Presidential search team holds student forums

Joint GSC/UA task force charged with assessing student opinion on the next MIT president

The Graduate Student Council/Undergraduate Association student advisory group to the Presidential Search Committee have initiated a series of public forums with the intent of getting student input on the search for MIT’s next president. The first of these forums was held on Tuesday evening in Ashdown House’s Hulsizer Room.

The forum drew 19 people, mostly graduate students, and about a third were members of the student advisory group itself. After a brief presentation on the mechanics of the search process and a high-level overview of the president’s role, committee members broke the audience into two groups for open-ended roundtable discussions. Members of the student advisory group’s “executive team” — including Bryan Owens Bryson G, Ellan F. Spero G (also the GSC vice president), Alex J. Evans G (the GSC president), and Amanda C. David ’13 (the UA vice president) — led the discussions.

According to the committee’s presentation, the first phase of their work is “information collecting” — using forums, online feedback, and focus groups to “gather student opinions on qualities and characteristics that they would like an MIT president to possess.” The student advisory group will frequently communicate with the Presidential Search Committee — the faculty and MIT trustees who winnow the field of candidates to one or two people — but will otherwise function autonomously. The student advisory group will not be constrained by the candidates that the Search Committee considers, according to the presentation.

Later, the advisory group will conduct their own investigations of particular candidates, and present suitable names to the Presidential Search Committee. To ensure the advisory group and Search Committee work in concert, the Search Committee will also communicate names under consideration to the student group, according to Evans.

To provide context for the audience, advisory group members described the president’s job as protecting and supporting “four endowments of the Institute”: financial, intellectual, physical, and alumni. The president must “represent MIT internally and externally to variety of constituencies,” they said, summing up the job succinctly: “The president has to deal with 17- and 77-year-olds who are both brilliant.”

Bryson, who as a freshman served on the 2004-equivalent group which selected Hockfield, cited the 2004 committee’s public report as an example of the committee’s potential output. He encouraged students to read that report. (Bryson used the name Bryan D. Owens at that time).

At the roundtable discussions, attendees were asked to chime in on what they thought were MIT’s values, and on what they thought should characterize an MIT president.

Some students pointed to an attitude of academic independence and decentralized administration as a core MIT value. Others added that a collaborative intellectual spirit defined the Institute. Some pointed to growing ties to MIT and industry, embodied by extensive commercial development in surrounding areas. Several were present as representatives of their departmental groups, intended to determine how best for those departments to participate in the search process.

Graduate students also expressed concern over rising costs and increasingly constrained research budgets, noting that federal research dollars will not continue to flow as freely.

Concerns over student mental health and the impact of MITx on campus learning also made it into the discussion.

Additional topics included the importance of teaching at the undergraduate and graduate levels, of diversity, and of international engagement.

The student advisory group held another public forum in Walker Memorial yesterday evening. The next one will be Monday, March 19 at noon, in room 5-134. For the full schedule, see

John A. Hawkinson contributed reporting to this article.