MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XIX No. 2
November / December 2006
Student-Driven Activities at MIT
Financial Foundation for MIT's Future
Undergraduate Education Reconsidered
Stephen J. Madden, Jr.
MIT and Singapore
Teaching and Challenging Engineers . . .
to Engineer
Adèle Naudé Santos
Written in Pencil; February Lunch
First Response Education:
New Orleans Comes to MIT
Do MIT Students Ever Sleep?
The Implication of Mega-Partnerships
for MIT Faculty
Helping Students Become Better Writers
A Century of MIT at a Glance
MIT Faculty and Students (1900-2007)
Printable Version

From The Faculty Chair

Undergraduate Education Reconsidered

Steven Lerman

At the September faculty meeting, Dean Robert Silbey, the chair of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons, formally presented their report to the faculty. This report was commissioned in 2003 by then-President Vest. Most of us had already been at one or more of the numerous departmental and open meetings that the Task Force organized, but the presentation of the final report to the faculty as a whole is an important transition point in our reconsideration of our students’ educational experiences at MIT.

The Task Force’s work engaged some of our colleagues who are most deeply committed to undergraduate education in a broad examination of almost every aspect of undergraduate education. As the report’s authors noted, the last major change in our degree requirements was made in 1965 in response to a report by a committee chaired by Professor Jerrold Zacharias. Since that time, we have made some smaller changes, including the introduction of a biology requirement into the science core curriculum, and the addition of the communications requirement, which changed the educational program of every undergraduate student and academic department.

The recommendations of the Task Force involve one of the central functions we have as a faculty. As I noted in my column in the last issue of the Faculty Newsletter, any changes in MIT’s degree requirements must ultimately be voted on by the faculty. Through the work of the standing committees of the faculty, notably the Committee on the Undergraduate Program (including the CUP Subcommittee on the Communications Requirement), the Committee on Curricula and the Committee on Academic Performance, we also are responsible for many of the policies that govern how our degree requirements are implemented and managed. I can think of nothing more important that we as a faculty will do over the coming years than discuss and act upon the recommendations made by the Task Force.

The discussion following the presentation of the report at the September faculty meeting was the start of our deliberative process. The breadth and depth of the initial comments and questions from the floor of the meeting reflect the extraordinary interest we all have in undergraduate education.

Even at this early stage, it is clear that different parts of the Task Force report evoke strong positive and negative responses from many of us. We intend to continue this discussion at future faculty meetings, with the goal of informing any decision we ultimately make.

I should stress that an actual vote on a change in the degree requirements, assuming we choose to have such a vote, won’t be taken for quite some time. Our plan is to discuss the Task Force report over several meetings and then ask a subcommittee of the Committee on the Undergraduate Program to consider the issues and concerns raised by the faculty and come back with a concrete proposal that we would discuss and ultimately vote on. This later stage may not happen until next academic year or later.

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If history is any guide, these next few faculty meetings will be crucial in determining MIT’s educational directions for the careers of most of us now on the faculty and at least an entire generation of students. Even if you have never come to a faculty meeting before, I urge you to attend the meetings in the coming months and participate in the discussion.
Not surprisingly, our first discussion of the Task Force report at the September meeting was relatively unstructured. In order to make our time at upcoming meetings as productive as possible, I’d like everyone to consider the following ideas about how we should proceed.

  • Try to find time to read the Task Force’s report before coming to the next meeting. It is online at The report is superbly written and provides the best summary of the philosophy and history of MIT undergraduate degree requirements that has ever been produced. Even more importantly, the report provides not just the Task Force’s recommendations, but a careful exposition of the factors that went into those recommendations. Almost all of the issues we’ll debate at our upcoming faculty meetings were considered in great detail in the course of the Task Force’s work, and their discussion about why they made each decision should guide our discussion.
  • If you can’t read the entire report, then please read the Task Force’s summary of the recommendations. These can be found at This summary gives a sense of the scope of the Task Force’s work and presents their conclusions in a clear and concise form.
  • As you think about the recommendations, try to keep in mind the difficult balance the Task Force is trying to strike. Any choices we make about degree requirements must balance the time students spend in courses that are part of the educational commons with time they spend in their majors and elective subjects. Every decision we make must balance the flexibility in our programs that allows different students to have different educational trajectories, against our responsibility to ensure that students have the breadth of knowledge every well-educated adult should.

    As the report’s authors make abundantly clear, fitting everything that we want every student to know into a four-year curriculum is a hopeless task. We must take seriously the idea that all our students must leave MIT with the passion to learn new things and the ability to do so over their entire lifetimes.

    The recommendations of the Task Force should not be seen as a single, “take it or leave it” bundle. Clearly, there are important interdependencies among some of the recommendations that we should try to respect as we examine alternative proposals for educational change.

    However, there are also opportunities to intelligently disaggregate our choices in some areas. As the Task Force notes, earlier committees with similar charters made some recommendations that, for various reasons, we never chose to implement. Also, the Task Force report notes some recommendations about which their own membership was divided. The authors carefully articulate both the majority and minority views.

    We should make sure that we consider all aspects of the Task Force’s recommendations in depth. In particular, despite the fact that a majority of our faculty are in science and engineering, we should not focus entirely on the Science, Mathematics, and Engineering requirements. The Task Force makes important recommendations about the structure and content of the Humanities, Arts, and Social Science requirements. The report devotes an entire chapter to how and why we should expand the opportunities for all our students to have educationally meaningful international experiences.  It also provides guidance on important educational issues such as the coherence of the first-year experience, academic advising and mentoring, diversity, classroom quality and utilization, and educational innovation. While not all of these issues are directly governed by the regulations of the faculty, they have profound effects on all our students and should be discussed and debated.

    Be open to change. Part of the dynamism of MIT comes from our ability to innovate in our research and educational programs. We can never become so ossified in our thinking or decision-making processes that the only feasible outcome is the status quo. If we decide not to change our undergraduate degree programs, it should be because we have fully explored alternatives and decided that what we have now is the best we can do, not because it’s what we have always done.

    I should note that the upcoming faculty meetings will not be the only forum for discussion of the Task Force report. I am pleased to announce that the Editorial Board of the Faculty Newsletter has agreed to create a special issue devoted entirely to discussion of the undergraduate educational commons. Any of you who would like to write a short piece for this upcoming issue are invited to do so.
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