MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XX No. 1
September / October 2007
20th Anniversary of FNL:
A Brief History of its Founding
Faculty Representation? How?
Newsletter Most Popular Among MIT Faculty
Transparency and Communication
A Call for Nominations to the
Newsletter Editorial Board
Hockfield to Write on "State of the Institute"
in Next Newsletter
Teaching this fall? You should know . . .
America's Infrastructure
Engineering Dilemma
Is it Time for a New Manhattan Project?
Update on the Implementation of the Recommendations of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons
Experimental Project-Based Subjects:
A Hit With Students
Faculty Calendar
Student Systems – A Vision for the Future
MIT 1st in Engineering, 7th Overall
in Latest U.S. News Ranking
Combining Investment with Philanthropy: Faculty and the MIT Endowment
Proficiency in Customary Units
Who's Who in the MIT Administration
Campus Population in Representative Years: % Change and Absolute Numbers
Printable Version

Update on the Implementation of the Recommendations of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons

Diana Henderson

With the new academic year and new energy, faculty and staff are busily working on implementing those recommendations made by the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons that have found favor within the MIT community. Generating both heat and light since its release in October 2006, the Report has now been discussed at numerous Institute faculty meetings, in School Councils and departments, and in regular faculty committees. These responses, as well as those garnered online and through the Dean for Undergraduate Education’s and Faculty Officers’ “listening tours,” have spurred additional ideas for improving the undergraduate educational experience at MIT.

Some results have already been achieved, and others are imminent.

The number of faculty serving as first-year advisors, after averaging around 62 from 2002-2006, has risen from 66 in 2006-7 to 87 in 2007-8.

Dean for Undergraduate Education Dan Hastings has appointed Professor John Brisson of Mechanical Engineering to head an advisory committee focusing on classrooms and teaching spaces. Anticipating the recommendations on international education in Chapter 4 of the Task Force Report, a new residence linked with international development courses, iHouse, is opening this autumn in the New House dorm complex; Professor of Urban Planning Bish Sanyal, D-lab lecturer Amy Smith, and director of the Public Service Center Sally Susnowitz are among those involved in this “living and learning community.”

Dean Hastings also created a committee now known as GEOMIT, headed by Professors Linn Hobbs and Hazel Sive, to explore ways for MIT to expand its global educational offerings. In an aligned effort, the DUE (Office of the Dean for Undergraduate Education) sponsored two sets of workshops in April and June 2007, both to build on “lessons learned” and generate new ideas for the ongoing Cambridge-MIT undergraduate exchange program (CME). The workshops were also designed to generate clearer principles, conditions, and support structures for any new study abroad and exchange programs, and relied upon the remarkable experience, efforts, and thoughtful participation of MIT faculty members.

Curricular Innovations

As has been true everywhere such reviews have occurred, at MIT the faculty paid most attention to suggestions involving core curricular redesign. The discussions already have helped to generate numerous curricular innovations, including five new “HASS experiments” and eight project-based subjects supported in part by the d’Arbeloff Fund for Excellence in Education. [See the related article on the results of the six project-based subjects offered in 2006-7.] Other new classes are being assisted by the School Deans and by the Alumni Class Funds administered through the DUE; all those involved encourage their faculty colleagues to keep suggesting new and better ways to ignite a passion for learning in our first-year students and to prepare all our undergraduates for an increasingly globalized, ever-changing world.

Several programs sharing and disseminating “best practices” learned through pedagogical and curricular experimentation will be held this autumn. [See the faculty calendar in this issue for some key dates, and for the application deadlines for d’Arbeloff and Alumni Class Funds.] The hope is that our community (as well as individual faculty members and subjects) will begin to benefit more broadly from these sponsored experiments.

However, curricular redesign is also the area that takes the longest to resolve, and will require the dedication of a new implementation subcommittee of the CUP (Committee on the Undergraduate Program) which this year will refine and modify the Task Force proposals in accordance with the views of the teaching faculty.

This co-chaired subcommittee is charged with developing a concrete proposal built on the full work of the Task Force as well as its final report and the public response, and will present its final proposals to the full faculty for a vote before the end of 2008.

Of course, educational improvement involves more than new or different required subjects, no matter how highly we value these. Thus the Task Force made numerous recommendations in other – many would argue, more – important areas. Some suggestions aim to streamline and simplify administrative processes, while others advocate fairly fundamental cultural changes. Encouraging more active forms of learning and valuing diversity in education are long-term projects that will require the ongoing efforts of department chairs and well-trained, well-supported faculty. Those implementing the Task Force recommendations wish to acknowledge and increase the incentives and rewards (be they financial, intellectual, or intangible) for faculty who dedicate their time and energy to teaching and serving in the Commons with excellence. The Campaign for Students, now in its “whispering phase,” will be crucial for raising sufficient resources to sustain the kinds of innovative classes, infrastructure, and training envisioned by the Task Force.

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Faculty and staff alike must continually address the wide diversity of twenty-first century student needs and aspirations, through and beyond our curriculum. The DUE has several offices now dedicated to:

  • expanding the use of pedagogies that foster learning (the Teaching and Learning Lab, headed by Lori Breslow),
  • supporting the exploration and adoption of innovative uses of technology in educational practice (Office of Educational Innovation and Technology, headed by Vijay Kumar), and
  • understanding and promoting the benefits of diversity at all academic levels (Office of Minority Education, headed by Karl Reid).

All these offices welcome faculty participation and suggestions.

Double Degrees to Double Majors

Among the recommendations in Chapter 5 of the Report that met with general approval was the change from double degrees (requiring substantial extra elective credit units for students wishing to pursue two major programs) to double majors (acknowledging completion of the GIRs and two major programs within a single MIT degree). As a result, the Office of the Registrar, the Undergraduate Officers, and the Committee on the Undergraduate Program have all proceeded to study the details of enacting such a change, and hope to bring legislation to the Institute faculty meetings for a vote this year. This is the time for those with further comments and suggestions to share them: the staff members who are collecting these comments are Elizabeth Cooper ( and Gen Filiault ( in the Office of Faculty Support.

An overlapping aim is to simplify the regulations and reduce the number of “cannots” (you cannot double-count, etc.), instead explaining the basic goals and rationale for the GIRs so that faculty, students, and staff can better understand and support them.

Within departmental programs, this means emphasizing the positive minimum expectations for any degree program. The Task Force advocated that there be enough flexibility in students’ schedules to allow them to make effective choices and changes as they discover their more advanced talents and preferences. The idea of a “flexible major” option in any field with a large number of required units is one solution that relies on departments’ willingness to consider and support the varying goals and career trajectories of their undergraduate majors. One goal this year is to encourage and support programs that are attempting to create such flexible options.

Meanwhile, the Undergraduate Advising and Academic Programming Office, guided by Julie Norman, has expanded its attention to advising beyond the first year, and Donna Friedman has completed a report on good practices in advising across the Schools. The hope is that soon every first-year student will have at least one faculty mentor via UROPs, advising, and small class instruction. The Office of Faculty Support (OFS) is working with faculty across the Schools interested in creating new cross-disciplinary and cross-School collaborations, such as:

  • an “ethics concentration” that has been initiated by faculty in SHASS,
  • discussion of learning objectives and coordination among project-based pilot classes, and
  • interdisciplinary faculty seminars and brainstorming sessions.

These and other initiatives will receive attention in future Newsletter articles. Please feel free to send your suggestions and queries to this Office in its entirety ( or to me specifically (, as we stand ready to assist the faculty in maintaining and improving our undergraduates’ educational experience, and in sustaining our own vibrant teaching community.

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