obligations of a citizen.

- Julius A. Stratton

4.1 The present: Leadership unrecognized

Who runs MIT? A survey of students, faculty, and staff would elicit a variety of answers: the president, the corporation, the deans, the department heads, or the faculty. Each of these individuals and groups holds sway over a slice of institutional governance, and each participates to a greater or lesser extent in the overall governance of MIT.

Where do students fit in? Students today play an enormous role in running the MIT community: they largely run their living groups; they organize and lead student organizations that provide entertainment, network support, and news to MIT; they run arts and theater groups and sponsor events attended by the entire community; they run volunteer and charity programs that interface with our Cambridge and Boston neighbors; students run the primary programs that introduce new MIT students to the community; students participate in and help organize and run athletic activities and events. Although some of these operations are provided with Institute funds and programming support from academic departments and the Dean's Office, most remain essentially independent.

As we have already stressed, students gain valuable skills from participation in the MIT community. By running their own affairs, students learn interpersonal and management skills by direct practice. We have also already discussed how the educational value of community activities could be augmented through greater participation by the faculty. But does the existing community structure foster leadership skills?

Most emphatically it does not - instead, it devalues and discourages leadership.

Although students play a worthy role in the management of their own affairs, individual students are inclined to discount the value of the self-management of their community because that self-management is not recognized or validated by the rest of the Institute, particularly by those who are more or less perceived as "authority figures" on campus. Student leaders receive little or no recognition for their efforts as leaders - faculty members are typically not aware of which students are leaders in the community, and do not encourage participation. This non-involvement may be motivated by a perceived need for student independence and autonomy - a need we acknowledge. Yet non-interaction and non-recognition are counterproductive ways of achieving autonomy - they have led to a deligitimization of student affairs among students themselves.

Although students already play a large role in governing their own affairs - which are at the center of what MIT is about as a community - the governance of the institute as a whole is kept separate and apart from what students do. This governance takes place at the level of the upper administration, the departments, the Dean's Office, the Institute committees, and the faculty. While students play some role in this governance structure, it is a minimal one, characterized by temporary membership on committees that may meet once or twice a semester. Although the Graduate Student Council and the Undergraduate Association theoretically coordinate student representation on committees, in practice this coordination amounts to little more than drumming up raw recruits for poorly-understood committees. Institute governance structures remain essentially apart from the student body and its leaders.

Existing student leaders are left out of decisions that impact their community - they are kept in the dark when decisions are being made by the MIT-wide governance structure. Not only has this separation of worlds led to conflict and distrust between the seemingly-monolithic administration and the student community, but it has led to a devaluation of leadership on campus. Students discount the ability of student governments to be heard on issues that concern them. Students who have leadership experience find that their ideas are not valued, and that their leadership has no impact on MIT. (Indeed, active participation in so-called "extracurriculars" may only come up when a student is in academic trouble, when an advisor suggests the student remove him- or herself from the activity in question. Participation and leadership are seen as a problem, not as a goal.)

This is not to say student leadership is ineffective - students are effective leaders within many community organizations. Many student organizations are exceedingly well-run, even those on shoestring budgets operated out of their members' dorm rooms. But because these activities are not recognized by the Institute as a whole, and because potential faculty mentors appear to place little value on them, good citizenship and participation are delegitimized and left on the sidelines.

4.2 Recommendations

How can MIT promote leadership instead of devaluing and delegitimizing it? In the outside world, democracy and participation is possible when people believe their ideas are being heard, and that their participation has value. MIT can promote leadership by mimicking these features of democratic communities. Our broad recommendations are as follows:

  • Existing community activities and organizations should receive more recognition for the role they play in an MIT education. This recognition can take place through greater faculty involvement in the community, and additional awareness among the faculty and administration of who leads key campus organizations and what they are doing to change MIT. Recognition should take place in the form of increased interaction, not in the form of additional programs or awards. Other recommendations in this report such as the integrated residential community and greater incentives for faculty involvement in the community can help bring about these interactions.

  • The governance structure of MIT as a whole should involve community leaders who are students - especially in decisions that have a direct bearing on student life and learning. This involvement has been urged upon the faculty and administration in the past, and will continue to be in the future. As much as student-involvement might seem a pipe-dream to many, as long as student leaders feel they are ignored and blindsided by decision-making processes that concern them, many students will continue to discount the value of participation and leadership, and will continue to regard participation in the community as a distraction from a more narrowly-conceived educational experience.

    What would a system of governance that involves students in a meaningful way look like? We believe it would involve the following features.

    4.2.1 Universality

    The administrative areas that affect student life and learning should be subject to community governance, including academic advising and registration, admissions and orientation, capital planning in areas related to student life, career assistance, co-curricular activities, dining, discipline, housing, medical service, personal support, and teaching quality.

    4.2.2 Involvement of student leaders

    Any committee governance process should include students, faculty, and Institute staff. Even if a committee already involves student members, efforts should be made to contact leaders of relevant student organizations and student governments for consultation and inclusion. Committee members should be selected by the appropriate student and faculty governance structures.

    4.2.3 Clarity and transparency

    There should be exactly one process overseeing any one area. Governance processes should make summaries of their deliberations available to the community, and the community should have convenient ways of responding. Pending major decisions should be advertised to the community.

    4.2.4 Community design

    A committee's decision-making processes should be open to discussion and potential revision by student members.

    4.2.5 Student responsibilities and compensation

    The duties and expectations of any community governance process should be clearly specified. Student members of the governance processes should be held to the same levels of accountability and responsibility as their staff and faculty colleagues. A student who serves on a governance process should receive compensation in the form of credit or financial support commensurate with the work involved.

    4.3 Inadequacies of the current system

    MIT lags behind its peer schools in the number of alumni involved in civic affairs, community leadership, and corporate leadership. Many students say they aren't interested in leadership or civic affairs (with the exception of business and management skills).

    This lack of interest on the part of students and faculty has also meant that needed services have not been carried out (for example, the Course Evaluation Guide and HowToGamit), and positions on Institute committees have often gone unfilled.

    There have been many instances in which efforts to improve campus life have been conducted by only a few groups, creating public outcry among students:

    4.4 Conclusion

    Of all the parts of an education for life, MIT is most deficient in teaching leadership skills. The community area of the Educational Triad is already equipped to train students in this area, but is hobbled by the lack of recognition of student leadership where it exists, and by the separation of student activities and institutional governance as a whole. Increased interaction of faculty with student leaders would go a long way toward validating leadership at MIT. Eliminating exclusive decision-making processes and replacing them with a community governance system that places value on student participation would help remove the stigma associated with being a leader on campus, and would help bring students and faculty together in the community side of the Educational Triad.