Mike Johnson <MikeJohnson@alum.mit.edu>
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?
Each person who was asked to respond to one of the initial five questions plus the capstone in the "Reinventing Residential Life @ MIT" program brings a unique perspective to the table. Having made the decision that MIT was the place for me 25 years ago as a sophomore in high school, I became a strong proponent of encouraging friendship and comraderie both within as well as outside my living group a long time ago and consider myself one of the earlier pioneers.
For the past several years, and long before a genuinely tragic event in September 1997, I have considered writing a book on leadership development at MIT. Some of the themes under consideration include:
As an MIT graduate, you have a responsibility to get the short list of "big ones" right. People depend on the expertise of our alumni population, in its many shapes and forms. Participants in this residential life program must get the big ones right.
There are many types of communities in all walks of life. Communities can't afford to pay everyone as an employee to contribute to their vibrance and service delivery. That cost would be prohibitive. Hence, experienced and dedicated volunteers are necessary to work with select paid staff to support their communities.
Key volunteers such as MIT alumni House Corporation presidents should never feel locked into their current roles for fear their organizations would fall apart if they personally could no longer continue, and they deserve balance in their lives.
People should be attracted to volunteer positions, should see the light at the end of the tunnel the day they step forward, should be able to provide mentoring for their successors, should feel like they are sharing the chores without being individually overburdened and should feel a sense of satisfaction for their efforts. We should all call that the "Healthy Volunteer Model" and embrace it with gusto.
Change can be healthy if change is well informed and well considered. Periodic self-evaluation should always be encouraged so that the value of what people have today can be fully appreciated.
I trust the above statements, combined with the comments below, will ultimately help result in taking today's best practices and combine them with the best practical improvements being suggested to move our overall residential system to its next higher level without compromising the extraordinary value of what we have today.
My hope and expectation is quite simple. The path to the goal line is more
to understand that MIT in 1999 is already a very diverse university and is, at the same time and as it has stated in the past, not the right place for everyone nor is everyone necessarily a good fit to become a member of the MIT community.
to respect the reputations and traditions of those members of the MIT community who were here before you arrived, whose personal direct involvement you may or may not see today but whose care and attention should continue to be felt for years to come.
to properly orient new members to MIT so that a well thought through support structure allows them to make fully informed decisions on academic offerings, living options, extra curricular activities, departmental activities, lifestyle issues, etc.
to understand the impact of your own personal decisions on both yourself and others before making those decisions and to take personal responsibility for them.
to respect the fact that people assimilate to MIT at different rates such that some can be ready to make their informed choices sooner than others and should be allowed to do so without prejudice.
to understand the structure and value of a currently implemented design solution and to anticipate the impact of changes before making potentially radical changes. That's the MIT way. Specifically, this means understanding the various entities of the residence system and the healthy relationships needed between them so that the system is structurally sound and has a long term future everyone can be proud of.
to respect the fact that the MIT fraternity, sorority and independent living group system (FSILG), a key component of the residence system, continues to exist and function due to the labors of love of a relatively small group of unpaid alumni who are generally part of national organizations with educational, social and philanthropic missions that few outside the fraternal community seem to understand.
to respect the fact that our FSILG system is the largest in New England and offers, together with MIT-owned dormitories, a wide breadth of residential living choices. One of MIT's key strengths is its residential system. The presence, reputation and opportunity for student development and alumni interaction with the university within this residential system is critical to MIT's long term success.
The privileges of adulthood that people enjoy depend on which segment of the community they belong to. For the sake of this discussion, the concentration will be on the students because they are at the center of this model.
Students attend MIT to work diligently toward their holy grails, MIT degrees, and progress from young adulthood to a higher level of maturity. Students have "bought the ticket to take the ride". That ride requires living within a set of reasonable constraints which together protect the structural soundness of the MIT community and, in particular, its residence system. It is and should be considered a privilege to be accepted and to attend MIT.
While new members can't be expected to immediately understand all the ins and outs of MIT's various complexities, they should and can be expected to use common sense as they learn. In addition, communities shouldn't be changed so that they are simply more homogeneous and easier for everyone to understand, becoming generic in that sense. New members should, however, be expected to go through both formal and informal orientations to learn and respect a core set of expectations from current members. There should be more written descriptive material available.
In the case of the FSILG system, the opportunity to join is a privilege extended to new members. The opportunity to live in MIT-owned housing is a right and a promise extended by MIT to its students. The way in which the whole process of residence selection is orchestrated requires balance, cooperation and understanding among many parties to be successful.
It would be useful to solicit and analyze input from all those who served in the key roles over the past 25 years on the Mediation Committee (as described below), or its current equivalent. This would make sure that today's policies and practices for residence selection do in fact reflect all best practices we have used. This writer has reason to believe at least one key current practice must be changed immediately.
What must occur within the residential system:
knowledge and acceptance of the responsibilities of adulthood
clear understanding of the elements of current new member education programs and support systems available to all members, including the missions of the alumni house corporations and national organizations if applicable.
realistic, defensible, accepted and well documented risk management programs for each living group
regular interaction with one or more faculty members
a mechanism for identifying at risk individuals with respect to academic challenges, personal problems (finance, health, etc)
community-wide support for the Healthy Volunteer Model along the lines of Responsibility 6 (above). MIT should look to its alumni house corporations for assistance in developing artwork for a visual model
public recognition of the leaders.
The proper balance involves direct input from students, faculty and staff alike, especially those with demonstrated interest and track records in understanding the care and patience necessary for a successful implementation. Several AIFC House Corporation Presidents should also be involved at the outset of the design, should be invited to critical stage review points and should be on the list of signoffs prior to implementation.
For Students: up to 6 units of unrestricted elective credit per semester and up to 18 total units per student (which represents up to 5% of a typical undergraduate degree requirement), for substantial leadership roles within a living group or within a recognized student government organization such as IFC, DormCon, and the Undergraduate Association. There should be more than simply personal satisfaction for facilitating healthy living group environments, and this type of reward structure represents one option for helping create mutually desired outcomes.
For Faculty: As the decision makers for the university, the faculty bear the responsibility for academic rigor within the classroom and supporting a healthy home and extracurricular environment outside the classroom. The faculty should strive for and be held to the same high standard for overall involvement in MIT life as they do for academic excellence in their chosen specialties, to the extent it does not compromise their ability to deliver in the classroom.
Each living group, both within the FSILG system as well as within the living units of the dormitory system, should strive to have either a Professor or an Associate Professor as its faculty advisor. Ideally, that advisor would have an Assistant Professor as an assistant faculty advisor, perhaps one from the same department. The potential mentoring between the two would allow the more senior person to get to better know the junior person and give the latter some additional background to be a more effective faculty advisor to individual students as (s)he progressed along a tenured faculty career track. The Institute should consider a stipend for both advisors.
For Staff: A comprehensive assessment of how staff time is currently being spent to support the residence system would enable a more direct response to this question. The thrust of the analysis would be: what are the prioritized desired outcomes, what resources are necessary to attain those outcomes, and is any additional staff time above what is currently available necessary.
The decision to hire a person to support Assistant Dean Neal Dorow was sound and appreciated. Another key staff position should be created, this one within the MIT Alumni Association, as distinct from MIT itself, to specifically support the alumni House Corporations in pursuit of the Healthy Volunteer Model.
The individual should be a seasoned organizational development professional, with experience especially in the volunteer/staff dynamic and preferably with fraternal groups. The salary should be funded in large part by nominal dues from the House Corporations, and the employee benefits should reflect those available to senior administrative staff and paid for by MIT.
Creating a Healthy Volunteer Model can and should be on the short list of desired outcomes of this project as MIT hones its understanding of how to best support its students and community. The Model could become a national one for what can be done to support the volunteer/staff dynamic and what should be done in a society that increasingly requires innovative solutions.
About this writer:
Michael A. Johnson '80 has served as a dedicated MIT volunteer for 19 years as a member of the Educational Council and for 3 years as the senior trustee of the alumni House Corporation of MIT's Beta Theta Pi chapter. He is a regular attendee of the Alumni Leadership Conferences held on campus each September.
Twenty years ago, he was elected IFC Judicial Committee Chairman and, together with the IFC Chairman, IFC Rush Chairman and their peers on DormCon served on the Mediation Committee to oversee all 1979 Rush-related activity, he as Chairman. The prior year, he had been elected Class of 1980 President and served for one year.
Within his fraternity as a student, he had served as Alumni Secretary, Assistant House manager and Assistant Treasurer. He represented his chapter as its Sophomore Leadership Fellow to the 1977 Beta Theta Pi General Convention.
At the invitation of the late Constantine B. Simonides, he was a contributor to the generational evaluation of how well the then Office of the Dean for Student Affairs was delivering student support services. He was honored to be one of the William L. Stewart Jr. Award recipients in 1980 for outstanding contributions to student life at MIT.
For two years, he served on the Board of Directors and the Executive Committee of a major Boston-based non profit organization and chaired one of five standing committees, the one focused on the support of a large group of talented volunteers. He has a keen understanding of the volunteer/paid staff dynamic, when it works and when it doesn't. He sees parallels between his experience there and the difficulties within some of the house corporation alumni volunteer/staff dynamic here at MIT.
Professionally, he is a business and technology consultant and is a partner in an innovative financial services firm.
He can be reached at MikeJohnson@alum.mit.edu and 978-762-9342.