Opinion guest column

Building better shuttles

A case study for student involvement

Though the Institute is famous for its ability to innovate for the greater society, it is also equally well-positioned to solve for problems residing within its own walls. As opposed to bringing in expensive outside consultants or expanding the administrative hierarchy in order to address the dynamic issues/problems facing MIT, we would like to propose a paradigm shift towards looking inwards first to see what types of novel solutions can be generated far before RFPs and Calls for Applicants are ever distributed. As a basis for this hypothesis consider that this month, members of the Committee on Student Life (CSL) received a presentation from the Graduate Student Council’s (GSC) Transportation Working Group (TWG) which did just that: The TWG leveraged MIT skill sets to help it creatively solve shared problems and seize upon new opportunities.

Specifically, the team worked to amalgamate large data sets from around the Institute in order to optimize existin g and future MIT shuttle lines by creating unique algorithms to maximize not only the number of students, staff, and faculty served, but also reduce the cost per student which the Institute incurs by offering such services. The final result, which was presented to the Institute Committee on Transportation and Parking this last Monday (April 23) proposed a completely new shuttle line which aimed to serve the nearly 2,000 off-campus graduates living east of Massachusetts Avenue (around Inman and Union Squares) which currently have zero service options after 7 p.m. Conservative estimates placed this new service at a quarter of the per person cost of other existing lines. Perhaps the most exciting part is the fact that all of the members of the working group are MIT students — while Institute staff data were consulted and Institute data was used for the analysis, no outside consultants had to be brought in (or paid!) to tackle this project. Worth mentioning are the contributors to the project: Pierre-Olivier Lepage G, Alexandre Jacquillat G, Yunke Xiang G, Alexandra Malikova G, Iain Dunning G, and Maokai Lin G.

We believe this particular project has yielded not only an explicit opportunity for the Institute to improve its services for its stakeholders but has, from a much higher-level perspective, offered to us an excellent template for how students and faculty can add significant value to institutional decision-making processes and how the proper engagement of these groups results not only in shared governance driven buy-in but, more importantly, a better product at the end of the day. In a year checkered with concerns about community inclusion surrounding MITx, MIT 2030, and the Kendall Square development projects, the CSL sees the accomplished work by the TWG as the first step in a greater collaboration space between the Institute and the student body, and we encourage the Institute to listen to their recommendations and act upon them. Furthermore, we encourage the Institute to call upon its students and faculty in its times of need — task them with creating project proposals, provide basic resources to help them get off the ground, and empower the student body to take a greater interest the future of the Institute.

Transportation is only one area of development for the Institute — moving forward, we can only begin to imagine the potential for savings if the Institute looked toward to its students and faculty to assist in other efforts. Students, too, can benefit from getting real-world experience by being encouraged to turn the MIT world around them into a living laboratory. For example, the TWG developed procedures and algorithms that at the very least should lead to a new shuttle line that will greatly help MIT. After the shuttle starts and runs, the resulting data can be used with the process and algorithms to yield a fantastic journal article that can help others around the world learn from what we did and evolve theideas for their own good. Even more interesting is the fact that many communities likely have the same needs, and the TWG might be able to create a startup by leveraging their recently generated intellectual property! A company that knows where and when really bright people are would be extremely valuable to a giant digital entity that thrives on selling advertising or local businesses that can offer time of day specials. If the true goal of the Institute is to shape the leaders and problem solvers of the next generation, what better way than to give them the chance to impact and take ownership over the smaller petri dish which is MIT before launching into their professional careers?

To make all this even more interesting, MIT stands to further benefit in a big way by encouraging and facilitating this sort of activity because it has the potential to not only improve the happiness of students lives while they are here, but also propel them into lucrative (and potentially beneficent) positions later in life! If that’s not enough, imagine the real economics of something like the shuttle: It may have a direct cost of about $300k/year, but if it means 1,000 graduate students feel safe going home one hour later per day, that equates to perhaps 200,000 more person hours work per year, and the increased research productivity dwarfs any costs associated with the line.

In conclusion, going far beyond simple first order thinking is what has made MIT perhaps the best educator of problem solvers on the planet, and it’s within our reach to practice what we teach: Mens et Manus et get it done! ☺

Brian Spatocco is GSC president-elect, Karen Sittig ’12 is a member of the CSL, and Alexander Slocum ’82 is the Pappalardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Chair of the CSL.

1 Comment
Milan Moravec about 11 years ago

UC Berkeley--one of the top universities in the nation, home to some of the finest professors, graduating some of the brightest students--cant figure out how to save money. No joke. UC Berkeley spent $3 million plus expenses to hire an out-of-state auditing firm to help them find ways to reduce spending.

According to Contra Costa Times When UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau ($450,000,000 salary) was confronted with the $150 million challenge, he gave the matter deep thought, turned his focus eastward to a consulting firm and agreed to pay a $7 million budget over the next two years for someone else to solve the problem.

We never attended business school, but were pretty sure that one of the definitions of financial crisis is spending $7 million on consultants to tell you how to get by with $150 million less than you thought you had.

The rationale for hiring the firm given by Vice Chancellor Frank Yeary: I understand at one level, if you dont have enough money, why are you spending money on external consultants? Most people who are closer to it say its more sophisticated than that.

If we spend $1.5 million this year and $1.5 million out of savings next year and were successful in delivering tens of millions of dollars in savings every year, I think thats the goal against which we should be judged.

Incredible! Millions of dollars could have been saved just by using the expertise on UC campuses. The system has, for example, multiple senior administrators who are getting nice paychecks for their expertise, the Budget Office staff gets paid to solve budget problems,the renowned Haas School of Business has a world class lineup of business experts and graduate programs in financial engineering, accounting, financing, and operations management.

Moreover, the funds used to pay the high cost of hiring outside consultants could have been used to make up for state budget cuts, student fee increases, furloughs and layoffs.

But, according to Vice Chancellor Frank Yeary, The reason for not relying on internal experts is that self-diagnosis is not always impartial.

If this is the reasoning by UC Berkeley decision makers, it is no wonder they are in a fiscal crisis. If the university system cant trust its internal audits, maybe it is time for outside auditors to make all the universitys financial decisions. Those decisions might be based on more practical thinking than those made by the current university senior management.