Reinventing Student Input

Outgoing UA President Discusses This Year’s Successes, Disappointments, and How the Administration Could Better Involve Students

MIT needs to reinvent the way it solicits and uses student input.

This past year as Undergraduate Association president, I experienced a broad mix of student victories, challenges, and disappointments. During my time in office, I gained great insight into the tremendous opportunities that we have to improve the student experience and strengthen our MIT community.

UA successes and disappointments

This year was filled with dozens of great successes. When I took office last spring, Boston Daytime SafeRide had lost a significant amount of outside funding. By gathering information, crunching numbers, gaining student support, and drafting a proposal, the UA was able to emphasize the importance of this service to senior administrators who agreed to provide the necessary additional funding.

Such success stories repeated themselves throughout the year: We drafted legislation and lobbied administrators to ensure W1, the new undergraduate dormitory, receives a complete renovation as opposed to a short-term fix; we partnered with administrators to form the Blue Ribbon Committee on Dining; and we collaborated with administrators to allow Next House residents to participate in the housing adjustment lottery like most other dormitories. In each of these cases, strong relationships with key administrators were crucial to our success.

Though this year has seen tremendous success in many areas, there were a number of disappointments that suggest there is room for improvement. Our most frustrating concern has been with the lack of coordination in addressing the concerns we’ve raised about dining.

After receiving mixed signals and hearing inconsistent statements about the future of dining and the process for improving dining, the UA drafted numerous written requests to senior administrators inviting them to join us for a candid conversation to sort out our confusion. Though discussions with some administrators did alleviate some of our concerns, there was never a coordinated discussion with all the stakeholders that resolved the confusion which remains today.

In addition to the dining confusion, the infrequent opportunity for broad collaboration complicated a major UA initiative to align the fall Career Fair with an Institute holiday.

Student involvement in strategic decisions

As a result of these specific disappointments, and many others, there is a strong desire within the UA to better represent student interests on a broader range of issues. Strategic topics that have typically been outside the arena of student involvement, such as undergraduate enrollment, financial aid, responsible investment, deferred maintenance, and capital projects have a tremendous impact on the quality of student life at MIT.

Some of the most heated controversies on campus focus on these strategic decisions. Most prominently, the lack of student involvement in dormitory decisions has led to controversy about the transitions of both Ashdown House and Green Hall from graduate to undergraduate dormitories.

These concerns all come at a time when MIT is struggling to address issues of student support that are complicated by external influences. MIT continues to explore how to deal with Recording Industry Association of America lawsuits, how to balance the valuable yet risky tradition of hacking, and how to interact with the press when commenting on student behavior. Ensuring that student perspective is accurately considered in the decision-making process requires a solution on two fronts.

First, it is imperative that the student government take its responsibility to represent students seriously. If the administration cannot be confident that the student leaders are accurately representing the views of the student body, it follows that they would not engage the student government.

The responsibility to be engaged and informed cannot rest simply in the hands of the UA President, but must extend down to every Senator, every committee member, and each individual student. It is vital that UA members do a better job reaching out to their constituents and that all students be more proactive about providing feedback to the UA.

To help shift the student culture to a more representative one, the UA should be more proactive about publicity, both in The Tech and on the UA Web site (which desperately needs improvement). Furthermore, the UA should make every effort to coordinate with other student governments on campus, ranging from the Graduate Student Council to the Dormitory Council to the IFC to Panhel. Such a cultural shift towards a more representative and cooperative student governance will take time, but it requires a concerted effort on the part of the UA, as well as patience and involvement from the rest of the student body.

In addition to this internal reform, a second necessity that will ensure students are better represented is for the Institute to be more proactive about involving students in decision-making. While it is clear to everyone that students should not have the authority to run the Institute alone, it is also clear that the challenges our community faced this year require us to make changes.

MIT must think about how it collaborates with student government, how it involves students in strategic planning, and how it remains supportive of its student community in the face of unexpected influences from the outside. This is not an easy problem to solve.

A long-term solution has nothing to do with committees, process, or procedure. Rather, it requires a fundamental shift in administrative culture so that all members of the MIT community are aware of the importance their work has on the student body and take the initiative, regardless of any explicit regulation, to reach out to students when an important issue emerges. As with student government, this type of cultural shift among the administration will take time, but it is vital to the success of the Institute.

The good news is that both students and administrators are committed to making these improvements. This semester marked a major step towards achieving these difficult cultural shifts.

In an article for the March/April issue of the Faculty Newsletter, Chancellor Philip L. Clay PhD ’75, Vice President Kirk D. Kolenbrander, Graduate Student Council President Leeland B. Ekstrom, and I wrote about our concerns and our commitment to improving MIT by “strengthening the framework for students’ role in decision-making.” We charted a path forward and established the Task Force on Student Engagement.

This group has already met twice and has been charged with facilitating student-administrative communications and developing a set of principles for student involvement in Institute decision-making. I am excited to see that MIT is serious about exploring methods to strengthen our community.

How the administration can improve

In addition to the work of this task force, I would suggest the administration consider two other methods to better involve the student body and gather student input.

First, I have been thrilled with my interactions with President Susan Hockfield, but wish that there were a greater opportunity to interact with her. Everyone understands that the president’s time is precious, but more regular communication between the president and student advocates could have alleviated many of the issues we’ve dealt with before they turned into larger ordeals. Indeed, if coordinated carefully, such meetings could be one of the best ways to provide the president with consistent feedback from the student body.

Additionally, I would encourage the administration to consider lifting what appears to be a veil of secrecy to most students. Often we are confused by how decisions get made. Regardless of the outcome, students will always feel more comfortable with a decision if they feel like they understand the decision, their perspective was heard, and they were involved in the planning. Many Institute committees operate with no student involvement. Though there are often good reasons for this, there should also be better mechanisms for bringing the student perspective to those bodies when an important student concern emerges. Academic Council, the Enrollment Management Group, the Building Committee, and the Committee for the Review of Space Planning are only some examples of these decision-making “black boxes.”

We have an incredible opportunity to start fresh next fall by bringing students, faculty, and administrators together to reshape how the Institute does business and address fundamental issues of trust that have strained our community. Paramount in all of these discussions must be candid communication and a recognition across all parties that we are in this together to serve and improve MIT.

During my time in office, I have been inspired by the commitment of all members of the MIT community to take advantage of opportunities to create a stronger Institute for the future. Reinventing student input will take time, but it is an important challenge uniquely fitting for MIT’s innovative minds. I am excited to see how MIT will engineer its future.

Martin F. Holmes ’08 was the president of the Undergraduate Association for the 2007–2008 academic year.