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Visiting Committee reports

By Andy Fish

The Visiting Committee on Student Affairs recommended that MIT address its lack of graduate student housing in a biannual report to the Office of the Dean for Student Affairs (ODSA). The committee published the report in October, eight months after the committee visited the MIT campus.

The committee, whose purpose was to examine the quality of student life, advised the MIT administration to renew its commitment to secure funds for the construction of housing. It also suggested limiting tenure in graduate housing to two years.

Text of Visiting Committee report in sidebar.

Many of the committee's findings echoed a 54-page report prepared by the ODSA last spring, which included a statement of objectives and priorities of that office, a summary of a survey on the quality of student life and papers by staff and students on the perspectives of particular student groups.

Holliday C. Heine '67, associate dean for student affairs, said this ODSA self-examination was the most important reason for the committee's visit. It is important "to take the time to think through issues," she said.

The committee believed that, "given the challenges, opportunities, restraints and budget limitations," the ODSA works "effectively on behalf of the students."

It did, however, recommend that the ODSA put greater effective effort into the process of communicating with students. "Too many students do not perceive the Office as a receptive listener and, when appropriate, an advocate of students."

Graduate housing

According to the Ashdown House Executive Committee, 1450 graduate students entered MIT this year, and only 18 percent were assigned rooms in one of the five graduate residences.

In a 1980 survey of graduate students, 50 percent of those surveyed indicated a desire to live on-campus. At that time, MIT only had enough space to house 30 percent of the graduate population.

MIT has established a fund to construct new housing, but this fund is growing at a very slow rate, said Janine M. Nell G, Graduate Student Council president, last September.

The Visiting Committee advised that MIT should change its housing policy in order to attract top graduate students to MIT and to improve the life of the graduate students.

It made two proposals: "(1) a reevaluation of the housing assignment practice to assure that the currently available allotment of housing is assigned in the fairest and most effective method possible, and (2) a renewed commitment on the part of the senior administration to secure funding for the construction of significantly higher levels of Institute-provided graduate student housing."

The committee proposed limiting tenure in graduate housing to two years and giving preference to international students.

But limiting tenure to two years would not open up a significant amount of room, said Associate Dean for Student Affairs Robert A. Sherwood.

An alternative, limiting tenure to one year, would give the housing system "no sense of continuity" and a "hotel" atmosphere, Sherwood said.

Frank E. Perkins '55, dean of the graduate school, agreed with the hotel analogy. He added, however, "I'd go along with shortening tenure to one year if that were demonstrated to open housing."

Sherwood and Perkins endorsed the call for more graduate student housing. "I hope that it has an impact," Sherwood said. Graduate housing should be a higher priority on the capital fund, he added. "The only solution is to come up with more housing," he continued.

MIT should be more aggressive in negotiations with the Cambridge City Council concerning the development of the Simplex project, Sherwood said. Graduate, staff and alternate fraternity housing could be developed on the site, he said. "If we can get our students out of the Cambridge market it would be beneficial to both sides," he added.

Housing does not have to be MIT-owned, Sherwood continued. "We need to be a bit more creative in the solutions we look for," he said.

Graduate housing is still a low-priority fund-raising interest, Perkins said. The Visiting Committee's report "puts one more log on the fire," he said. Perkins emphasized the need for strong lobbying in order to obtain more graduate housing. "Pressure from the academic departments would make the difference," he added.

The Visiting Committee also noted that the decentralized nature of the graduate school isolated students. The committee proposed reopening Ashdown dining hall and forming a graduate student center to ease this problem.

Perkins also favored the reopening of Ashdown dining hall. It was a "great place for interaction," he said. He was skeptical, however, that a graduate center would improve the interaction of graduate students. "The problem is not from a lack of opportunities, it is from a lack of time," Perkins said.

The Visiting Committee noted that graduate students were often confused about the roles of ODSA and the Office of the Dean of the Graduate School. "In specific cases a student is confused," Perkins said. He added, however, "I have not sensed that that confusion is a problem."

Residence/Orientation Week

Some committee members suggested "a complete review of the current residential policy at MIT." The Institute's residence system is "bizarre from other universities' perspective," Sherwood admitted. MIT alumni on the committee, however, had no complaints about the system, he added.

"We do look at it [residence week] every year," Sherwood said. "We're trying to fine-tune the system." The Dean's Office is currently examining "what we can do to minimize the negative impact [of fraternity rush]," Sherwood said.

Sherwood recognized the benefits of moving some orientation to a later point in the year. "There probably is too much information crammed in that one small period," he said. For instance, midways could be held during Independent Activities Period, he noted.

Advising

The Visiting Committee recommended that MIT pay greater attention and allot greater resources to its advising system.

It proposed: (1) naming one advisor that a student would have for several years and providing that advisor with incentive to get to know the student advisees, (2) identifying a freshman's professor as the freshman's advisor, (3) making fuller use of associate advisors and (4) placing a stronger emphasis on student relations and support in faculty review processes.

The ODSA is pursuing the idea of identifying freshmen instructors as advisors, Heine said. The ODSA is also expanding the role of the associate advisors "in the spirit of the suggestion [for pay]," she said.

The emphasis on student relations was the most important recommendation, Heine said. Professors need to know that involvement with students through advising, seminars and living groups is of value to their departments, Heine said. "People need release time from their other activities," Heine said.

Other issues

O+ Student satisfaction: The Visiting Committee reported that white, male middle-class science and engineering students are generally happy. Women, minorities, gays and students in the social sciences and humanities are less satisfied.

O+ Student Life Survey: The Committee recommended that a more refined and meaningful survey be given in the future.

O+ Pace and pressure: Important aspects of a college education are perhaps being sacrificed in the pursuit of academic excellence.

O+ Extracurricular activities: Students should be encouraged to balance their schedules with extracurricular activities.

O+ International students: The Visiting Committee reported that international students have some difficulty adjusting to life at MIT. Graduate students are concerned about losing funding. The needs of international spouses should also be addressed.

O+ Women: The committee recognized the concern over pornography and urged that the issue be used in an educational endeavor.

O+ Blacks: The committee recognized the lack of black faculty and recommended the active black alumni support of students.

O+ Minority students: The committee recommended peer advisors to help minority students deal with academic performance, financial aid and the MIT environment.

O+ Transfer students: Peer advisors were also recommended for transfer students.

O+ Teaching assistants (TAs): The committee finally recommended "serious review" of the policy of allowing a student to take a course for credit and TA the same course simultaneously. The committee also recommended that TAs should have a minimum level of English competence.