Response to “I’m voting yes for the Graduate Student Union because MIT continues to fail its student veterans”
To the editor,
I write in response to the opinion piece that appeared Feb. 10 in The Tech, “I’m voting yes for the Graduate Student Union because MIT continues to fail its student veterans.” My office (the Office of the Vice Chancellor) serves as the primary educational point of contact for a number of key organizations at the Institute that support veterans.
In the opinion piece, MIT is characterized as being unwelcoming to veterans and not responding to certain critical financial issues that impact them. The truth is that we have been collaborating with the MIT Student Veterans Association (SVA) on matters our veteran students care about, specifically those issues covered in the op-ed. And, throughout the challenges we have encountered at the state and federal levels of government, MIT has directly paid our student veterans the benefits which they are due from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), with no requirement that the benefits be paid back, even when the VA has retroactively addressed the issues. MIT continues to take these steps to this day. I want to take this opportunity to correct the record about both the recent history and current actions being taken to support our student veterans.
Before I do, I will note that the recent challenges we have faced with the VA during the pandemic have made MIT’s leadership acutely aware of the intricacies of all the supporting systems, processes, and organizations involved in ensuring our student veterans get the benefits and support they are due. This was not apparent to us previously. It is now. We thank the SVA, including the author of the op-ed, for advocating for this. As a result, we have collaborated with the SVA to hire a program administrator for a new Office of Student Veteran Success. The SVA helped develop the job description and interview the candidates. This new team member, Liam Gale, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, brings social services and program management experience, most recently in the area of health care within the VA in Bedford, MA. He will be the single point of contact for supporting MIT student veterans and interfacing with the VA and related government agencies.
Liam will also be responsible for partnering with colleagues in Student Financial Services (SFS), the Office of Graduate Education, and the Office of the First Year who currently interact with our student veteran community. He will streamline and enhance MIT’s communication with, and support for, student veterans. He will also continue the monthly meetings we have been holding with the SVA to discuss student veteran support issues and will enable us to more effectively navigate the federal and state veterans affairs agencies to ensure compliance with all relevant requirements.
Now moving to the facts which were inaccurate or not fully described in the op-ed. MIT has been working closely with the relevant departments and VA offices to resolve two issues:
1) our PhD program approval for GI Bill benefits and
2) an audit and pause of the approval for the Sloan and School of Engineering joint masters degree program — Leaders in Global Operations (LGO) — last summer.
The first issue revolves around our course catalog descriptions for PhD programs and changing VA expectations for approval. Up until January 2020, student veterans in our PhD programs were able to receive their GI bill benefits based on the information in the course catalog at the time. Then, two unrelated events occurred: a change in personnel at the VA and an audit of the LGO masters degree program.
In the past, under a previous Education Liaison Representative (ELR) at the VA, MIT’s doctoral programs were approved and student veterans in PhD programs were certified for GI Bill benefits without any problems. When we learned from a new ELR in early 2020 that our programs were no longer approved due to different expectations for the way we list requirements in our course catalog, we initiated the process to get them all reapproved in February 2020. All of our PhD programs were submitted to the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education (DHE) for approval or reapproval in February 2020. We did not hear back for a year, which we assumed was due to the DHE being overwhelmed during the pandemic. Therefore, we resubmitted the information again in January 2021 but learned shortly after that our courses could not be processed with varying degree credit totals. Our previously approved programs were revoked and a variety of SB and SM degrees were simply not processed despite meeting VA criteria and being properly cited and submitted.
We have learned through this process that the ELR requires greater detail before approving MIT’s doctoral programs and have since been iterating with them. Given our concerns over the delay in program approval, we have focused on gaining approval for the five doctoral programs in which we have had six students seeking to use their VA benefits (hoping that these will then provide a template for all of our programs to be approved). That paperwork has been submitted to the VA for approval. We hope to resolve any outstanding issues to ensure they approve our doctoral programs for benefits as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, MIT continues to make any impacted student veteran financially whole while we wait for approval.
The audit of the LGO program (for a separate issue on which we were found to be fully compliant) uncovered that even though LGO combined two previously approved masters programs (an SM in engineering and an MBA), the program needed to be separately authorized. The VA paused the program’s approval until we submitted the requisite information, which we did promptly. This impacted 15 veterans beginning Aug. 19, 2021. We submitted the information requested by the VA and were able to obtain authorization for the LGO program Oct. 28, 2021 (retroactive to October 2020). MIT also offered financial support for the 15 LGO students who were affected while we were awaiting approval of that program.
Just as we have ensured that any doctoral student veteran seeking benefits is provided with the equivalent financial support that they would have received from the VA during this interim period, we notified the 15 LGO students mentioned in The Tech that MIT would provide them with the equivalent of their monthly housing allowance from the VA until the issue with their program approval was resolved. MIT provided the students with this funding. Working with SFS, Sloan also arranged to shield students from late penalties and notified them that the funds they received would not need to be repaid to MIT.
Additionally, all PhD student veterans were informed by the SVA about this situation, and we encouraged them to reach out for assistance. To date, we are aware of six impacted students across five doctoral programs, but if you are reading this and wondering if you could benefit from this support, please reach out to the VA at firstname.lastname@example.org or to me personally.
We work hard to ensure that all students feel valued, involved, and informed about issues impacting their life and work at the Institute. This is particularly true for our student veterans, who we know deal with unique challenges related to the intricacies of all the supporting systems, processes, and organizations involved in facilitating their government benefits.
If any veteran or community member on campus has a question, concern, or problem, they can always contact me. My door has been, and will continue to be, open.
Ian A. Waitz
Vice Chancellor for Undergraduate and Graduate Education