The Failure of the Task Force on Student Engagement

Why President Hockfield Needs to Intervene

A little more than a year ago, I sat down with Martin F. Holmes ’08 — my successor as Undergraduate Association President — and then-Graduate Student Council President Leeland B. Ekstrom PhD ’09 to pen a letter expressing our serious concerns regarding the lack of meaningful student involvement in Institute decision making and outlining our proposals for change. The issue of student input, which had begun to resurface as a concern during my term in office, came to a head last year after the Institute’s handling of the arrest of Star A. Simpson ‘10, the surprising announcement of Green Hall’s conversion to undergraduate housing, poor communication regarding the future of W1 and student dining, as well as a number of hacking incidents. After a series of negotiated edits and changes, this letter — which was eventually co-signed by Mr. Holmes, Mr. Ekstrom, Chancellor Phillip L. Clay PhD ’75, and Executive Vice President Kirk D. Kolenbrander — was published in the Faculty Newsletter and called for the establishment of a Task Force on Student Engagement.

This original letter — as well as the task force’s official charge, drafted last May — clearly defined the scope and purpose of the committee as well as its primary goals. First and foremost, the task force was charged with “developing a philosophy guiding student involvement, recommending opportunities for greater student participation, and proposing methods to ensure [such methods’] success.” The charge even identified a series of discrete tasks to accomplish: (1) pinpoint Institute decisions that are most important to students, (2) identify current pathways used for decision-making, (3) explore opportunities to strengthen student input into the current process, and (4) promote best practices for both formal and informal communication on key issues.

Today, more than a year later, almost none of these goals have been accomplished. It is clear that the task force has failed to make meaningful progress in addressing its charge. Instead of attempting to solve this long-standing and critically important issue, the committee seems intent on dragging its heels. Instead of discussing reforms to the way that students engage with the entire gamut of decision-making processes at the Institute, the task force has devolved into a kind of leadership pow-wow where student leaders can rub shoulders with senior administrators.

The Undergraduate Association itself has recently begun to lose confidence in the task force, citing a lack of meaningful progress and poor attendance by the Panhellenic Association, Interfraternity Council, and Dormitory Council officers. (Who can blame them? Nobody wants to participate in a committee that has no intent to ever really address its charge.) In an ironic twist, the task force has even come to represent the very lack of transparency that it was charged to overcome by refusing to publicly issue agendas or minutes of its meetings.

It is in the best interest of MIT’s administration and its student leaders to recognize that the same problems that led to the creation of the task force still exist today. A tremendous degree of mistrust between students and administrators remains. This year, this tension was manifested by the establishment of the student-led Campaign for Students protest group and by the organization of a series of well-attended demonstrations in opposition to changes to campus dining and cuts to the varsity sports program.

If President Susan J. Hockfield and the rest of the Institute’s senior administrators are serious about their call for a stronger and more cohesive MIT community, they must start by enfranchising the student body. Students need to feel that they are full and active members of the campus community — partners in the process of continually improving the Institute. As partners, they deserve a strong level of influence over the very decisions that have the potential to significantly affect the student experience at this unique institution.

As such, I call on President Hockfield to take an active role in ensuring that the task force begins to accomplish the goals that it was established to address in the first place. The President should also begin to foster and promulgate a new status quo amongst staff and administrators that (as last year’s letter called for) “consultation with students should be the default position whenever possible.” Only when the administration begins to take the issue of student engagement seriously — from the top to the bottom — will the painful tears in the bonds of the MIT community begin to mend.

Andrew T. Lukmann ’07, a current Tech Opinion writer, was president of the Undergraduate Association in 2006–2007.