Turmoil at Student Support Services
The education, development, and creativity of our students is central to a university’s mission. In recent decades pressures on students have intensified, particularly as they observe their future employment and professional opportunities contracting.
It’s therefore particularly disturbing to discover that one of MIT’s leaders in these efforts has been dismissed under questionable circumstances, and apparently without due process or review.
Below the Faculty Newsletter provides a timeline for background, including faculty critiques of the events to date. We expect these events to be an agenda item at an upcoming faculty meeting.
S^3 Description and History
S^3 is an acronym for Student Support Services, presently under the Dean for Student Life. It has gone under other names in the past, e.g. Counseling and Support Services (CSS). It is an important support service for students, for example, see the following description at studentlife.mit.edu/dsl/s3/services.
….asking for help ...can be hard. Whether classes aren't
As of June 2009, S^3 had six Associate and Assistant Deans, an Assistant Dean for Disability Services, and two administrative assistants. This number included two Co-Directors, Associate Dean Arnold Henderson and Associate Dean Jacqueline Simonis. Dean Simonis was the most senior member of the staff, having been a counselor at MIT for 23 years and holding a doctorate in Counseling and Administration from Harvard.
Before 2000, S^3 was under the Office of the Dean of Students and Undergraduate Education (ODSUE). At that point, ODSUE was divided between the Dean of Undergraduate Education (DUE) and the Dean for Student Life (DSL), and S^3 was put under DSL.
S^3 Reporting in 2000
According to the former Dean of ODSUE, Rosalind Williams:
“When the separation [of ODSUE into DUE and DSL] was made in 2000, I believed that the separation was in theory a good arrangement, but from the start I worried and wondered about placing the student counseling and support office under the DSL. Some people in the office argued strongly that it should be under the DUE.”
Subsequent Questions about S^3 Reporting 2004-2006
Professor Tom Greytak was chair of the Committee on Academic Performance (CAP) from 2004 to 2006. In this capacity he worked closely with S^3 and with Dean Simonis.
“I recognized that there were management issues between S^3 and those to whom it reported in DSL. S^3 is deeply involved with the academic difficulties of students. It has a close working relationship with the faculty on the CAP and with individual faculty members throughout the Institute. Thus it seemed to me that S^3 was ill placed in DSL which is more concerned with other aspects of the students’ lives. Some other line of management and support, perhaps in DUE, appeared to be more appropriate. I brought up this issue during the search for a new dean for DUE and the search for a new dean for graduate education. After Steve Lerman was chosen for the latter position, I discussed the issue with him in person on June 19, 2008.”
Monday June 22, 2009
On this date, Dean Simonis was laid off. She
“…went to a scheduled meeting … Jackie was told that her position had been eliminated for financial reasons, that she was being laid off, and that her last day at work was that day. She was told that she was expected to be available to coordinate the transfer of her responsibilities while working from her home. She was not allowed to speak with her colleagues in private, nor to return to work in her office…”.
This text is from a letter to former chairs of the MIT faculty and the MacVicar Fellows dated July 9, 2009 (see below).
Friday June 26, 2009
Upon learning of these developments, in his role as Faculty Chair, Tom Kochan began a series of meetings with concerned faculty and leaders from the administration to learn more about the facts and different perspectives involved in this situation.
Thursday July 2, 2009
A letter is sent to Chancellor Phillip Clay, with copies to the President, the Provost, the Dean for Student Life (Dean Colombo), and the Chair of the Faculty (Thomas Kochan). The letter was signed by the Chair of the Committee on Academic Performance, Professor David Pesetsky, the entire faculty membership of CAP from 2008-9 and 2009-2010, and three former chairs of the CAP (one of whom is also a current member of the committee). The letter says in part:
“…In her 23-year career at MIT's S^3, Dean Simonis was a builder of the very office from which she was just laid off. The academic careers (and even lives) of innumerable MIT students have been saved and put back on track thanks to her work.
These recent actions that affect S^3 have created a tentativeness within the Student Support Office and the overall support system for our students. We do not believe that CAP can properly fulfill its duties to the faculty in collaboration with a Student Support Office in such a state.
Upon careful consideration, we therefore respectfully ask for the following actions:
1. The suspension of those aspects of the DSL reorganization that involve S^3, and the provisional restoration of the previous administrative structure.
2. The restoration of Dean Simonis to her position at MIT, including her reinstatement as Co-Director of S^3. …”
The letter concluded with
“…In our many years here, MIT has been known as a place where faculty and administration work together collegially to optimize our students’ experience, and where professional staff, like Jackie Simonis, can expect to be honored for their decades-long contributions to our students’ quality of life. We feel compelled to act to preserve that culture in the face of actions that, intended or not, can only undermine it….
“Though we understand the necessity of restructuring and reevaluation throughout the Institute, it has always been said that this can and must be done without putting the Institute's core mission at risk. In difficult times such as these, we expect an actual increase in student need for the services provided by S^3, and a corresponding increase in the demands on committees such as CAP. We believe that the events that prompt this letter do put the Institute's core mission at risk, and therefore look forward to a speedy resolution of our concerns.”
Thursday July 9, 2009
A letter is sent to former chairs of the MIT faculty and the MacVicar Fellows signed by (in alphabetical order) Paul Gray, Thomas Greytak, Robert Jaffe, David Pesetsky, Margery Resnick, and Art Smith, which said in part:
“…A broad study of counseling at MIT is exactly what many of us had been advocating for some time. However, we do not understand how it can make sense to embark on such a study after completely reorganizing the very unit whose future structure is the supposed topic of the study (in effect pushing it another layer deeper into the organizational chart of the office of the Dean for Student Life) and after dismissing one of two leaders of the office, whose insights should be critical input to such a study. Both decisions were apparently made without any faculty input whatsoever. We also take note of the fact that Dean Colombo’s message [to Greytak on June 22, stating that he (Colombo) had initiated an evaluation of S^3] does not mention either the restructuring or the layoff, despite the fact that both must have been planned long before this message, and were literally in progress at the time it was sent….”
Tuesday July 14, 2009
Chair of the Faculty Thomas Kochan invites members of the CAP, former chairs of the MIT faculty, and the MacVicar Fellows to an informal luncheon meeting at the Faculty Club, to discuss the issues raised in that letter and in the letter to the MacVicar Fellows of July 9 and to report on his discussions with administration leaders on ways to address the range of issues raised by the S^3 restructuring and the layoff process.
Wednesday July 15, 2009
Kochan convenes a joint meeting of concerned faculty with Chancellor Clay, Dean Lerman, and Dean Columbo to discuss the issues and options for addressing them. All parties at the meeting acknowledge the seriousness of the issues and the concerns raised by the faculty. Chancellor Clay states that in retrospect the faculty should have been consulted before starting the restructuring of S^3. A tentative agreement is made for the Faculty Chair and Chancellor to jointly create and charge a faculty-administration task force to study and recommend how to best structure student counseling services. All options are to be open for consideration.
Thursday July 16, 2009
Kochan, Chancellor Clay, and Dean Lerman meet and agree on the charge, membership, and timeline for the task force.
Wednesday July 29, 2009
The Chair of the Faculty sends an e-mail to the members of the faculty who attended the July 14 informal meeting at the Faculty Club, which announces the formation of the S^3 Task Force, and includes its charge. [See related article by Chancellor Phil Clay.]
Thursday August 6, 2009
Professor John Belcher, a member from 2006-2009 of the Committee on Student Life (CSL), the standing faculty advisory body to the Dean for Student Life, sends an e-mail to the Chair of the Faculty and the faculty who met at the Faculty Club on July 14, which says in part
“…I particularly emphasize this with respect to Dean Colombo, who is relatively new to the Institute. My opinion, based on my experience as a member of the Committee on Student Life since he [Colombo] first arrived, which has met every two to four weeks, is that Dean Colombo should not be making this kind of decision about S^3 without input from faculty. He had ready access to that input, through his own standing faculty advisory body, if he had chosen to consult it.
“Every faculty member whose opinion I respect has nothing but praise for the way S^3 functioned, as it was constituted, and I think you are far from resolving the legitimate issues and questions that have been raised about the events of the last few weeks, or about what the long-term consequences of these events will be to the morale and functioning of this group. Whatever this Task Force does, it is crucial that S^3 emerge as a highly functional team, and the faculty are going to want to be convinced that this is going to happen.…”
Wednesday August 26, 2009
The S^3 Task Force met for the first time on this date.
Wednesday September 9, 2009
The members of the CAP and of the MacVicar Fellows, and others, who met on Tuesday July 14, meet again to hear a progress report on the situation.