When students get a say
Two years ago, as I was becoming more involved in MIT’s undergraduate student government, I read an article in the faculty newsletter by Martin Holmes et al. entitled The Task Force on Student Engagement: A Path Forward (http://web.mit.edu/fnl/volume/204/martin.html). The opening paragraph succinctly put the latest student engagement struggles into context: “In recent months, MIT’s undergraduates and graduate students have expressed concern about their role in certain decisions, including the way NW-35 was presented to the community, the conversion of Green Hall to undergraduate housing, and communication regarding W1 and student dining.” As I mentioned in a previous piece (One Undergraduate Voice, http://tech.mit.edu/V130/N3/bennie.html), members of the MIT Community have responded to this call for student engagement through a variety of efforts. Some of them have been very successful in informing students or collaborating with them, while others have fallen short.
In this article I will recount three experiences that demonstrate best practices and areas for improvement in engaging students: the Dean for Undergraduate Education Visiting Committee’s meeting, the Housing Strategy Group’s work on summer housing utilization, and the House Dining Advisory Group’s work on improving house dining.
DUE Visiting Committee
For those unfamiliar with the visiting committee structure, the MIT Corporation uses 31 visiting committees to evaluate the status of major units within MIT (all of the academic departments along with other important groups such as DAPER and the Libraries). These committees, composed of MIT Corporation members, alumni, and professionals familiar with the unit under review, assess the current situation within a specific unit and make recommendations for improvement. The primary mode for student input during these meetings is a student-only lunch with the committee members. The DUE Visiting Committee held its regular biennial meeting on campus last month.
In the past, students selected to meet with a visiting committee received little information beyond a time and a place. Breaking from that tradition, students that were invited to the DUE Visiting Committee received a copy of the committee’s agenda, indicating the topics on which they were receiving presentations. Along with a snapshot of the current work of the committee, the major topics in the committee’s report two years ago were available. While many of the issues were not surprising, a few were not on the radar of many of the students attending. For example, one surprising topic sought to understand student self-confidence at MIT. Given a few days to reflect on this issue, I was able to share several salient examples of relevant situations faced not only by me, but also by other undergraduates that I had time to ask. Using the information provided, students gained a better understanding of the Visiting Committee’s priorities and were much more prepared for the conversations that took place that afternoon.
HSG summer housing utilization
In its final report, the Institute-wide Planning Task Force recommended that summer on-campus housing be “defragmented” as a mechanism to reduce the costs associated with spreading 600-800 undergraduates over a space that is used to house roughly three times that number of people during the academic year. This was a situation in which a majority of students clearly wanted one outcome (for all dorms to remain open) and administrators wanted another.
The way that HSG tackled this issue is laudable. Individuals from Residential Life put together a plan that they felt met the needs for the community: a list of dorms that need renovations which could be completed over the course of a summer, a list of dorms that were booked for summer conferences, and three dorms that could accommodate the diversity of living styles on campus. When students asked for justification regarding how the dorms were categorized, clear numbers were presented backing up claims. When students asked about smoking, cats, desk workers, storage, transportation and ensuring students could block with other students from their dorm, Residential Life worked to ensure that those needs could be met. When it came time to communicate a final decision to the undergraduate population, student representatives were in a position to help present the case for change, making sure to emphasize where the cost savings were coming from and the renovations that could be expected in dorms that were closed. This collaborative working style resulted in an outcome that both students and administrators supported, even though the initial situation looked bleak. As a final sign of teamwork, HSG agreed to review the decision annually in order to determine where improvements could be made and which dorms would be open in future summers.
HDAG was brought together earlier this month to advise the Dean for Student Life on the creation of a new (and more cost effective) solution to house dining at MIT. Following in the wake of the Blue Ribbon Dining Committee and the Undergraduate Association’s Dining Proposal Committee, this group of administrators, housemasters, and students from the five dining hall dorms (Baker, McCormick, Next, Simmons, and the Phoenix Group) has a monumental task: students want a healthy, cheap dining situation with more choice.
While this group is just beginning its work, it is clear that there are already several obstacles to credibly engaging students. The time between the creation of this committee and a final decision is approximately one and a half months, which is simply not enough time. On a matter of such great importance, it is unlikely that student input can be collected and incorporated in any meaningful way before students depart for the summer. In order to meet the time constraints, HDAG members have been presented with a rigid set of assumptions: there will be a meal plan and it will involve at least a certain number of meals per week. These assumptions are the only real decisions that most students care about and insisting that they are part of any solution creates an impediment to meaningful dining conversation. Unlike the assumptions that were made by Residential Life in the summer housing utilization decision that were logical and able to stand up to a challenge, it appears that the assumptions made by HDAG are not up for negotiation. Finally, HDAG membership is drawn exclusively from the five dining hall dorms and provides students outside those dorms with only limited channels for input through an Idea Bank and public forums, both of which appear to be behind schedule.
There is a lot to learn about the value of student engagement from these recent examples. Administrators and students can work as equals on issues important to both parties. When information flows freely and students are involved at the beginning of the decision-making process, the results benefit the entire MIT Community. On the other hand, problems can emerge when decisions appear to be rubber stamped by students with limited choices on a tight deadline. There have been some major improvements in the realm of student engagement this past year and I think we can all look forward to future refinement.
Michael A. Bennie ‘10 is the current president of the Undergraduate Association.