Jeremy Sher <email@example.com>
Adulthood is a time of responsibility and privilege where issues such as finance, health and balance, shelter, citizenship, and values system definition are largely left to the individual to establish. Which responsibilities and privileges of adulthood should be expected of all members of the MIT community, and which should be developed over time for one or more segments? What must occur within the residential system to foster that development?
I believe that the undergraduate years are a time of testing and formulatingthe attitudes and practices of adulthood. I see university life as a "safe testing ground" where the damaging effects of mistakes are dulled by a nurturing environment, so that students can learn from failures as well as successes. For this reason, students must be given the maximum possible leeway to make personal decisions while the university ensures that these decisions are consistent with some baseline of safety that the university has a responsibility to provide.
At the one extreme, MIT may curtail large categories of individual student freedom in the name of providing a safe environment. Such overprotection is inconsistent with the need to provide for student exploration and testing of limits. On the other extreme, MIT could leave students very much alone to make their own decisions and take the consequences, good or bad. Such a hands-off approach would be a dereliction of the Institute's duty.
My answer is that MIT must enable students' personal development by providing them more opportunities to test their new freedoms, not fewer. To ensure that these opportunities are directed toward positive educational goals, MIT must enable and encourage activities within the Institute community that represent and foster the process of personal maturation. THIS MEANS THAT MIT NEEDS TO SPEND MONEY ON STUDENT PROGRAMS, INCLUDING THE RESIDENCES AND STUDENT ACTIVITIES. Former Provost Moses's $300K for student activities is appreciated, but it still puts us pathetically below average for a school our size and with our rhetoric. MIT needs to put its millions where its mouth is.
Steve Immerman suggests that we "follow the money" if we want to see where MIT's real priorities are. I'm following the money, and I see student-life program after student-life program scrounging for funds. I see students spending long hours in Lobby 10 stumping for charity from their peers so that they can participate in educational programs. My own dorm, Next House, does a theatrical production called Next Act each year, and each year we hear the same story of students going around the familiar circuit begging administrators for extra cash. Clearly residential construction is a priority, and that surprises no one given the events of last year. But how much will the Cambridge University trip cost the Institute? And how does that square with the entire annual budget of the average dorm?
My favorite passage from any MIT report is from the Ryer Report (the Committee on Student Housing, 1956) which said the following (I don't have it with me so I probably got a few words wrong -- it's on p. 24):
In the operation of the residences as an [educational system] rather than a mere caravanserai, substantial responsibility rests on the student as an individual. ... The freshman should be able and expected to seek counsel whenever the crucial or the new confronts him; the upperclassman should afford him that counsel; and the university should maintain a system in which these things can take place, preferably with only minimal guidance from the Faculty and administration.
The residences are a natural place for much of this action, and in fact the Ryer Committee in this passage was referring to dormitory government. Residence-based and non-residence-based out-of-classroom student activities provide a safe and natural learning laboratory for the roles of adulthood. Business, citizenship, interpersonal and intercultural interaction, hard work, all are informed and encouraged within the residential system. But the only way to ensure that these programs meet their potential is for MIT to put its money where its mouth is, and on an order of magnitude higher than is currently done. Residence- based programs (discussed in the Academic Choices Report I prepared for Peggy Enders in summer 1998) must be supported and enabled. Activities not based in the residences must be similarly supported and enabled. As long as students are left to scrounge and beg for the wherewithal to participate in their own maturation processes, MIT will be derelict in its duty.
On request I will be happy to send a brief paper I wrote for the Task Force, entitled "The Transition to Adulthood." I have permission to publicize that document. It does not concentrate on money -- which I sincerely believe is the Institute's most pressing issue right now -- but on general theories about growing up in college.
Any redesign of the residential system should be primarily driven by students and alumni. Students actually have to live in the residential system, and so they should have the primary role in its design.
Faculty should inform the process by deciding how the offerings of the residential system fit into the Institute's major educational priorities. The idea that students are primarily here to learn one narrow field is wrong. MIT must not only provide students excellent education in their fields; it must recognize that, in the words of the Lewis Report, "education is preparation for life." As the intellectual agenda-setters of MIT, the Faculty should give substance to the residences' role in the educational mission, and should make it clear that they believe in having MIT fulfill its responsibility as a residential university.
Staff, particularly deans, should advocate for students' interests at MIT. They should continually remind the Institute of its responsibility to the residential system, and they should work to make that system excellent. Additional staff time should be procured (this requires a commitment of money) to support each residence hall in coordinating educational programs for that house. This system of "Associate Housemasters" is elaborated on in the "Academic Choices" report I did last summer; the report is available from Peggy Enders.
I do not know enough about faculty and staff reward structures to prescribe a system of incentives. However, I think it is urgent that those acting on the residential system not have to do that as volunteers, on top of several other paid priorities. As Andy Eisenmann stated in the "Academic Choices" report, MIT has relied far too much on volunteerism and good will in the residential system. As a result, student life and community has always been the last priority. If MIT hopes to remain competitive, this must come to an end. Time must be paid for; people must be compensated; quality must be bought. Quality cannot simply be summoned out of thin air.
Students care so much about the residential system that MIT might be able to get away without rewarding them at all for their participation. Resist this temptation. It is crucial that MIT send a clear message to students that the residential system is a priority, and the way to do that is to reward them. Credit, formal recognition, even paid student internships in the Dean's Office are all ways to reward student participation and to send a simultaneous message that the residential system matters.