The Brilliant and the Dangerous Ideas of The Institute-Wide Planning Task Force

One of the best characteristics of MIT is the freedom the Institute offers to its students. Of course, we all have to satisfy the GIRs, but from sports to UROPs, MIT students have options. In harsh economic times, when we must cut back, do we have to cut back by reducing these options?

I do not think so. The Preliminary Report of the Institute-wide Planning Task Force includes outstanding, creative, and ingenious ideas for reducing costs. It provides a great deal for us to think about. Everyone who cares about MIT should read and consider it (log in with MIT certificates at http://ideabank.mit.edu to view the Report). The MIT community has to prioritize these ideas, from the most desirable to the most unbearable. Some of the ideas improve and expand upon the Institute’s mission of bettering the world through educating more people. These superior recommendations both extend MIT to new groups while not harming the educational process. They offer more options, not less. We have to view the results of the Preliminary Report in terms of which suggestions give students the most amount of freedom.

The best ideas in the report are the ones that, rather than reduce costs by cutting services, increase revenue by offering new educational products and opportunities. The proposals for a summer session, utilizing summer dorms more effectively, and offering e-learning for profit are all options, not mandates. Students can choose whether they want them or not.

There are two benefits to this kind of cost cutting. First, it does not reduce services. Instead, it provides new options, allowing students to choose when they want to take classes or, in the case of e-learning, where students want to learn. Second, these new opportunities do not force students into them — they merely offer additional options. If a student wants to go through MIT without ever taking a course during the summer session, that student could keep a classic schedule. I would certainly take and pay for summer courses. I could get requirements out of the way so I would have more time to take other courses during the fall and spring semesters. Plus, these recommendations are more than ways to cut costs. They could improve MIT even in better financial times.

There are, however, recommendations that the Institute should enact only as a last resort. Increasing undergraduate enrollment, decreasing graduate enrollment, and increasing the student to teacher ratio all have tangible harms on educational quality. We all understand that if necessary, the Institute may have to take more drastic action than the suggestions offered in the report. We still have to rank the recommendations within the report on their desirability and implement the most desirable first. Increasing undergraduate enrollment will lead to increased crowding while decreased graduate enrollment will mean less research and a smaller pool for teaching assistants. Combining these two suggestions will lead to an increased student-teacher ratio.

Increasing this ratio has particular significance to MIT. One of the arguments that the Preliminary Report posits is that peer institutions have a higher student-teacher ratio than MIT. Page seventeen of the report cites Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Princeton and Stanford as having higher ratios. This is a logical fallacy. It is an “appeal to common practice.” MIT needs a high student-teacher ratio because quantum physics is usually harder to understand than political science. Abstract and complex technical concepts require interaction between students and teachers. MIT students are already drinking from a fire hose. We should not have to drink alone.

MIT students operate on the edge. There is a delicate balance between insane workloads and total collapse. Take away the supports that students require to succeed, and they collapse. Give us options, and many of us will perform better. But if we have to work in a crowded and inhospitable environment, cost cutting will jeopardize our education and our sanity.

Charles B. Barr is a member of the Class of 2013.