Student Support Services: The Way Forward
Budget reductions, changes required to bring staffing in line with resources, a commitment to excellence, and a goal of keeping MIT as a wonderful place to study and work combine to challenge us. This spring and summer, the Dean for Student Life (DSL) [Costantino Colombo] announced layoffs in his area to meet required budget reduction targets. A total of 18 positions were eliminated. The layoff of staff, including some long-serving colleagues, was difficult and painful for all involved. The DSL layoffs included one position in Student Support Services (S^3). S^3 assists students by directing them to appropriate MIT resources for academic assistance, for support for residential life, and for crisis management. While the office also supports faculty committees and works with housemasters and MIT Medical, the majority of its work is directly with individual students.
In the 2008 search for the new dean for student life, I asked the search committee to seek insight into the needs of the division and identify areas where the new dean might want to focus attention. The report of the search committee and discussions with faculty pointed to S^3 as one area where the new dean should focus. This was not to suggest that S^3 was not doing a good job. The office has enjoyed strong support from faculty and students. The concerns called out missed opportunities for student support and differing views about S^3’s scope, reporting arrangements, and the coordination of its services with other units, including the Office of the Dean for Undergraduate Education and the Medical Department.
Soon after Dean Colombo arrived, he was required to meet the serious, Institute-wide budget cuts, even while he addressed areas for improvement. This summer, the dean announced budget cuts for S^3 and proposed a review that would address the concerns raised about the office. He also announced an interim reorganization.
Several highly respected faculty colleagues with a long record of working on student issues expressed to me deep apprehension and disappointment over the layoff and the interim reorganization.
First, they were surprised that the changes were made without more consultation. Some of them disagreed with the layoff of a particular individual. They were concerned that the interim reorganization would degrade services to students and, finally, they were also concerned that the stories they had heard about the layoff process were inconsistent with Institute culture and procedures. In recent weeks, my colleagues and I have communicated with many faculty about these concerns. In addressing these concerns, I have engaged deeply with the Chair of the Faculty who has played an active role by fostering communications and convening interested parties.
I learned a lot. I acknowledge the deep and genuine feelings of concern the faculty expressed. I understand the basis of their concern. I also feel that in hindsight, even with the review of S^3 provided by the search committee, we should have consulted more broadly about the reorganization of student services before making even interim changes. The input from faculty in the search process, as described above, was insufficient, and while we had planned to bring stakeholders into the more wide-reaching process of reviewing S^3, the intent was inadequately communicated. We certainly did not intend to degrade S^3, but we now understand how reasonable people might perceive that this could be an unintended consequence.
Before addressing the substantive issues related to S^3, let me first speak to the concerns expressed about layoffs. All of the layoffs in student life were the result of budget reductions. The Dean made difficult decisions that included layoffs of staff that had been at the Institute for many years. The layoffs, at all levels, were initiated and conducted according to Institute policies and procedures, in consultation with, and with the full participation by, MIT Human Resources. The process is consistent with MIT culture and values.
Academic and administrative managers necessarily have broad discretion in personnel matters. In making decisions about layoffs, they do not usually consult openly with other interested parties outside of the area; and, consistent with these practices, in making decisions about layoffs in S^3, we did not consult with faculty, students, or other parties. It is fundamental that personnel decisions are kept confidential before and after they are made.
Employees have the appropriate expectation that managers will not disclose information regarding their employment with others, except when it is necessary to advise those in the line of supervision or other very limited circumstances. Given this commitment, we simply cannot comment on any specific personnel decision.
MIT has an established internal grievance procedure that allows any employee who feels unfairly treated to raise such concerns in writing; those concerns are then investigated thoroughly and objectively. Those review processes also contain a commitment to confidentiality to the extent possible. This expectation of privacy and confidentiality applies not only to the employee who may be the subject of a decision, but also to those other community members who might participate in a review. The employee also has the right to raise any concerns externally through legal proceedings. If a complaint is submitted, we will respond appropriately.
I feel confident that established processes were followed and layoff decisions were based on legitimate reasons. However, in a process of self study, the Chair of the Faculty and I decided that several steps should be taken to address the concerns expressed by the faculty. First, there has been an exchange of information with a small group of respected faculty to better understand the layoff process that has been in place this past year. At MIT, we always strive to improve our processes and in this spirit, Alison Alden, MIT’s Vice President for Human Resources, has been shepherding this examination.
More central to S^3, we have begun a process designed to review the unit. The Chair of the Faculty and I have appointed and charged a task force to determine how S^3 should best be organized to provide the best resources for our students. As described in more detail below, the goals of the task force review are to recommend: (1) ways to improve the operations in S^3 and (2) how to best position the functions of S^3 within the MIT organizational structure to improve coordination among offices, faculty, and other stakeholders that work with S^3 in serving students who need academic, social, and mental health support. The interim reorganization has been rolled back.
We have reaffirmed that S^3 performs several critical functions. It serves as the locus of support for academic issues, including providing input to the Committee on Academic Performance (CAP) decision process. It provides student advising and counseling and is a resource for faculty who are trying to assist individual students. The office also assists housemasters in supporting students in our residence halls who experience academic or other problems. S^3 is an important part of the health support structure for students, often serving as a gateway for students who are then referred to Mental Health Service at MIT Medical for further care. Its continued success is important to MIT.
While the office has served us well, this review will determine how to improve S^3’s coordination with other student support activities so that it can better serve MIT’s students and faculty. Positioning S^3 for greatest effectiveness is particularly important as offices across the Institute face further budget reductions.
Specifically, the Chair of the Faculty and I charged the S^3 task force to review and assess the following:
In carrying out its work, the task force will consult faculty, staff, and student stakeholders.
The task force will be mindful of the need to empower staff and faculty to collaborate more effectively in support of students in the environment of diminished resources. We also want our student service organizations to increase their focus on outreach and prevention as well as their response to student problems.
We cannot avoid the unfortunate fact that MIT will face further budget reductions. No unit or office at MIT can be exempted from consideration for further cuts. Human Resources will continue to review its processes to ensure that these processes continue to be fair and humane. Insight from the task force will help us utilize our resources effectively. The task force will illuminate how we support students, reinforcing the efficacy of S^3 and other units, so that we will be able to preserve our tradition of deep and strong support for the outstanding students who come to MIT. None of us will be satisfied with anything less.