Roadmap to reason

Promoting understanding across MIT

MIT needs to take a step back and take a look around. When it comes to student-administration interactions, we’re in a bad spot. Students have a deep mistrust of many elements of the administration, and the administration has found it extraordinarily difficult to successfully communicate with students about their motivations for student life policy changes. Both groups are talking, but the other side doesn’t understand.

For there to be any hope of the student-administration relationship improving, certain fundamental misunderstandings need to be addressed, now. If not, the administration will continue to find it difficult to implement needed reform, and students won’t be able to hold effective negotiations with the administration. Both groups need to see the other side.

Students need to understand the following:

1. The administration has MIT’s best interests at heart. And MIT’s interests often, but not always, coincide with students’ interests.

2. The administration must consider the long-term health of the Institute.

3. The administration gains nothing, and has no interest, in destroying student culture.

4. The administration is responsible for managing one of the world’s largest, richest, and most powerful research universities. It is extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, for them to please every interested party.

The administration needs to understand the following:

1. Students, in general, have a four-year stake in the university and lack a broad historical perspective.

2. The complexities of administrative workflows, red tape, and financial and legal constraints are largely alien to students.

3. Students are not blindly critical of the administration. A great deal of student support has been expressed for administrators in the past, and it will happen again when earned.

4. Students do not respond well to “just trust us” explanations. Students want to understand as much about a decision-making process as is practically feasible. Data is wonderful.

These concerns are not pedantic. Without a mutual understanding of each other’s values and perspectives, conflict and stalled progress is the only option.

The following must change for reasonable, productive discourse to happen:

1. The administration needs to ensure that communications are understood by students. This does not mean that students need to agree with the content of those communications, but that the communication style must be appropriate for the intended audience. The same type of communication that works from an intra-administrative perspective does not work when communicating to a student body. Once a message is delivered, evaluate whether it was delivered effectively.

2. Administrators, especially those intimately involved in making student policy, should hold office hours. Face-to-face communications with students are incredibly more productive than mass e-mails (for both parties). Former Dean of Student Life Larry G. Benedict implemented a weekly-office hours strategy very effectively — Dean Chris Colombo should do the same.

3. The administration has the freedom and the right to make student life policy changes. But when that happens, explain decisions as fully, openly, and honestly as possible — with the same information, students would probably come to similar policy conclusions. In the case of last year’s summer housing changes and slashed dorm budgets, an open dialogue with students went a long way. But many are still wondering about the recent proposed changes to the Orientation schedule, where meaningful information has been hard to come by.

Students can improve in their own ways:

1. Be good scientists. Get all the information you can about a proposed policy before making a conclusion. Recognize, then seek clarification on, what you don’t understand.

2. Don’t let other students dictate what you think. If you disagree with what your peers are saying, stand up and say something back, civilly. Traditional indicators of campus opinion might just be inaccurate.

3. Respect the opinions of others — students and administrators alike — especially if they disagree with you. Pure criticism will be ignored and will poison future relationships. If you disagree with a student life policy change, the arguments you should listen to most closely are those from administrators making that change. Keep an open mind.

4. Don’t lose sight of why you’re really here — to learn. The final outcome of a challenge to a new policy is much less consequential than what you learn in the process of challenging that policy. So, if you care about a dining plan or orientation schedule that you like, fight for it. But recognize that no matter what ends up happening, you still come out ahead.

Will accomplishing any of this be easy? Definitely not. Both groups will need to break their comfortable habits and account for the idiosyncrasies of the other side; the alternative is to waste time rehashing the same arguments — causing frustrations, sustaining fallacies, and improving no one’s situation. Only when students and administrators start talking with each other — not over each other — will student-administration interactions improve.

David M. Templeton and Andrew T. Lukmann have published a dissent to this editorial in this issue (http://tech.mit.edu/V131/N5/dissent.html).