A chat with the Chancellor

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Chancellor Eric Grimson PhD ’80
Elijah Mena—The Tech

“All things students” is how you’ll often hear Chancellor Eric Grimson, PhD ’80, describe his job. The chancellor is one of the two most senior academic officers at MIT (along with the Provost). He is responsible for graduate and undergraduate education, student life, student services, and other areas that affect the MIT student experience. The Tech sat down with him last Friday to hear his thoughts about the stresses and pressures of MIT.

The Tech: Describe your general impression about stress and pressure at MIT.

Eric Grimson: There’s an element to pace and pressure at MIT that I think many of us would say is — I’m going to misuse the phrase — but part of our DNA. It’s part of what makes MIT graduates great. I’ve heard that from students who say that you head out into the real world and you’re geared to deal with juggling constraints and unclear demands. But I worry that there are aspects to the pace and pressure that are extreme.

TT: What’s an example?

EG: If you look at the student surveys about self confidence, you see this frustrating and worrying trend that students come in as freshmen brimming with confidence and it really drops. It starts to come back as you head out as seniors, and if you look at alumni five years out they’re back.

I’m not saying that we need to change this place dramatically to make it summer camp — we’re never going to do that. There’s a part of learning how to do juggling etc. that is part of the skills you learn as an MIT student, but I really worry when I see students’ self-confidence taken away.

TT: How do the faculty tie into this issue?

EG: I think there are far too many courses at MIT that in the catalog say they are 12 units. I won’t say there’s a zero missing, but they’re sure not 12 units. They may not be 120, but they’re not close to 12. Even for a great student, they’re 20 unit classes. That’s not realistic. That’s faculty not calibrating and putting undue pressure on students.

I think there are classes including some of the big GIRs and classes that lots of students take where the midterm exam will have a class average of 35 or 40. No matter how much a professor says we’re going to put it on a curve, you’re sending a message to students that there’s 60 percent of this material that you don’t know.

That’s a faculty issue, a calibration issue. But I think it’s also a student problem.

TT: How so?

Students take on large class loads. They take six classes and a bunch of things on the outside on top of that and are just overwhelmed by the demands on their time. There is some implicit peer pressure.

TT: 52 percent of students say they have felt at some point like they don’t belong here, what would you want to say to them?

EG: I have seen that statistic. … It worries me. … What I would want to say to students is take a deep breath, think about all the things that you do and think about the ways in which you contribute to the place. For every student here, there is a dimension along which they really make a strong contribution to the place. Don’t just map it into the expectation that you think your friends are imposing on you, or your family is imposing on you, or that you think the outside world is imposing on you. … Questioning your progress, success, criteria, are valuable things to do, but when it maps into “I don’t belong here,” that’s when I hope students take a deep breath and talk to each other.

They’re not alone in thinking this. That’s the other thing interesting about the student survey: a very large percentage of students question whether they should really be here. But similarly the students who think that think they are the only ones feeling that. We’re all going through this time.

TT: Our survey shows that about 2:30 a.m. is the most common bedtime and 50 percent of students feel that they don’t get enough sleep. What do you think of this?

EG: I’m not surprised to hear the numbers. … The fact that it’s so late it doesn’t surprise me either. Students just work incredibly hard. I think one of the things that may have happened to MIT that contributed to this — and it’s not to imply that students in the past didn’t work hard, they did. But if you try and compare a student from 40 years ago and today, students from 40 years ago were much more monolithic. They might be really focused on math or computer science or a particular discipline and they tended to be much more focused just on academics.

Why is that relevant? In some sense we’ve preserved a system in term of work expectations that’s built around an assumption of a student who spends that vast majority of their waking time on academics. This generation of students doesn’t do that. 30 percent of our students are varsity athletes, I don’t know how many dance clubs we have, music groups, writing for The Tech. There’s so many things — almost every student today has outside activities about which they are very passionate. My point is we haven’t adapted the educational system to the fact that students are spending incredible, valuable time in those outside activities. It used to be in the past you could go to bed at 11 p.m. because you put in your five hours into doing problem sets that night, but students today are going to bed at 2 a.m. because they have other things to do. This is why this is a faculty issue as well: we need to understand what students are doing and most importantly value the things they are doing outside the classroom. Those are as important to their education and their learning at MIT as what they do inside the classroom.

TT: How are you planning to approach the faculty about this?

EG: There are a series of items I’ve accumulated over the past year from the working group that looked at student stress and well being last year, and partly through discussion. I’ve got a set of things that I intend to take to the chair of the faculty to ask him to look at, and I’ve to a set of things where there are particular faculty committees to look at.

There was just an email that went out his week from the chair of the faculty. It was about reminding faculty of faculty rules about grades in classes. Classes are not to be tied to a particular distribution, not supposed to be curved. I know a lot of students feel like they may doing fine in a class and as people drop the class all of the sudden what was a perfectly fine grade slides because the scale is sliding. That’s against faculty rules.

We have to reeducate the faculty. It’s part of my job, and part of the faculty governance.

TT: How could you go about changing the culture of MIT?

EG: I wish I had magic dust, I don’t. [Laughter] … I think we can change faculty processes around classroom expectations. We shouldn’t be grading on a curve. We really should be looking at faculty rules around heavy loads in the sense of the week before drop date, I’m guessing every student in this place has at least three exams that week because very faculty member is getting that second midterm in before drop date. … Setting realistic expectations on time standards, grade standards, expectations on work, and all those things. I think we can do something at the faculty level in the classroom setting to ease things.

The harder one is how do we get the broader community to change the way we talk about this. … If you’re feeling stressed, go talk to someone. If you’re feeling challenged, S3 is there, the DGE for grad students. We have to try and get students to change the conversation. One of them is to make it public. The forum [see sidebar] I hope helps in getting it out.

If we could succeed in this, I’d be thrilled. If we can get students to think the next time the “I’m so hosed game” come up and say “You know what? I’m not playing. You know what? I feel for you. I’ve been there.”

Change the game. Changing the dynamic in the sense that rather than the one-ups-manship it’s the sympathy of the “Yeah, I get this. We both know we’re both hosed, so lets just deal with it.”

Are there better ways to do it? Sure. I hope people provide suggestions. Just to bring it back I put both parties there. I think the faculty have to help. The students need to take ownership of this. You know what, these are going to be the best 4 years of our life, let’s make them an enjoyable four years. That doesn’t mean they’re not hard. You work hard, that’s why you came to MIT, but you can own the experience here a lot more by changing the dialogue in the community.

TT: Any last comments or thoughts you want to give students?

EG: This is where you’re supposed to be profound, and it just doesn’t go with the job. [Laughter] I worry that underlying a lot of the negative aspects of culture at MIT — don’t get me wrong there are so many wonderful aspects of culture — but there are things that need to change. I worry that for so much of it there is a sense of combativeness or antagonism that makes it hard to change. I don’t think there are many — if any — faculty who take secret glee in creating a course that is 60 hours a week. There may be one or two but we’ll deal with them.

The point is, when students are really feeling too much pace and pressure, I worry that their perspective is that either the faculty don’t care or that it’s actually deliberate. That this is the faculty’s way of weeding people out. That’s not to my knowledge, the case. I think faculty are oblivious to some of the impacts of the things they’re doing to students.

If I had a lasting thing to say, it’d be that this [place] needs to be a community. It needs to be faculty and staff and students working together to make this better. I would hope for the students when they’re feeling way too much weighing down on them, that they get help and go talk to someone to get relief; they need to find ways to communicate that back to faculty.

It’s hard to go to a professor who’s going to grade you at the end of the term and say, “this exam was too hard” but talk to a departmental administrator. Get some feedback, in many cases the faculty may not realize the pace and pressure they are putting on. That’s why I want to get out of this combative mode; it’s the faculty out to get students. Or the faculty thinks it’s the students not putting the time. The students are putting the time in.

It should not us against them. It needs to be better for everybody.