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Viewing MIT's image- Michael Behnke

Sandwich quotes:

Costs are frightening off a large number of [minorities] or appear to be frightening off many of them...

The most immediate goal is to do something about minority admissions.

There's a lot about MIT people don't know about and the image of MIT is so strong, it makes it difficult for people to appreciate the breadth of what's available here.

I think MIT has a responsibility to be in a leadership position that sends signals out to kids that higher education like this is still available regardless of financial circumstances...

I think it is very important to maintain need-blind admissions.

The more you allow financial considerations to affect the admissions decision, the more you are going to affect the quality of the incoming students.

We also want to make sure we maintain a representation of women on campus.

We're not going to have a good year this year apparently, in terms of representation of minority students.

The number of students thinking about Course VI seems to be dropping a bit, but the imbalance is certainly still there and we have to give that a lot of thought, the whole institute as well as the admissions office.

By Mathews Cherian

interview Michael C. Behnke is the MIT director of admissions. Behnke served as dean of undergraduate admission at Tufts University for nine years before coming to MIT.

Behnke received an AB degree in American Studies from Amherst College in 1965 and an MA in American Civilization in 1970 from the University of Pennsylvania. He worked in an Inner City Tutorial program and spent two years in the Peace Corps in the time between his two degrees.

Behnke was associate director of admissions at Amherst for five years. He was Dean of Freshmen, a position he created, for one of those years.


Q: In your nine years as dean of undergraduate admissions at Tufts, what problems did you confront? What changes did you make while you were there?

A: The main problem Tufts had was name recognition without any substantial information about it. A lot of people had heard of the place, but they didn't know where it was. They really didn't know what it was, and part of that was a lack of outreach on the part of the admissions office.

The admissions office did not do very much travelling and they didn't do much to encourage people to visit the campus. I don't know if you've ever been to Tufts, but it's not terribly easy to find, and also it's in a very unusual, very nice location. And most people thought it's either right in the middle of the city, or that Medford, Massachusetts would be outside of Worcester, for all they knew. It was very important to get people onto the campus, and see what an unusual location it had, so we did a lot to encourage people to visit the campus and by the time I left, we estimated we had 15 to 20 thousand people visiting the campus each year. We also increased our travel a tremendous amount. Tufts had not really travelled to, say, California at all before I came but we pulled a number of applications from California during those years and really increased our visibility outside of New England which has always been a traditional strength for Tufts.

We also tried to develop a stronger image for the place around just a couple of themes. One was the location, the other was the fact that it's a university. A lot of people thought of it of more as a college, but it has a lot of the advantages of a university. It is in fact a university, although smaller. We emphasize that, and we emphasize the structure, the fact that we're still very small, though we're a university....

When I took over, we were not competing very well for minority students, so we increased quite a bit the recruiting for the minority students in Eastford. For a few years we were very succesful, ... but by the time I left the numbers had gone down quite a bit so that success didn't continue. The other thing we did was revamp all of our publications. Our publications were very poor. We did what was there and added a lot of publications. I think the collection of publications at Tufts now is very good and won several awards....

Another thing that's very important is the increasing number of volunteer people that are involved in the effort. Here for instance, we have an enormous network of educational counselors who do a lot of interviewing and a lot of representing. Tufts had very little of that. They generally did not have local alumni clubs and I think that the contact with the local community is very important. We've worked a lot to develop that student alumni volunteer network.

And we computerized the whole operation.... In general, it worked out the whole flow of information in the office, which was lucky because applications went from about six thousand to over ten thousand in a couple of years, and if we hadn't made the changes it would have overwhelmed us.

Q: How would you relate your experience at Tufts with what you plan to do at MIT?

A: MIT has an image problem too. At Tufts, it was more of a lack of an image. MIT has a very strong reputation and it has immediate recognition on the part of most people who know about education, but it doesn't have a complete image. There's a lot about MIT people don't know about, and the image of MIT is so strong -- it makes it difficult for people to appreciate the breadth of what's available here.

It's a different kind of image problem but it's still an image problem. It's going to involve some creative thinking as we did in Tufts about how to broaden an image and improve an image and do outreach.

Q: What specific goals do you have for MIT admissions?

A: The most immediate goal is to do something about minority admissions. That's probably our biggest challenge right now and it's one we share with a lot of other institutions. The number of black and hispanic students graduating from high school is going up, but the number of them going on to college is going down. Costs are frightening off a large number of them or appear to be frightening off many of them, and so the number of minority students are dropping on a number of campuses. Everybody's giving attention to that.

I just got a notice from a group of small New England colleges MIT meets with and every year they identify one major agenda item. It's already been identified as minority recruiting and admissions. We're not going to have a good year this year apparently, in terms of representation of minority students. That has got to be one of the first things we look at. In fact, some actions have already been taken. We just hired an additional person to devote his attention to minority student recruitment. So now we have two members of the staff who are going to work out that fact. Both of them are on the road right now. We've added spring travel to try to increase our visibility out there. Hopefully, that will have some effect. We're going to have to look at it in a couple of different ways during the coming year.

I believe the class last year had up to 28 percent which is a very good representation compared to most other schools that are primarily engineering, but the number of women expressing an interest in engineering is dropping nationally as well. We've got a challenge to maintain that percentage where it is. Those are two immediate problems.

Then there's the imbalance problem. The recent declaration of majors, or the intent of declaration of the freshmen, seem to give us some chance to catch our breath. The number of students thinking about Course VI seems to be dropping a bit, but the imbalance is certainly still there and we have to give that a lot of thought, the whole Institute as well as the admissions office. I think an ongoing concern is simply to maintain our position and hopefully improve it with our traditional market. The central focus of MIT certainly is on engineering and technology and science, and we are attracting strong students in those areas right now. But we do have some real demographic problems heading our way. The steep downturn of the number of high school graduates really hasn't hit us yet. That's really in the next five years.

There's increasing competition for the top students. A lot of other schools are upgrading their offerings in engineering and science, and more and more schools are offering financial incentives. We're going to have to monitor very carefully how that affects our student body and be ready to respond because there's no question we want to maintain our preeminent position in engineering and science.

Aside from the Course VI imbalance, I think the real concern we have is curricular breadth as a whole. MIT has many strengths and underutilized departments and a real goal is going to be broaden the choice of majors in general. It's part of developing a broader image of MIT in the sense that we are much more. We want to look at transfer admissions. MIT right now does attract a fairly healthy number of transfer students, but we want to see if that number can be increased. The transfer students might bring us some of the breadth we are looking for. We have to look very seriously during the next couple of years and continue to look very seriously at issues of financial aid: not only how to respond to the financial incentives that other schools are putting in place of the way of merit scholarships, but the whole issue of differential packaging, related to our extremely high self-help expectation.

Q: What is your opinion of need-blind admissions?

A: I think it is very important to maintain need-blind admissions. The most important reason is that it's a quality issue. Ability is not restricted to those who can pay. The more you allow financial considerations to affect the admissions decision, the more you are going to affect the quality of the incoming students. Aside from that, I think that's a policy issue that all institutions deal with. Beyond that, I think MIT has a responsibility to be in a leadership position that sends signals out to kids that higher education like this is still available regardless of financial circumstances, and that MIT should be one of the very last institutions to give up that fight.

Q: Do you have any steps planned out yet as far as attracting more minority students?

A: First of all is to add an additional minority recruiter and to add some spring travel. We're going to have to look at financial incentives and how our high cost financial aid package is preventing some minority students from enrolling. We're studying that right now, and we'll continue to study it, and if it is, we'll have to deal with that. Other than that, I think a lot of the efforts that we're going to take are to be more travel. Our visibility is very important....

Everybody on the staff also has to be a part of that. Minority recruitment is not the responsibility of just people on the staff. We have responsibility for that; it's something everybody has to work at. It's going to be a priority for us in the next year. But it's also an area that's going to have to be attacked by a lot of different institutions in concert because the problem is more of the culture as whole right now and not at individual institutions.

The signals that have been sent out to minority youngsters is that they should aspire to expensive higher education and certainly the policy of this administration is to have people who are not wealthy go to public schools and community colleges. That is the signal being sent out, and it's very hard for one or two or three institutions to have any effect on the face of the constant publicity given to Reagan proposals to cut financial aid and to generally roll back the gains of the sixties and early seventies. This one group of colleges is going to address this issue at their spring meeting. I think it's got to become a top agenda item at most of our meetings of colleges to figure out some sort of concerted way to get messages out to minority youngsters. There are still funds available and institutions that are interested in having them enroll. They're simply not applying.

Q: And as far as women students go?

A: Hopefully we'll be able to hold our own. Our experience, I believe, has been that the women students respond to MIT best when the breadth of MIT is presented. They seem to be more responsive to choice than the fact that MIT has a lot of different kinds of programs. I think if we could tell that story more effectively, it will have the effect of increasing the percent part of women.

One other thing we're going to look at incidentally, is the selection process itself. The scholastic index, which is one part of the selection process hasn't been examined in a number of years. It's just time that the whole process is looked at again.

One other thing we're going to try and do more of is research. A new position of the office has been approved for a person to devote his or her attention to admissions research and marketing research. One response to all of these problems is to try to get more information about them. Right now, we do what's called a cancellation study or a yield study. You may remember responding to a questionnaire when you were admitted to collect information on the people who were admitted deciding either to come or go elsewhere. And using that, we're trying to get some information about how people perceive us. But we need to do a lot more research to help us take correct actions.

We also hopefully will give some thought to improving the campus visit. I don't know whether it needs improvement but the campus visit is a crucial thing. And we want to start talking to some of the students here about their own visit when they were looking at MIT and see if there's room for improvement there.

Q: You mentioned that MIT has an image problem. What exactly is this problem?

A: There's no doubt that MIT is a top school for engineering and science in the world. That image is so strongly focused in most people's minds that it comes as a complete shock to people that we do anything else. I had a guidance counselor from a very good public high school in the greater Boston area ask me when she'd heard I'd been appointed at MIT, whether MIT had an economics department. Another counselor asked if we had any sports. Even if people read it, their mind is so focused on what MIT is internationally known for that it just doesn't register to them that we have incredibly good offerings in basic sciences, and beyond that the social sciences, the humanities, and that we have over 100 student activities and that enormous numbers of people participate in athletics and it's not a place where there are only engineers who spend 24 hours a day in the library.

Q: Your background lies in American Studies, rather than Engineering and Science. Does this represent a change of any kind?

A: It certainly represents a change for me! I did go to Amherst when they had what was called the New Curriculum which required all freshmen to take both physics and calculus, so I think I have some understanding of what students here go through. But my background on the whole certainly isn't in science, and that was part of the interesting thing for me. It's gonna be a new education for me. It's a lot of fun thinking about the kinds of issues that are important to places like this. I assume it's a statement on the part of the administration that they do want more breadth in the student body, and they hope I'm going to be able to do something about that.

Q: What about the problem of well-roundedness. What do you believe the admissions office should be looking for in a prospective student?

A: Not necessarily well-rounded students. A well rounded student doesn't necessarily produce a well-rounded class. You really admit a class, not individuals. You build a class and you do that by obviously having the central emphasis be on academic ability and academic achievement but even there that student might not necessarily be well-rounded; it might be a student who is absolutely superb at one or two things, and might even have problems in some other areas but still be able to function at MIT while being an absolute superstar at something.

The same is true of activities outside of academics: starting one's own business, or in other ways showing some outstanding ability in the work world or some outstanding talent. A lot of research has shown that people who persevere and really develop strong leadership or strong talents in a certain area carry that along with them and are able to use the kinds of qualities that are reinforced in the classroom.

You want to build a class of people who aren't necessarily sort of good at a lot of things; you'll have a lot of people like that, but you'll also have people who are really dedicated and superb in one academic area, or one talent.

Q: You mentioned the problem of the applicant pool becoming smaller. What plans do you have to accommodate that?

A: Well, each institution has to make different kinds of plans to accomodate that. Fortunately MIT is in such a strong position that we don't have to worry about survival or significant decreases in the quality in the student body. We'll always attract the best students, but we're going to be attracting them from a smaller and smaller pool. My concern is the efforts that other institutions are going to make to improve or maintain their positions. I think that we have to study that very carefully and be ready to react to it.

For instance, in the area of financial incentives, if we sense that we're really being hurt by merit scholarships being offered by other institutions, we're going to have to respond to that. We can't be in a position where we're losing our best students because they really can't afford to go here. So far as I know, there's been no evidence of MIT being affected by that thus far. So I don't think we should respond unless we're being hurt, but that's one thing we're going to do with this new research person who is trying to monitor what's happening in the world of college admissions much more closely.

Q: This year it doesn't appear like restrictions have been needed for Course VI. What happens if there is a need for restriction in the number of people interested in Course VI? Do you think that we'll need to impose restrictions, and if so when?

A: If the numbers in fact go up or don't go down, as they seem to be going down, there's no question that we'll have to impose restrictions, and CUAFA [Committee on Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid] has not yet made any decisions as to how that might be done. They now have the authority to impose the restrictions if they appear to be needed. We'll be having discussions with that committee about how the restriction would be imposed.

Q: Where do you see the admissions office headed in the next couple of years? Is there any general direction?

A: Certainly more outreach: trying to figure out how you communicate effectively with students today, and how to get MIT's story told more effectively, the whole story. And that whole public relations issue, the issue of the pool out there that doesn't apply to MIT. How to reach them, how to tell them what's available here and at the same time communicate to MIT itself what that pool is looking for, then try to be involved in shaping the direction of the Institute itself. That will be a major agenda item.... One of my roles is to communicate, to be available, to talk to students and faculty, and to make sure that the admissions office is both communicating to the Institute what prospective students are looking for and why we might not be attracting the whole breadth, the broad kind of student that we might want to have, and also to be sensitive to what the faculty and students here are telling the admissions office about what kind of students we'll be attracting. So the admissions office is going to have to do a good deal of outreach, both off-campus and on-campus in the next three or four years, and then of course the more specific problem of diversity in the student body.

Q: Has there been a change in what the faculty and the administration is wanting now? It seems as if we're looking for a much broader student body.

A: I think that's true. I'm not sure it could be called a dramatic shift. I think it's very clear from just about everyone I've talked that no one wants the central focus of MIT to change from engineering and science. People are very concerned that whatever is done, either in changes in the curriculum or the changes in the way we operate, we're very concerned that we not threaten the pre-eminence in that area.

But given that strength, most people I've talked to would like to see a broader student body, a student body with broader interersts, more appreciation for the humanities and social sciences and more enrollments in those areas, more enrollments in the sciences rather than engineering. A critical mass of students with those broader interests, over all would feel more comfortable at MIT.