Part II: The Student Community

The primary strategic question facing the student community is, how can MIT best prepare its students for life? We have identified eight issue areas within the scope of this question: (1) fragmentation of the student community, (2) residential issues, (3) community activities, (4) athletics, (5) student representation, (6) public relations and recruitment, (7) physical spaces, and (8) off-campus opportunities. While our analysis of these strategic issue areas is by no means complete, there are some overall themes to our discussion. First, each of these issue areas can play a role in broadening the education available to students. Each issue area presents better opportunities for teaching students self-direction, the values of tolerance, wisdom, and cooperation, and the importance of citizenship. Second, some aspects of the student community already serve the educational needs of students quite well; an effort should be made to identify these aspects and to preserve or even augment them without stifling beneficial changes in other areas.

2.1 Fragmentation of the Student Community

The MIT community is fragmented into many smaller communities, which may be close-knit, but which may have few close ties to a general MIT community. In this section, we will list some of the divisions on campus, and then discuss some strategic issues related thereto.

Students segregate themselves in many ways, both in terms of whom they interact with, and in terms of how they identify themselves. The most obvious and important distinction is between graduate and undergraduate students, but there are many distinctions within these groups.

Graduate students tend to identify with their academic departments, and, within a department, they may cluster around their research laboratories. This may be a result of pace and pressure, in that many graduate students have little time for social interaction outside their research groups. At the same time, research groups and departments provide a collegial setting for social interaction among peers with the same professional interests. In the case of the Sloan School of Management, departmental interaction is self-consciously promoted as an integral part of the educational product of the department. While many departmental or research group-centered communities or social groups may be strong, interaction among the entire graduate student body, or between graduate students and other members of the community, is weak.

Undergraduate students, who decades ago identified with their graduating classes, now tend to identify with their living groups. The major dichotomy often identified in this regard is between residents of dormitories and members of fraternities, sororities, and independent living groups (FSILGs), the latter comprising approximately one-third of undergraduate students. This broad division may obscure the fact that most undergraduates identify primarily with a specific living group. Moreover, in some larger dormitories, the primary social unit is often much smaller: residents break down by suites, halls, entries, and floors.

While social divisions may be a dominant characteristic of student life at MIT, students do take many opportunities to cross those boundaries. Many students participate in community activities such as clubs, political groups, and student government. The Interfraternity Council, which represents FSILGs, is often praised for bringing members of its community together. Athletics also provide opportunities for students from all parts of campus to interact with one another.

What are the strategic issues facing MIT with regard to the character of the MIT community? First, strong communities provide support to their members: they provide a sense of belonging, identity, and close friendships that are part of the quality of life on campus. Second, community interaction plays a powerful educational role. Through informal interaction with others, students learn how to build friendships, how to work with others, how to respect one another, and how to cooperate in the direction of their own lives. Community interaction presents an opportunity to teach students the importance of tolerance, cooperation, and citizenship.

MIT's strong but often insular micro-communities do well at meeting the first strategic goal of providing support for their members. The smaller communities also perform a powerful educational function, the second strategic goal. At the same time, however, the possibility exists that a more unified student body might go further toward teaching cooperation, tolerance, and diversity.

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2.2 Residential Issues

Residential life is an integral part of studentsŐ experience at MIT; it educates students and prepares them for life by providing many social and academic opportunities for learning. This broad area covers important issues ranging from housing to R/O. The goal of this report is to identify some of the issues raised by students regarding residential life.

An important aspect of the current residential system is the emotional and academic support that students (namely undergraduates) receive from interactions within their living groups. As noted in the 1994 Senior Survey, the living group characteristic most important to students is close friendships. These friendships and the support which they provide are essential to the happiness and success of all students. The Committee has heard living groups referred to as "pseudo-families" which "do something positive" for students facing the harsh academic experience of their education. Based on this information, we find the living group experience at the Institute to be positive and supportive.

Meanwhile, a unique community is defined within each living group, creating a system of varied social opportunities. No matter what a student's lifestyle may be, he or she can usually find a living group consisting of others who share similar interests and views. The diverse group of communities within the housing system allows students to explore, cultivate, and express their varied interests, which explains why the freedom to choose housing arrangements is so highly valued by students.

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2.2.1 Diversity and Experiences

Because students have the freedom to choose where they would like to live, the idealistic goals of the housing system are vulnerable. Although the student population is diverse as a whole, the tendency of people to live with those most like them may decrease the felt diversity on campus. Thus the undergraduate experience may teach less about diversity than it might otherwise.

Weighing the benefits versus the detriments of single sex and ethnic housing is a tenacious issue because such situations provide an extraordinary amount of support. However, students have commented that the housing system is divided and fragmented along many lines. We note the positive support provided by these situations but encourage more interactions between the groups.

MIT's population includes many people different tastes, ideas and opinions. This diversity helps to define the identity of the Institute. In order to promote the integration of the MIT community, some students feel that housing should be randomized in order to put students of diverse tastes together. However, this would take away the highly-valued freedom of choice, and would not be strongly supported by the student body.

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2.2.2 Orientation and Residence Selection

The purpose of orientation is to inform incoming students. Thus, orientation is more than just Residence and Orientation (R/O) Week: it begins with the admissions process and ends after the student is fully immersed into MIT. The key strategic questions regarding orientation are 1) what information does the incoming student need and 2) when and how shall he or she obtain it? The incoming student needs two types of information about MIT. First, he or she needs information about the short-term decisions required, such as the choice of classes, first-year program, and first-year residence. At the same time, the student must obtain information about much larger decisions, including the choice of major field and the choice of community and social contacts. Of strategic interest is the question of how to guide the student's larger decisions in an educational way. Orientation represents the opportunity to foster a unified community at MIT, an opportunity to promote tolerance and respect for diversity, and an opportunity for students to learn how to make good decisions. Orientation puts MIT's values on display. Treating people with dignity, promoting tolerance and diversity, and creating a sense of respect and value amongst all incoming students are ways of educating as powerful as any program or classroom experience.

R/O is the time during which students select their living group. With only a few days to make a choice which has such a strong impact upon a studentŐs experience at MIT, the Committee feels that perhaps students are not being given enough time to make wise choices that will both satisfy their preferences and meet their educational needs. R/O should not intimidate incoming students, nor should it instantly divide them into smaller communities. Unfortunately, the structure of residence orientation creates living situations in which students cluster according to comfort level. This leads to a housing system composed of homogeneous sub-communities within the diverse student community at MIT.

Any changes in housing policy will affect R/O. We note that the positive aspects of the current housing system include 1) freedom of choice, 2) support structures created by living groups, and 3) studentsŐ general satisfaction with their current living situations. However, the lack of diversity within specific living groups which results from R/O is a cause of concern among students.

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2.2.3 Overcrowding and Housing

The information gathered from students indicates that there is a need to improve housing on campus. Undergraduates, especially freshmen, often live in crowded housing, which affects studentsŐ happiness and places added stress upon all residents involved. Overcrowded rooms do not provide ideal conditions for undergraduate life.

The Committee also explored the issue of graduate housing. Currently, MIT can only provide housing for about a third of the graduate population. Graduate housing is currently separate from undergraduate housing, and there is little opportunity within the graduate dormitories for interaction with faculty and post-doctoral researchers. The graduate housing system more closely resembles apartment living off campus than an on-campus residential program. While the current design has its merits, there is also an opportunity to use the housing system to realize much larger educational goals. Integration of graduate student and faculty housing might bring those two communities closer together, thereby creating collegial and mentoring relationships with strong educational value. It is also possible that some integration of the graduate and undergraduate residence programs and facilities would increase interaction between graduates and undergraduates. Such an integration might make even more sense as the line between graduate and undergraduate programs becomes blurred by the popularity of five-year master's programs. Graduate and undergraduate housing planning should be conducted together, with attention to the strategic goals of bringing the community together, diversifying the residential experience, and creating educational opportunities within the residence system.

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2.3 Community Activities

MIT boasts a vibrant community of student activities. There is a wide variety of activities here, and they contribute strongly to MIT's cultural fabric. They also support the educational mission by providing opportunities for students to develop and hone interpersonal, communication, and leadership skills -- all problem areas in MIT's academic curriculum.

However, student activities suffer from a lack of support on two sides. They are severely under-funded; funding requests routinely exceed total funding allotments by a factor of three to four. MIT ranks at approximately 25% of its peer institutions in the level of funding granted to student activities. As a result, students often spend inordinate amounts of time independently fundraising for their activities or forego programs and events that might well have been of great benefit to the MIT community. It is imperative that MIT provide adequate financial, physical, and human resources for this crucial part of its educational mission.

In addition to a lack of institutional support, student activities (including student government) suffer at the hands of MIT's fabled student apathy. It is in fact unclear whether MIT students are by nature apathetic people; indeed, admissions data suggest that MIT admits students with stunning records of participation and involvement. This suggests that the causes for non-involvement lie elsewhere. The heavy pace and pressure of the academic side of the educational triad, for example, might prevent students from participating even when they would otherwise be inclined to do so. Another explanation may be that MIT places higher emphasis on academics than on participation in the community. Students may find amongst themselves social rewards and esteem for participation and involvement, but they will often find that the Faculty and staff of the Institute are unaware of their role in the community.

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2.4 Athletics

Those who participate in athletics will attest that physical activity and sports are important to the development of the whole person. Athletics must be actively encouraged by institutions such as MIT, at which they lie in particular danger of falling by the wayside. The question of how MIT can and should support athletics is a key issue for Task Force consideration.

As with most educational programs, activities, and initiatives, the best vision for an athletics program will fail without adequate funding for day-to-day operations and maintenance. Poor facilities do not constitute appropriate support for athletics; therefore, the provision of adequate athletic facilities should be a high priority of the Institute. As regards financial support, at least once in the past year a talented MIT athletic team was invited to a national level of competition and was unable to attend because of inadequate Institute funding. Members of the Committee believe that this is not appropriate support for athletics. When such things happen, they demoralize the teams and undermine the Institute's support for the educational mission of athletics. The Committee believes that the Institute should guarantee adequate funding for any varsity team to attend any major competition in their sport for which they qualify.

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2.5 Student Government and Representation

Student representation at MIT happens through two main channels: formal student government and informal representation. Formal student government is composed of the recognized student government organizations: the Undergraduate Association, the Graduate Student Council, the Dormitory Council, the Interfraternity Council, the Association of Student Activities, the class councils, and membership on various Institute Committees. These organizations of formal student government are elective or appointive, and it is generally agreed that their mission is to represent the voice of students to MIT's administration and faculty.

Currently these representative organs are perceived to play a small role in the governance of student life and the MIT policies related thereto. There seems to be no single overpowering explanation for this weakness. Some believe that the Administration and the Faculty simply do not pay attention to student government or its leaders, while others believe the weakness lies in the organizations themselves. Still others have observed that informal student leaders not connected with any representative body play a larger role simply by virtue of frequent contact with the appropriate deans or faculty members.

Whatever the state of current student representation, it is clear that student government at a level beyond the self-direction of students' own activity or social setting could play an important educational role. The 1956 Ryer Committee Report stated, "There are positive conclusions to which those actively interested in student government may be brought ... They will find ... that to take up responsibility for others, however slight or utilitarian, is to find self-realization, self-mastery, and humility. To put it in practical terms, they will find that [to do these] day-to-day tasks is to learn the give-and-take of life and to gain the satisfaction of service." We believe that student government is an ideal vehicle for teaching the value of participation, citizenship, and leadership. In the coming months, The Committee seeks to identify ways of increasing the educational effectiveness of student representation.

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2.6 Public Relations and Recruitment

Because MIT's image and reputation play a large role in determining which students and faculty will join the MIT community, MIT must consider strategically how it represents itself to the world. The Public Relations and Admissions Offices can define (or re-define) MITŐs image with the goal of creating the right environment for the broader education advocated in this report.

The MIT student body is saddled with a number of misperceptions. Students here are faced with reputations, to various degrees, of being overly studious, socially inept, completely focused on academic studies, and exclusively interested in engineering and science. MIT often sends a tongue-in-cheek message of "Nerd Pride," but many accept this phrase with all its derogatory baggage. In order to counteract these stereotypes, the Institute must challenge itself to better represent the broader aspects of the MIT experience, and to represent the human and social sides of its students. A second important aspect of public relations involves creating a sense that MIT is a single community working toward the common objective of a broad education.

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2.7 Spaces

One of the major inadequacies at MIT is the lack of space for important activities such as quiet on-campus study, informal student interaction, student/faculty interaction, community-wide activities, academic computing, and athletic activities. Currently, many needs for space are met by commandeering available space which is neither adequate nor ideal. In addition to making appropriate allocations of dedicated and well-designed space, MIT should allocate sufficient resources for maintenance of these spaces so that they will continue to serve their purposes.

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2.8 Outside Opportunities

The Boston metropolitan area presents a diverse array of opportunities to complement the educational experience provided by MIT. Boston is an American cultural nexus, and there is much to be gained from increased student utilization of the many opportunities that Boston provides.

Many universities offer "study abroad" programs, the educational benefit of which is indisputable. Students who participate in such programs invariably return with a broader understanding of the world and a deeper awareness of their own culture. MIT ought to consider making it more possible for students to study abroad.

Another way in which "getting off the campus" can contribute in a tangible way to the educational mission is through community service. Through service, students are able to connect with - and serve - the society in which MIT is embedded. At the same time, they develop personally in areas such as leadership, initiative, interpersonal skills, and empathy for fellow human beings. These are all important cultural ideals that MIT should provide ample opportunities for students to learn.

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Updated 2/12/98