The Good, the Bad, and the Clever of The MIT Budget Task Force Report

As many are aware, MIT commissioned a task force to investigate how spending can be cut in response to last year’s global economic meltdown. In addition to the cuts already made, the Task Force has looked at a wide variety of ways for saving MIT even more money. Some of these ideas are common sense, some are quite clever, but there are one or two that are just plain bad. Not even moderately bad. Awful bad. Dining-system-reform-from-bad-to-worse bad.

First, some of the rumors going around need to be quashed. Many on campus speak in fearful tones of the dreaded online freshman year that the Task Force has proposed. Does the online freshman year appear in the billion-page analysis that I just spent the last hour reading? Yes. But peoples’ rather hushed tones of discussion leave out a rather important detail: The column right next to it reads, “would radically change MIT culture. Revenue potential $50-$100 million. Not recommended.”

This is the only time that the words “not recommended” appear together in reference to revenue, and it’s with an idea that would save quite a bit of money. Despite the monetary incentives, the Task Force was right to assert that an online freshman year would radically change MIT culture. More accurately, it would irreparably damage MIT culture. However, the report does suggest providing “e-learning” or “learning at a distance” for select undergraduate subjects. This provides a savings of $60 million annually, but doesn’t directly detract from the atmosphere of MIT. If this decreases the number of full-time students physically attending class, however, it would clearly need to be discontinued.

On to some good suggestions! For most of the summer, the dorms at MIT sit unused. The Task Force has proposed renting out the dorms during the summer, which would produce an estimated yield of $500,000. While that’s a long way from $150 million, a penny (or several billion pennies) here and there adds up. As an example, consider the low per-item cost of MIT’s reliance on paper and physical forms, but the high collective costs that result from their pervasiveness. Cutting down on mass mailings, making the graduate admissions process electronic, utilizing electronic pay stubs and W-2 forms, and essentially converting all financial paperwork to electronic systems could save the Institute a presumably huge sum of money. (The amount is not specified.) The Report states that only 57 percent of MIT procurement transactions are processed using efficient payment tools, such as eCat and P-Card, a number the Task Force believes that number can be raised up to 90 percent. That’s quite a few pennies.

How about offering the GIRs as summer classes? Freshmen would have the option to fulfill some requirements early and begin exploring their interests immediately upon arrival. These classes could also be open to non-MIT students, bringing in further income. If you’re still unsure, consider this: With only 20 classrooms, 120 12-credit, 10 week courses could be offered, netting about $5.5 million a summer before adding in housing revenue.

Another cool idea was the prospect of more actively marketing the MIT brand. The first reason I strongly support this idea is because it’s tiring going to vendors in Boston and seeing Harvard, BC, and BU T-shirts while being unable to find a single MIT article of clothing.

Besides just being awesome, this marketing could even result in a very small increase in freshman applications, beyond simply raking in money from sales. And it doesn’t have to be confined to t-shirts; how about stuffed Tim the Beavers, 3-D puzzles of MIT, or those really cool shirts with ridiculous equations that non-MIT people would buy to look smart? Actually, I’m at MIT, and that’s still the reason I buy them; I have no idea what all the squiggly symbols actually mean.

One idea I came across initially evoked a strong negative reaction, but upon further review, I have come to support it, to an extent. Please don’t stop reading after the following sentence. Shut down the Athena Clusters. This idea may seem radical at first: That would be because it is. But consider that 95 percent of all students have laptops, which has led to quite a decrease in usage of many clusters. These clusters, which get little use, clearly are not worth supporting. While some clusters are used quite often, and merit staying open, it may still be possible to cut their operating hours.

The conclusion of the report, which I agree with, states that further study is needed before any definitive action can be taken concerning the clusters. Some of that study could envision the Institute requiring that each of its students own a laptop, increasing the 95 percent number to 100 percent. Athena clusters would then serve little purpose, as it is possible to access Athena on one’s laptop. As such, it is then possible to print papers and access programs such as Mathematica. Once the initial gut reaction of “He’s crazy!!!” has passed, it is clear that this would be a great way to save money with little inconvenience to students.

Now for the ideas that I’m not a fan of. Actually, there was only one idea that I really disliked. I hinted at it in the first paragraph. Did “dining-plan-from-bad-to-worse” give it away? Well, one suggestion of the Task Force is to institute a mandatory dining plan for new students beginning in 2010. The current, optional plan is $300 for half off at the dining halls. The new plan would make it mandatory for residents of dorms with dining halls to pay for a meal plan that costs at least $1,350 a semester. According to the issue of The Tech published on February 13, 2009, “The minimal plan offers 75 meals (5 per week) and $650 in dining dollars. Freshmen living in other dormitories would have the option of selecting all of the plans available to those in AYCE [All You Can Eat] residences, plus several declining-balance plans. The cheapest — which costs $995 per semester — offers no dining hall meals and $995 in dining dollars.” There is little doubt in most students’ minds that dining needs to be reformed, but requiring students to pay more for a still unsatisfactory plan is ridiculous.

Unfortunately, it was impossible to cover the many ideas printed in small type on 14 pages of paper (which I didn’t print to save MIT money), so I encourage everyone to look up the report and further research the ideas presented at http://ideabank.mit.edu/system/files/TaskForcePrliminaryReport.pdf. These ideas all have the potential to affect most readers, so be sure to at least skim over it!

Ryan Normandin is a member of the Class of 2013.