Enhancing student impact on community decisions
Editor’s Note: This column originally ran in the March 7, 2014 issue of The Tech.
After Bexley Hall closed last May, members of the dorm united to express a desire for students to have a meaningful voice throughout any remaining developments related to the dorm. Unfortunately, now, in Spring 2014, far too much time has passed without engaged student discourse on the future of the Bexley space. This void highlights a failure on the part of the administration, student leaders, and the entire student body to foster an open, proactive dialogue. Besides simply acknowledging this failure, let’s recognize the Undergraduate Association (UA) elections as a chance to remedy it.
According to an article in the Feb. 28 issue of The Tech, despite the inclusion of students on a committee meant to provide counsel on decisions regarding Bexley’s fate, undergraduate members on the advisory group felt they had been effectively shut out of the decision-making process.
More specifically, students in the advisory group were charged with several tasks, including “recommending criteria for the design and programming of a possible replacement and advising the Institute on appropriate next steps.”
But although other issues regarding Bexley were discussed openly with students, according to the advisory group, this specific issue was never discussed, nor was the advisory group “consulted on the recommendation made by facilities to demolish the dorm.” The meetings only discussed “structural issues,” and the final decision was made “outside the group” by Dean Constantino Colombo, then-Chancellor Eric Grimson PhD ’80, and others according to Kristjan E. Kaseniit ’14.
Furthermore, an email from Dean Colombo, who chaired the Bexley Advisory Group, was cited in the article stating, “[t]he recommendation to demolish the building was made to the Institute’s senior leadership based on information from Facilities’ extensive investigations of the building.”
Now that it appears that this decision has been reached without substantial student input, it is even more crucial that we as a student body ensure our role in future decisions. Here I must point out recent efforts on the part of the UA Committee on Student-Administrator Collaboration. The committee, comprised of representatives of Dormitory Council (DormCon), the UA, Interfraternity Council (IFC), and Panhellenic Association (Panhel), is currently drafting a report on the state of student-administration collaboration. Hopefully it produces actionable recommendations.
Despite this potential improvement, this issue highlights recurring problems in the way the voice of the undergraduate student body is expressed, harnessed, and received by MIT student leaders and the administration. Student impact must be measured by more than just how many students sit on Institute committees. And unfortunately, the recent Bexley development is one of many instances where students were not satisfied with the strength of their collective voice.
I offer a critique of both the administration and student leaders to elucidate failures in the campus policy process. In some cases, the MIT administration has failed to allow meaningful contributions from students. In others, student leaders have failed to properly engage the student body, or an apathetic student body has failed to hold these leaders accountable.
Kaseniit’s recounting of the press release accidentally shared with the Bexley Advisory Group provides compelling evidence that undergraduates are not intimately involved in the campus policy process, due to some degree of exclusion on the part of the administration. Whether or not this exclusion was intentional is hard to know. But considering the administration had already decided to pursue the demolition Bexley without consulting the student members of the group, clearly the students on this committee only had nominal influence.
Another hindrance of meaningful student contribution was the confidentiality of committees. Students were often told not discuss items from committee meetings with other students. How can student leaders on these committees form representative opinions without interaction with the rest of the student body? In an environment of supposedly ubiquitous collaboration, representatives on committees are deprived of the true potential of feedback from others. As a result of this lack of transparency and accountability, it is hard to expect students to have a real impact on decisions.
We should also question why little initiative was taken to address these students’ apparent lack of influence. Perhaps Bexley’s longstanding estrangement from the UA and DormCon tied the hands of student leaders. But even if this was the case, the UA is our most established form of student representation, and it should have been able to do more on behalf of its constituents.
But ultimately, we can’t simply blame the administration and student leaders. A large portion of MIT students remain apathetic to the internal politics of the Institute, even those that affect them, and therefore deprive the student body as a whole of meaningful impact on MIT’s policies. We need student leaders to continue to prioritize the quality of undergraduate contributions on these committees, but we cannot expect them to do so in a climate of student apathy. Our leaders are only effective if we stand behind them and hold them accountable.
Past student leaders have not done enough to actually engage the student body throughout the school year. Although the UA has made attempts like speeches, newsletters, and study breaks, it has a spotty record of effectively mobilizing campus opinion at crucial moments. Widespread apathy is both a contributor to, and product of, ineffective leadership.
In one recent divergence from this pattern of poor responsiveness, I applaud UA President Sidhanth P. Rao ’14 and Vice President Devin T. Cornish ’14 and others who rallied against the proposed 1 a.m. rule for Campus Preview Weekend (CPW) when traditional communication avenues failed. Widespread campus engagement led directly to policy changes by the Institute to address student concerns. I hope they continue to push to solve any remaining issues since the most recent compromise on the matter.
But the failure of the Bexley Advisory Group to be supported by student leaders and the rest of the undergraduate population is still a strong counterexample to the CPW success. The public disclosure of the Bexley group’s lack of influence by way of an article in The Tech four months later indicates weak leadership around a noticeably controversial topic.
Looking ahead, these events should inform the way students evaluate the candidacies of potential student leaders. The next UA President and Vice President will have a chance to work with administrators who are still relatively new to their current roles, including President L. Rafael Reif, Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart PhD ’88, and Provost Martin Schmidt PhD ’88. As we choose our next student leaders, let’s make sure to consider not just candidates’ experience and personalities, but also their specific plans to re-engage the student body and ensure a vibrant and influential undergraduate voice.
John W. Halloran Jr. is a member of the Class of 2015.