Dean for Graduate Education Steven Lerman ’72 Shares Thoughts on MIT

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Steven R. Lerman ’72 is the Dean for Graduate Education.
Martin Segado—The Tech

This is the first interview in a five-part series introducing incoming students to some of MIT’s faculty, staff, and student leaders. Today, The Tech interviews Steven R. Lerman ’72, Dean for Graduate Education, who offers advice for incoming students, discusses his work with graduate students, and shares his memories of being an undergraduate at MIT.

The Tech: You’ve been at MIT since you came here for your undergrad. What about this place keeps you here?

Steven Lerman: I love the interplay among technology, science and education. For me the exciting part of my work is educating a new generation that’s going to invent the future. Being at MIT is the merger of the two things that excited me when I was young: teaching and science.

TT: What’s a typical day like for you?

SL: Lots of time in meetings. I mostly deal with questions of two types. One type is from individual students. Some amount of my work is helping students resolve individual problems: problems with funding, problems with their research supervisors, et cetera.

The other issues I deal with are about setting new programs and policies. For example, we’re about to roll out a new dental plan for grad students. Another example from last year is a new policy that gives graduate students a P/D/F grading option for courses outside their majors. Policies such as graduate financial aid — how do we support more grad students — are also important.

Aside from that, my wife and I are housemasters at one of the graduate dormitories … The Warehouse … so I spend a lot of time working with students there: everything from helping in the dorm government to participating in social activities. Privately, I love the theater, music, and books of various sorts, both technical and non-technical.

TT: What advice do you have for new students (both freshman and incoming grad students) regarding adjusting to MIT?

SL: One of the most important things is that MIT works best for those who exert their own control over their lives. People aren’t necessarily going to come up and ask you if you want things. MIT works best when you come and ask, when you say ‘I need this, I have this problem, help me solve it.’ It’s a place that can be incredibly responsive when you can articulate something that makes educational or research sense and you want to work to achieve it. It doesn’t work nearly as well for the student who is more passive. MIT is tremendously flexible if you ask, but isn’t going to find you and lead you by the hand.

TT: As Dean for Graduate Education, one of your roles involves working with the GSC. How would you define that relationship? What happens when interests collide?

SL: We talk about it. Once in a while we disagree, but it’s always about finding a middle ground. They’re helping express what the priorities are from the infinite number of things we can do, and they have been very helpful with that.

Most of what they want makes pretty good sense; my job is translating their desires into decisions by the senior administration … helping them find solutions and implementing them in a way that makes sense.

The graduate student dental plan is a great example. The impetus came from the GSC. We’ve always known it would be great to have a dental plan for grad students, but the real energy came from the GSC. At some point in a student initiative they need an administrative unit to run it, advocate for it, negotiate a contract, and it’s unreasonable to expect students to do all that.

Another example is the P/D/F option for grad courses; that originated from them. Still another example is the GSC’s work to collect the data that made grad student stipend increases happen.

TT: I understand that you’re director of the Center for Educational Computing Initiatives … so you spend a lot of time thinking about effective ways of teaching and learning?

SL: Well, about finding ways to use technologies to improve teaching.

TT: Fair enough. So what do you think about TEAL? I know a lot of students have pretty strong opinions …

SL: TEAL in the long term is the correct direction for MIT to be going. It’s something that diverges from the dominant culture of learning and teaching at MIT, the lecture format. And although students have mixed opinions, almost all of the studies that have been done suggest that well-constructed and active learning is the better way to teach. Of course, there are always some students for whom one teaching method works better than others, so we have to provide for other options, but by and large the evidence is overwhelming that the more you, as a learner, are actively engaged, the better you learn.

Some students found the change hard to adapt to, and there are certainly parts of TEAL that change the culture of learning, but overall I’ve been a strong supporter. By the way, the project was mostly done in my center, led by John Belcher.

TT: So what’s the future of TEAL? Is there a TEAL 2.0 coming out of CECI?

SL: Well, although TEAL migrated from 8.02 to 8.01, whether it makes sense to create its counterparts in other GIR components of the curriculum is less clear to me … maybe it doesn’t make sense in math, for example. So the plan is to let TEAL continue, observe how it gets changed; let individual faculty adjust it.

There are other classes that are not TEAL, but use TEAL ideas. One example is the class I have been teaching up until this year, 1.00. Instead of lecturing for an hour, we alternate between short lecture sessions and active learning sessions. This is not quite the same structure as TEAL, but uses the idea of active learning in class. Most students find that a more interesting class section.

But overall, the evolution of teaching styles has to happen organically, not by one person dictating the change.

TT: To change gears a bit, how has MIT changed since you first came here?

SL: It’s changed in some obvious ways, and in some more subtle ways. The most obvious is composition of student body; we are much more diverse … by gender, ethnically, racially, religiously, however you measure it. MIT was a much more homogenous sliver of the American population than it is today. Today the MIT population looks a lot like America; half women, 25 percent underrepresented minorities. When I was a student we were very white male, and to a lesser extent Asian male. My years as an undergrad were about the time the shift started to occur. As a result of our diversity, today’s students are much more qualified. The most obvious way is looking is at verbal SAT scores (our math scores were always high).

At the graduate level, the most noticeable change is internationalization. While we’re not as good of a representation of the American population, we’re an interesting representation of the world’s population. Nearly forty percent our graduate students are neither permanent residents nor citizens of the U.S.

We are, as always, very dependent on research. The endowment has grown much faster than inflation, and so we’re able to do many things to support undergrad and grad students, with a range of fellowships and scholarships. That is due to the generosity of our alumni and the extraordinary performance of our endowment. That’s all good for the students. In the end that makes MIT more accessible financially than it was previously.

And the life sciences over the years have grown from a rather small group to something that permeates the Institute. More and more faculty are either using tools or methodologies in life sciences than has ever been the case.

TT: What are your most and least favorite parts of MIT?

SL: I have two favorite parts: the students and the faculty.

They go together. The faculty want to be here because of the quality of the students. And most of the students want to be here because of the faculty. As important as facilities and all those things are, the faculty and students are most important. As soon as you lose either part, you tend to go into a downward spiral. The preservation of this excellence is the single most important goal when running this university.

TT: How about student health? To what extent is this a priority when running MIT? Does [the Office of the Dean for Graduate Education] deal specifically with it?

SL: Things like both mental and physical health are important in and of their own right … so my office definitely supports the changes at MIT that have made health services better and more accessible. We’re not the health department, but we do try to contribute to grad student life more generally. Students can apply for funding to grad activities, for example.

The biggest single thing [MIT has done recently] has been the growth of a large residential graduate population. In the past eight years we have opened three new graduate dorms; the residential population of grad students on campus is now close to 2500 students. That’s had a tremendous positive effect on community, and it produces interesting activities, things that grad students can do together. For instance, participation in club and IM sports is much higher.

TT: Speaking of community, what do you think about dining at MIT? What’s the solution?

SL: I think it’s fair to say we still don’t have dining completely right here. The symptoms are so obvious: students aren’t happy, and the senior administration is not happy. We’re still struggling to find the right dining model that works well for our students and our culture. We’re experimenting, which is healthy, but we need to learn from that.

If you go back to the 1960s and 1970s, we built a number of dorms without thinking through what the long term vision for dining at MIT would be. It was an era of extreme individualism, with students not wanting and not advocating for dining options. We’re still unwinding the consequences of those decisions, trying to find a new model that will serve today’s students. We want good quality food, reasonable costs, and an environment that students want to be in. I think that if we provide the right dining options, today’s students would be interested.

TT: What are your short-term and long-term goals as the Dean for Graduate Education?

SL: There are four main areas my office focuses on. One is working with academic departments to achieve a greater level of diversity in the departments. This can only be accomplished by partnering with departments, and helping to find students, recruiting, and convincing them to come here rather than to one of our competitors.

The second area is increasing financial support for students. We do this by increasing the number of fellowships for grad students, raising money for supporting students over their entire time here, and making students aware of other funds. I also work with the Resource Development office on fund raising, particular with donors who are interested in providing support to students.

The third area is improving graduate community and expanding support for student activities. This year we piloted the Graduate Community Fellows program, where students are funded to undertake work that helps the graduate community. This year we funded five fellows, and next year hope to fund ten to twenty. Each works with a staff member to do various projects.

The fourth area is business processes, and this is sort of a catch-all. We are working on ways to make things that students have to do easier. Petitioning, for example, is currently all paper-based. Standard things, such as making sure we understand our financial resources in order to increase fellowship support also fall into the category of improving business practices with the ODGE [Office of the Dean for Graduate Education].

TT: As an undergraduate, what was your favorite class?

SL: It was my first introduction to computing … actually, it was really two classes. One is, interestingly enough, the one I’ve been teaching over the past 10 or more … 1.00! The other was an operating systems course that at the time was the equivalent today of 6.01 or 6.001 — a big undergraduate course in CS. I think it was 6.251, but I wouldn’t swear to that.

TT: What sort of activities did you do as a student?

SL: UROP was a huge deal for me. I UROPed for pay because I needed the money. I mostly developed software for a project being run in the Civil Engineering department. I did that up until I started graduate school, almost every summer.

I also did odd jobs; the most interesting was that I used to drive a handicapped person from Lincoln, MA. In the morning, I’d drop my wife off at Tufts, drive out to Lincoln, drive him into town, and in the afternoon, I’d reverse the route …

TT: Including picking up your wife?

SL: Of course; she needed to get home too! I had a Volkswagen Beetle, one of those old, noisy 4 cylinder, run-down cars that were popular with college students in the ‘70s. I put an incredible number of miles on that car … [The man I drove] was a lawyer. He got polio as an adult, just before the Salk vaccine was available. He was handicapped as a result of that.

TT: Anything else? Do you have any other advice for new students?

SL: I’d just like to reiterate that MIT works best for those who are proactive rather than passive. It’s amazing what can get done here by students, faculty or staff when they can articulate what they want.

MIT is not particularly hide-bound to tradition; we’re open to change. But it’s best when the change originates from students advocating for what they need or what students collectively need.