The Chancellor and Student Deans Ask Students to Share "What's On Your Mind?"
MIT students are eager to be involved in discussions of the key issues and challenges facing the Institute today. However, both real and perceived gaps have existed in communications between students and MIT’s senior officers. In the recent past, the Chancellor and three student deans engaged students through meetings with student leaders, by including students on key Institute committees, and talking with students at formal and informal gatherings. But students felt they were not being heard. They complained about the level of student participation in key decisions that affected student life and learning and criticized what they perceived as a lack of transparency.
In 2008, the Task Force on Student Engagement brought together students and senior officers to find more opportunities for student participation. While this was a good first step in improving student involvement, the Chancellor hoped to make even more significant strides by developing a thoughtful and deliberate process for open and frequent two-way communications with students.
Last year, he [the Chancellor] formed a team with the three communications officers who represent the offices of the Dean for Undergraduate Education, Dean for Graduate Education, and the Dean for Student Life, and began to lay a new foundation.
This team created a plan – and a broad strategy for its implementation – that would enable the senior officers to communicate more effectively with students, and vice versa. Inherent to the plan were several key themes: student life and learning are inextricably linked; the Institute understands and cares about student concerns; and while the Institute values student input, decisions need to balance the views of all stakeholders.
The team agreed on the following goals for more effective communications:
Based on these goals, the chancellor, the three student deans, and their communications officers initiated several mechanisms to exchange ideas with students.
Communicate more frequently via monthly letters to students
On a rotating monthly schedule during the academic year, the Chancellor or one of the student deans writes an e-mail letter to the student body on a topical theme. Topics have included hacking, the current job market, and the H1N1 flu. Letters are concise and informative, and often include links for more comprehensive information. They encourage students to submit their comments and reactions directly to the deans or Chancellor. These letters are also posted on each officer’s Website as “letters to the community.”
Provide more ways for students to communicate via a “comment box”
Each senior officer has a “Comment Box” page on their Website where students share their thoughts, ideas, questions, and comments via e-mail. Each submission receives a personal response. Students have been very appreciative of the detailed, thoughtful replies.
Create opportunities for open, two-way communication through Dinners with Dialogue and Cookies with Conversation
Two different venues were created to convene students with the chancellor and deans for a face-to-face exchange of ideas, questions, and answers. These events are loosely patterned on the longstanding and enormously popular series of Random Faculty Dinners, in which a small group of randomly selected faculty meets informally over dinner to discuss a theme of common interest. Similarly, invitations to these events are sent to a randomly selected group of students. As part of their response, students are asked to submit a written question or comment to guide the discussion. When their schedules permit, all four officers attend each event.
The Dinners with Dialogue are designed for a small group of 25 to 30 students and are held in one of the residence halls.
These events begin with the students striking up a conversation over a meal. Then, the Chancellor or one of the deans takes the floor and leads an informal discussion. Cookies and Conversation resembles a town hall event for a larger group of 30 to 40 students. Light refreshments are served and one of the senior officers leads an informal exchange of questions and ideas. For the current academic year, seven separate events have been planned, three for graduate students and four for undergraduates.
In these gatherings, students express their thoughts and concerns on a wide range of topics, from the ramifications of budget cuts on everything from Athena clusters to sports teams; best practices for advising and mentoring; incentives for graduate students to interact with one another; to support for students with families. Without exception, conversations have been thoughtful and respectful, even though opinions vary. Most important, the feedback has been very enthusiastic – students continually express their delight and appreciation for such a unique opportunity to meet with Institute leadership.
Provide students access to current, relevant information via a Student Life and Learning Website
Another priority for the communications staff is to create an efficient online resource to help students learn about and locate the broad array of campus services available to them. A few months ago, the three communications officers began collaborating on a new iteration of the MIT Webpage for “current students.” The updated site will be renamed “Student Life and Learning” and will be the first step towards creating a site that enables students to not only find resources they need but stay connected to what is happening on campus. Students are essential to this process; brainstorming sessions have included representatives from the Undergraduate Association and Graduate Student Council leadership teams. The enhanced Website will be introduced later this semester.
By measures both subtle and concrete, these changes introduced over the past year have been successful in strengthening two-way communications – leading to a better understanding of how the administration works (on the part of students) and what students are looking for (on the part of administrators).
An example of one successful outcome appeared in a front-page article in The Tech, just one day after the Chancellor’s letter to the student community addressing controversial budget cuts (February 25, 2010). The article quoted the letter extensively and accurately; in it, the student reporter wrote: