New leave & return policies to be fully implemented by next year

Financial assistance & mentorship program among CAP recommendations, but may be insufficient

8120 nuz graph1 01
Number of students requesting return.
8121 nuz graph2 01
Number of students going on leave.
8122 nuz graph3 01
Approval rate of return requests.

The history of undergraduate withdrawal and readmission, or leave and return, as it is now known, is fraught with horror stories of students forcibly hospitalized or prevented from resuming their studies at MIT. Last March, the Committee on Academic Performance (CAP) issued a report with recommendations to improve the system through which students temporarily halt their studies at MIT, voluntarily or not.

Now, a year later, The Tech interviewed David Randall, senior associate dean of Student Support and Wellbeing, and Scott Hughes, the chair of CAP. The former oversees Student Support Services (S^3), whose role is to support students during the leave and return process through its deans, while CAP is responsible for reviewing and approving student applications to return from leave.

The Tech also spoke with a student who took voluntary medical leave at the end of the fall 2016 semester and returned to MIT for spring 2017. The student requested anonymity for fear of repercussions. For the purpose of this article, the student will be referred to as Jane.

CAP recommendations

Hughes noted that reports like the CAP report are not the mechanism by which policy changes happen. If administration had wanted to, they could have ignored everything. They’ve acted on every one of the recommendations.

Implementation of the recommendations will happen over the next year, Randall said. He expects that by this time next year, all of the CAP recommendations will have been executed.

Data on leave and return

Statistics on students going on and returning from leave were commonly requested by students, Randall said. S^3 provided the data from both the current and the previous academic year, which we present here for comparison. The return statistics for the 2016–2017 academic year currently only comprises information from the fall term, and will be updated after the CAP meets again this June. The numbers for leave represent the students who began their leave at the start of or during the given academic year.

No data for the “leave of absence” category exists for the previous year, as it was a new category created after the CAP report was issued last spring. This category “allows undergraduates to take a leave for up to two years in order to pursue personal, career, or educational interests, and ensures they can easily return to the Institute,” according to a statement issued jointly by Randall and Hughes.

Hughes believes one of the reasons why the return rate has increased is due to students submitting stronger return applications. New procedures, Hughes said, have allowed students to engage with their S^3 deans “more honestly and completely,” which in turn empowers S^3 to give more feedback on the applications.

Financial and housing assistance

During her year on leave, Jane found herself unable to consistently find and keep a job due to health issues, and had no parental support to fall back on. She pointed out that any support that S^3 offered was meaningless if she didn’t have a place to sleep or know where her next meal was coming from. Financial pressure during the beginning of her leave pushed her take a job before she was medically ready; as a result, she ended up hospitalized and lost that job.

Her situation “is a particularly heartrending one,” Hughes acknowledged. “We do sometimes have these [cases]. This is outside my purview, but looking at it from the outside, it’s pretty clear that there’s nothing we can do in these cases,” adding that CAP “spends most of its time considering these edge cases.”

It is unclear if Jane’s situation was in fact an edge case. The CAP report indicated that only 23 percent of re-admitted students responded to a survey the committee sent out to gather feedback. In addition, students may still be reluctant to share their experiences: Jane admitted to exaggerating her medical readiness to return to MIT simply to escape the “hellhole” of being on leave.

S^3 is, however, establishing a fund for students with financial hardships who are preparing for a leave. Students will be able to request grants by submitting a form and budget to S^3 for review. Randall said that there will be no strict limit on the financial assistance granted, but cited $1,000 as a guiding figure.

“We obviously have some students who are more financially-needy than others,” he added, but “if we spend $5,000 on one student, that takes potential funds away from another, so we’re going to be considering all cases together, trying to distribute funds fairly.”

The transition fund was one of the stronger recommendations from the CAP, Hughes said. “This is one we were really nervous about, since, you know — we’re asking for money.” The fund, Randall said, is currently being supported by donors.

The current policy on housing is that students on leave cannot live in any Institute residences, including FSILGs that have ownership of their houses. Asked if there has been any consideration to change this policy, Randall replied that spots are only available for currently registered students, as per Institute policy.

“If we open it up for one student, we would have to open it up for all students on leave” — which MIT does not have the capacity for, Randall said.

A history of miscommunication

Miscommunication between S^3, students, faculty, and other MIT administrative departments has long plagued the process of taking leave from MIT. It quickly became clear to the CAP, Hughes said, that more transparency and clear communication through S^3 deans and the S^3 website was needed. One of the changes they’ve tried to make, Randall said, is to take “a very public approach to the concerns that students have” through periodic reports emailed to the student body.

But students don’t typically read administrative emails or 50-page reports — or long Tech articles. As Jane pointed out, students are much more likely to read stories posted on MIT Confessions, no matter how unrepresentative or unverifiable they are.

For example, in an informal survey of student focus groups conducted by the CAP, students on average believed that only 15 percent of students who withdrew returned to MIT. The actual number at the time was closer to 70 percent.

Hughes recognized this issue: “The fact that the things that students read are not through the venues in which we proffer information is a bit of a frustration because you know — we can’t send anonymous tweets to everyone about what the data are.”

“They are trying, but it seems like they’re just patching things up, not addressing core issues,” Jane said, pointing to the change of terminology from “withdrawal and readmission” to “leave and return” as a change that doesn’t improve a student’s feeling of stigmatization when taking a break from MIT.

The name change was a result of “clear evidence that old names were leading to incorrect assumptions,” Randall said. But he agreed that “it doesn’t address crux of the issue,” saying that it was “low-hanging fruit,” an easy fix for S^3 to implement.

The leave and return policy was updated last year to increase the time that a student has between being given formal notice or approval to leave until the student must move out of their MIT housing, if they take leave in the middle of a semester, from 48 to 72 hours. Jane pointed out that 72 hours was not a lot of time either, indicating that fear of such a sudden upheaval in her life was part of the reason why she chose to delay taking medical leave until the end of the semester.

According to Randall, however, this is a misconception: S^3 will work with students who request leave to make sure that they are ready until initiating the formal leave process and 72 hour grace period. “We want students to feel like they’re in control,” he said, while acknowledging that the current website does not convey the details of the process clearly.

Another source of confusion for students has been S^3 deans themselves, exacerbated by the transition that took place following last year’s CAP report. For example, taking medical leave does not come with any academic requirements, such as taking classes or working. But Jane was told that despite leaving with a high GPA, she was still told that she had to demonstrate her “ability to handle an MIT workload” in order to return from leave.

“I just wanted to focus on getting healthy and coming refreshed back to school,” she said. “But I was talking to the dean, and he said I still had to get a job. So it really wasn’t personalized per se.”

Using MIT resources while on leave

Being on medical leave last year felt like she “had been excommunicated,” Jane said.

The S^3 website has been recently updated with a statement asserting that “students on leave remain part of the MIT community.” The update clarified that “MIT students on leave may participate in MIT activities that are open to the public,” though the website page explaining medical leave still states that “students on leave can’t participate in student life or other campus events.” According to Randall, the latter statement represents an old policy that is being overturned.

Resources that remain available only to registered students, in addition to Institute housing, include attending classes, participating in the UROP program, accessing Athena and MIT licensed software, using an MIT ID Card, and access to MIT Medical and its mental health services.

Jane found the last prohibition particularly difficult. She had been seeing the same therapist at MIT Medical for 3 years; having to find a new one upon taking leave, she said, delayed her medical treatment.  

But MIT Medical, Randall said, doesn’t have the capacity to see students on leave, especially since Medical is currently working to decrease wait time for patients.

Additionally, students on leave do not have access to MIT student insurance unless they are on medical leave.

New resources and policies

A new mentorship program will pair students considering taking a leave or currently on leave with students who have gone through the process. The program was part of CAP recommendations, and has already been used informally this past year, Randall said. He expects it to be formally implemented by this summer.

Students can apply for the newly created leave of absence option through a web form and a conversation with a dean in Student Support Services.

S^3 is currently redoing the medical leave policy, and has completed a draft not yet shared with students. S^3 will also be introducing a new team, dubbed the “CARE Team” as a “consistent, compassionate, point of contact for hospitalized students,” Randall said.

Moving forward

CAP would like to shift to supporting students as they address personal issues on voluntary leave, instead of forcing them to go on required academic or involuntary medical leave, Hughes said. “I sympathize with the fact that these kinds of things are really hard to deal with. Our society stigmatizes a lot of things related to mental health treatment, and issues relating to depression.”

“I speak as someone who was clinically depressed for a while and went through a divorce,” Hughes aid. “My life was turned around by opening up to a therapist. I found it very empowering to be able to talk to someone about this.”

Asked if she would recommend that a student struggling with health issues to voluntarily take medical leave, Jane replied that it depended on the person’s financial situation. But for herself, she said, she would not have taken medical leave if she had known the financial and physical hardships she would have to endure.

“We want to hear from people who had a negative experience,” Hughes said, stressing that no student would face repercussions from coming forward to talk with the S^3 deans or the CAP.