UA, Grimson talk student engagement

New chancellor wants to collect diverse input

Replete with graying beard and Canadian accent, Saskatchewan native and newly appointed Chancellor W. Eric L. Grimson PhD ’80 met with the UA Senate for the first time Monday evening. Echoing concerns raised two weeks ago when the Senate met with MIT Corporation Chairman John S. Reed ’61, students grilled the new chancellor on student engagement, culture, and communication.

Noting that most students have only a vague idea of what role the chancellor fills, Grimson stated his job simply: “All things students.”

“All things that deal with the students have to flow up to my office,” added the 27-year faculty member. The Chancellor’s office oversees the offices of the deans for graduate education, undergraduate education, and student life.

In that vein, the Chancellor laid out his top three priorities as he assumes his new role.

“My first priority is to listen,” said Grimson, adding that he would talk to student groups, student leaders, and students in general to find the “common threads” from a multitude of voices. He emphasized the need to hear from as many groups as possible, including “collections” of students — those who may not be explicitly identifiable as leaders of student groups.

“I need to hear from people,” Grimson said to the full audience — a line he would repeat throughout the night.

Secondly, Grimson plans on improving channels of communication between students and administrators — an issue that has largely defined recent campus controversies over dining reform and orientation.

He rounded out his priorities by noting that education models change with the times, and MIT needs to keep pace. “We have to think about what the next 20 years of education ought to look like,” Grimson said. He explained that “MIT needs to stay at the very forefront of education” by intelligently taking advantage of evolving educational technologies.

Unsurprisingly, senators’ questions also focused on issues of student engagement. Timothy E. Robertson ’10, a senator from East Campus, asked the Chancellor how he felt students would fit into his new conception of functional communication channels.

“Is there someday in which I could pick a day of the week and say, ‘I’m going to be in Forbes Cafe’?” Grimson openly mused, thinking of ways to have informal communication with students. The Chancellor noted that he was still very much “toying” with the idea of open, informal lunch hours — not strictly “office hours” — but that making a commitment now would be premature.

Grimson also noted that he has seen changes in the student-administration relationship in his quarter-century as a faculty member at MIT.

“I’ve seen times when I think the level of trust has been better than it is now,” said Grimson. “Part of my concern is to rebuild that.”

The Chancellor also acknowledged that re-establishing trust between students and administrators would require efforts from both sides. “People on my end of the campus should assume that students have the best interest of the campus at heart,” said Grimson, adding that the converse is also necessary for a trusting relationship.

Among senators, the impending undergraduate enrollment increase from 4285 to 4350 in the fall — and the eventual increase to 4500 — weighed heavily. Students expressed concern that more students might strain already-stretched undergraduate facilities and classes.

“We have committed to regrowing the undergraduate class size to 4500,” said Grimson. “There have been a lot of people in various offices looking at the points that are going to feel pressure,” like TEAL, Student Support Services, and athletics, added Grimson.

Still, Grimson also explained that students’ interests and those of the administration will not always align and that compromises will have to be made.

“I don’t want you to come away with the thought that [changes are] purely driven by the finances,” said Grimson.

Similarly, Grimson said that the reasons behind some administrative decisions may not be immediately apparent to students, but those reasons are important nonetheless. Sometimes, he said, students may have ideas that aren’t practical.

“Where I don’t want to go is have students put a ton of effort into something only to have the administration say, ‘We can’t do that,’ for reasons that weren’t apparent to you,” noted Grimson. But he also gave an example of a student idea reaching fruition on a committee he chaired.

Scratching his beard and smiling, Grimson added, “I hope that students can also understand that gray hair comes with a little bit of additional experience.”