Students: get involved with MIT's policymaking processes

Two weeks ago, The Tech ran an article about students Sam Duchovni and Nchinda Nchinda being punished for violating the Allied Barton security policy. It was incredibly frustrating for me to read because Nchinda’s and Sam’s dorm security stories were so similar to my own experiences. Strict dorm security has caused friends to stop visiting me, made me unable to attend a public Dormcon meeting, and was a nontrivial reason for me to move out of my old dorm. As Jade Philipoom wrote in an earlier letter to the editor about security, “few experiences have made me feel less at home.”

But this story was also frustrating because its underlying theme wasn’t new either. Students have long felt excluded from policies that affect them, as seen by these quotes from 2011:

[The DSL dining subcommittee] has regularly dismissed my opinion to the point where I have been unable to contribute to any positive changes for Baker residents.” — President of Baker House on the process of developing the dining plan in The Tech.

“The handling of several recent situations has left many students feeling disenfranchised and has generated the perception that administrators disregard or are unwilling to solicit input.” — Five former UA Presidents calling for senior administrators to engage more with students in the Faculty Newsletter.

It’s clear to me that there’s some systemic failure in communication between the students, the student government, and the administration. So the question is: what do we do about it?

For me, it took the last two years to understand the communication problem well enough to effectively fight the dorm security policy. I read the 2012 security recommendations and heard one author’s disappointment that the report’s recommendations weren’t being enacted. I met with Dormcon housing chairs, members of the Corporation, and President Reif. With Dormcon’s help, I collected a series of actionable security policy changes and presented them to Chancellor Barnhart. I even talked to alumni about the feasibility of student protests.

I was ultimately unable to achieve any concrete policy changes. Although I was thanked by many students for continuing security policy discussion and visibly representing student unhappiness, one thing became clear — it is very hard for one undergraduate, working alone, to get anything accomplished. I would need to leverage existing networks for help if I wanted to make a large change.

In my case, I found this network through student government. Although people I spoke to initially dismissed student government as “useless and ineffective,” it turned out that students in government and Institute Committees are the only ones who meet regularly with administrators. Through elections, we have given our student government the position they need to represent students to the administration and enact change accordingly.

And change is definitely happening.

Administrators and student leaders are highly aware that breakdowns in communication exist, and they are trying to fix that. The Committee on Academic Performance has released their recommendations for withdrawal and readmission policies after many years of students fearing potentially exploitive practices. Dormcon has created a security committee with student representatives. I’ve been working to create an Institute-wide committee to create informal open dialogue on opaque policymaking processes.

Perhaps you think these changes are too little, too late, and in some sense, they are. The students should have been involved earlier. Unfairness could have been avoided. However, student-administration communication is improving incrementally and needs more help from passionate students.

So, the question arises again: “How can I make an impact?”

Get involved in your relevant living group government — IFC, Panhel, Dormcon, or LGC — or institutions with a broader scope like the UA and its committees. Being part of the Institute Committees is probably the most effective way to effect change short of being UA President. (Applications for next year are technically closed, but if you mention this op-ed, they will still take your application here: http://tinyurl.com/instituteComm2016.) If you don’t have time, ask your local representative to bring up a topic and keep bothering them until you hear something definitive. This is the point of having representatives in the first place, and it’s the channel from which administrators expect to hear student feedback.

If you’d rather not work through an intermediate, feel free to email administrators directly and ask for an in-person meeting. Even at the very highest level, President Reif and Chancellor Barnhart have office hours specifically set aside to hear from students. Keep in mind that student government officers or housemasters may know who the best administrator is to contact.

After reading this, if you still believe that the current government structure and policymaking processes are fundamentally broken and beyond saving, then maybe it’s time to start a student protest. Just remember that large changes rarely happen overnight and that your peers may already be acting on the change that you see as “never going to happen.”

And so, I urge you: don’t let your discontent live and die in your hall, on mailing lists, or on anonymous Facebook rants. Talk to people. Get involved. Act.

Lilly Chin is a member of the Class of 2017 and the Chair of the UA Committee on Student-Administration Collaboration.