Student Engagement at MIT: A Path Forward
In our capacity as current and former presidents of the MIT Undergraduate Association (UA), we are writing to bring attention to and express concern about the unresolved, longstanding issue of student engagement. Student engagement should be viewed not as an onerous task, but as a device to discover the most innovative solutions to the most complex problems. The handling of several recent situations has left many students feeling disenfranchised and has generated the perception that administrators disregard or are unwilling to solicit input. We believe that implementing the suggestions outlined below would demonstrate that the Institute senior leadership intends to follow through on its commitment to engage students in decision-making at MIT. Effective engagement of the entire community is the future of governance and would be a source of competitive advantage for MIT as an institution.
As primary stakeholders and future benefactors of this institution, students desire and deserve transparency, cooperation, and candor. We question the conclusion of the statement by the Chancellor and the Deans in a recent Faculty Newsletter (Vol. XXII No. 4): “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).” Students are still not being involved in decision-making at the Institute in a consistent, structured manner, resulting in ongoing controversy, ambiguity surrounding process, and a perceived lack of respect.
One can point to specific instances where the Institute reaped great benefit by successfully engaging members of the community: the Task Force on Student Life and Learning, the Institute-wide Planning Task Force, and the recent changes to Athena Printing, to name a few. Furthermore, involving students in evidence-based decision-making, a hallmark of MIT, contributes to the educational experience. “Learning by doing” is a founding principle of MIT; to produce the world’s best decision-makers, we must involve students in decision-making. We believe that our concerns will resonate with members of the faculty, so we seek your involvement and support in addressing them. Our primary goal is to work with faculty and with Institute leadership to establish a coherent, comprehensive, and consistent philosophy and framework for when and how student input should be sought by Institute decision-makers.
Three years ago, in a joint statement published in the Faculty Newsletter (Vol. XX No. 4), the presidents of the Undergraduate Association and Graduate Student Council, the Chancellor, and the Vice President for Institute Affairs collectively wrote, “Student involvement strengthens community, provides a comprehensive perspective, and helps prepare a new generation of leaders.” All parties committed to “strengthening the framework for students’ role in decision-making,” and “exploring channels for information sharing, maximizing transparency, and promoting the interface between students and administrators at the Institute.” Accordingly, with the support of President Hockfield, in spring 2008 these groups created the Task Force on Student Engagement (TSE). Membership included the Chancellor, the Vice President for Institute Affairs, the Chair of the Faculty, the Dean for Student Life, the Dean for Undergraduate Education, the Dean for Graduate Education, four undergraduate student representatives, and four graduate student representatives.
The work of the Task Force was to be done with the “goal of renewing MIT’s culture to more strongly promote and value student involvement in issues important to them.” While it was clearly the intent of the Task Force to act on this charge, a consensus was never reached on how to select and implement its recommendations. Circumstances surrounding the implementation of the varsity sports cuts, enrollment increase, and campus dining changes confirm the Task Force on Student Engagement has not achieved its objectives.
While community involvement in the Institute-wide Planning Task Force was a step in the right direction, failures since then suggest this success was an outlier, not a turning point.
Varsity Sports Cuts (April 2009)
Approximately one year after the Task Force on Student Engagement was created, Department of Athletics, PE, & Recreation (DAPER) was asked to cut $1.45M from its budget over the following three years. Students were not involved in the decision on whether to cut particular varsity sports or to trim all programs. The Student Athletics Advisory Committee, which met monthly with DAPER leadership, was told about the decision to cut varsity programs one week before it was announced at a town hall meeting. At the meeting, students were told no decision had been made about the teams to be cut, or the way they would be selected.
Two weeks later, eight sports were cut, but teams were told that a significant financial donation could help reinstate a sport that had been cut. Accordingly, the wrestling team raised $1.6M; but its varsity status was not reinstated, leaving the group feeling perplexed, frustrated, and betrayed.
A joint statement from the Chancellor, Dean for Student Life, and Director of Athletics indicated the decision was also due to concerns about the team’s viability, yet subsequently, in March 2010, the wrestling team won the National Collegiate Wrestling Association Division II National Championship. Still, the team’s varsity status was not reinstated, leaving students with the perception that administrators had not been forthright in explaining the reasons for the cuts.
Enrollment Increase (September 2010)
After MIT alumnus Fariborz Maseeh generously donated $24M to complete the renovation of undergraduate dormitory W1, the MIT administration announced its decision to increase undergraduate enrollment. Once the decision had been made, student leaders were neither notified nor briefed, but rather learned of the donation and of the enrollment increase through the News Office’s Website. Since then, student involvement has continued to be inadequate, and student leaders continue to be left in the dark about implementation details, despite repeated requests for information.
The Undergraduate Association is very concerned about the lack of student input into the decision. Our concern is process, especially the process moving forward. An enrollment increase impacts every aspect of the student experience, including academics, advising, student support services, UROP funding, etc., so it would have been appropriate to consult students during the decision-making process; and it is still appropriate to involve students in the process as it moves forward.
Campus Dining Changes (Spring 2010, Fall 2010)
This fall, students expressed considerable distress over the planned changes to the dining system, through written petitions in all four dining hall dorms and through an online petition with over 1800 signatures. Setting aside questions about the recommended plan itself, there were several issues of concern with the decision-making process. Last April, the Undergraduate Association President wrote, “While [the House Dining Advisory Group] is just beginning its work, it is clear that there are already several obstacles to credibly engaging students.” Specific concerns raised included the one-and-a-half month timeline, the rigid set of assumptions governing potential meal plans, and the homogeneous nature of committee membership. Four days later, the Chancellor and the student Deans reassured, “No decision will be made without broad community input,” and, “Next year, there will be continued opportunity to refine the plan.”
Students and student leaders became increasingly concerned when the committee’s recommendations were released during finals week, its final report was released during orientation, its meeting minutes were heavily redacted, and its redacted meeting minutes from September and October were not posted until December.
This October, in response to an Undergraduate Association bill calling for the proposal to be reformed in light of the student response, the Division of Student Life spokesperson said, “The core structure of the plan, as defined by the HDAG recommendation, is not going to change.” The discrepancy between this statement and the Chancellor’s earlier one left students feeling deceived.
A Path Forward
Each of these issues occurred during the tenure of the Task Force on Student Engagement, which has failed to fulfill its mandate of “developing a philosophy guiding student involvement, recommending opportunities for greater student participation, and proposing methods to ensure success.” Instead, the TSE has scaled back meeting frequency from monthly to once per semester. Moreover, the Dean for Student Life did not even attend the most recent meeting. Three years of evidence suggest that the TSE will not be the solution to the recurring breakdown in communication.
To be clear, our intention is not to challenge the right of the administration to make the ultimate decision on any given issue, but rather to encourage them to put into place a clear and well-understood process that ensures that the student voice is heard. For the Institute to fully realize the benefits of engaging students, it must become part of our culture to consult with students on issues that matter to them. Based on the community engagement model used by the Institute-wide Planning Task Force, we propose the following steps to address the question of student engagement:
Comprehensive community engagement is vital to MIT’s success as a diverse and forward-thinking institution, and we believe that students are not the only constituency that feels excluded from decision-making. We encourage administrators to engage members of our community regularly in decision-making and treat them as agents of change. We all have an interest in making the best possible decisions for MIT. We all seek to transform MIT into an institution that will thrive into the next century. We all seek to foster a community of greatness and strength. We all must work together.