Community Critiques Cost-Cutting Ideas in Front of Task Force
At community forums held on Thursday and Monday afternoon, students, faculty, and staff voiced concerns about MIT’s preliminary cost-cutting report. Many worried about the report’s recommendations, especially the proposals to increase undergraduate enrollment by 10 percent and to decrease the number of graduate students by 1,000. Staff were concerned about potential cuts to their retirement and health benefits.
The Institute-wide Planning Task Force and the Chair of the Faculty organized the community-wide forums to invite comments about the Task Force’s preliminary report, which names over 200 ideas aimed at reducing MIT’s spending by $100–150 million over the next two to three years.
Nearly 100 community members went to the Thursday forum, and 32-155 was packed beyond capacity with 150 attending the Monday session.
Members of the task force leadership fielded questions, including Provost L. Rafael Reif, Vice Chancellor Steven R. Lerman ’72, VP for Finance Israel Ruiz GM ’01, Associate Provost Martin A. Schmidt ’88, and Chair of the Faculty Thomas A. Kochan, and addressed some of the audience’s concerns. The discussions were moderated by Professors Lawrence E. Susskind PhD ’73 and Susan S. Silbey on Monday and Thursday, respectively.
There were two forums, one Thursday at 6 p.m. in 10-250, and a second on Monday at 4 p.m., to ensure that “as many people as possible have the opportunity to attend,” the Institute-wide Planning website said. The event was advertised as “an opportunity to learn more about the Task Force recommendations and next steps, to ask questions, and to share your thoughts and ideas.”
Not many came with prepared questions, but discussion — initiated by an overview of the goals of the Planning Task Force — soon evolved into animated dialogue, covering a much wider scope.
One source of major concern was the idea to do away with guaranteed four-year housing for undergraduates. Students argued that living on campus is an important component of the student culture.
Community members also found fault with the proposal to increase the number of undergraduates by ten percent, or 400 students. Many were skeptical that increased enrollment would actually generate a profit for the Institute. They also questioned whether there would be enough teaching staff and academic support to accommodate the influx of students.
Concern Over Larger Class Sizes
One person pointed out that there can be hidden costs to scaling up. Some courses, such as Physics II (8.02) cannot easily be expanded without doubling the infrastructure. “If you increase the class size by ten, we’d have to add another section,” he said. “We use the room in every hour of the week, so we’d need another room. We’d multiply the room cost by two, and that means more equipment and more staff.”
A proposal for expanding summer session and opening it to non-MIT students was discussed, which could potentially bring in $5–6 million.
At the Monday forum, no one spoke against the idea, but on Thursday participants worried that summer session would drive up air-conditioning costs and burn out current MIT students.
“You will fry people. The tidal action of a break is critical to people that go at 112 mph.” said Edward J. Moriarty ’76, who teaches outreach programs for the Edgerton Center.
The Task Force also proposed a “3+2” option that would allow students to complete three years at a different university and two years at MIT to obtain a Master’s degree. There were also “e-learning” proposals. Neither idea received major discussion or complaints.
Drop Date Could Move Up
Another major concern brought up was the proposal to move add and drop dates earlier in the term; MIT’s drop date is later than most peer institutions. Catherine A. Olsson ’12 said that MIT’s drop date allows students to “take intellectual risks; we can try things out … It’s a key part of undergraduate philosophy. Moving that date would have a really big impact; it’s not a small administrative detail for us.”
On Monday, Alvar Saenz-Otero ’98 said “I was really shocked to see sections on how to cut costs on academics, and how to cut costs on research, but no section on how to cut administration costs. The Task Force has to create that section, even if after the fact.”
Saenz-Otero suggested the Institute would be better off cutting 1,000 staff than cutting up 1,000 graduate students, which he said would disrupt MIT’s identity as a research institution. His statement was met with applause.
Concerns related to employee benefits were raised, including retirement benefits, additions of co-payments for specialized medical expenses, and the continuation of disability benefits.
While Kochan, the faculty chair, assured members of the community that the Task Force has “no intention or recommendation to take away the disability benefit,” the issue of retirement benefits was raised again on Monday. In response to some of the concerns about retirement benefit changes affecting current employees, Kochan said on Monday that “It’s very clear there has to be some kind of grandfathering for different kinds of [retirement] benefits.”
Concerning changes in co-payments for medical procedures, Head of MIT Medical William M. Kettyle said “we will be implementing co-pays for specialty services only, and not for students.” The additional co-payments are required by Massachusetts Mental Health Parity Laws, he said.
Union workers from Service Employees International Union Local 615 were also present at the Monday forum, in distinctive purple clothing. They read from a prepared statement expressing disappointment that the union was not directly invited to participate in the cost-cutting Task Force.
“Many of the recommendations contained in this report will impact our membership,” a Local 615 Union member said. “The union truly believes that open dialogue and transparency are in everyone’s interest.”
Schmidt, one of the task force coordinators, reminded community members that no decisions have been made. “This is just a [preliminary] report to summarize and discuss what the task force has recommended,” he said.
A copy of the Task Force’s report is available at http://tech.mit.edu/V129/N31/tf/Preliminary-Report.pdf. Comments, which can be anonyous and are screened before publication, can be left at http://ideabank.mit.edu/.
The final draft of the report will be released to the public at the end of October, Schmidt said.
John A. Hawkinson contributed reporting to this article.