MIT drops plans for Interphase, part 2
By Niraj S. Desai
In the wake of strong student protest, the MIT administration has dropped plans to make Project Interphase a combined summer and fall educational program. Instead, Interphase will continue as an eight-week summer program for disadvantaged students, while a new program, dubbed Project XL, will be established to help first-term freshmen succeed academically.
The arrangement was worked out at a May 23 meeting between Dean for Student Affairs Shirley M. McBay, faculty members, and student representatives. The students proposed the creation of Project XL at the meeting as an alternative to the administration's planned changes in Project Interphase. After some modification, the proposal was accepted by the administration and faculty.
The meeting came four days after 50 students conducted a demonstration on the steps of 77 Massachusetts Avenue to voice their opposition to the changes in Interphase.
Project Interphase, which is targeted at underrepresented minority students, will this summer include intensive
study of mathematics, physics, and writing. Since its founding in 1969, Interphase has sought to maintain minority student enrollment by helping to prepare incoming freshmen whose high school training may have been inadequate for their first year at MIT. Around 60 freshmen are expected to participate this summer.
Project XL, which combines a number of resources presently available to students, will likely be available to all interested first-year students in the fall, though it will be administered by the Office of Minority Education. The program, as described in a statement distributed by McBay, will include four parts:
O+ Students will meet four times a week in study groups run by graduate students and upperclass undergraduates. The groups will work on assigned problems from freshman calculus and physics classes.
O+ A lecture and discussion series involving distinguished minority role models will be started; student participation will be required.
O+ Students will be expected to attend the "Strategies and Secrets to Success" series of presentations offered by the OME.
O+ Students will meet regularly with their advisors to discuss their academic progress and career interests.
Freshmen who complete these four parts will receive six units of credit for their participation in Project XL. They will also be encouraged, though not required, to take only 42 other units of coursework. The goal, according to the statement, will be for Project XL students to do "A-level" work in their classes.
McBay was quoted by Tech Talk as saying of Project XL, "I think it's very exciting. I'm quite pleased with the outcome. The students have committed themselves to help make this new effort successful, and to lead by example. They are committed to a climate of excellence."
but concerns remain
"I'm satisfied," said Norman L. Fortenberry G of the final arrangement. But Fortenberry, who was one of the students who worked on the Project XL proposal, added that he was not entirely happy with the end result.
In particular, Fortenberry was concerned by the absence of calculus and chemistry in this summer's Interphase curriculum. These subjects had been treated in previous years.
Without exposure over the summer to these core subjects, Interphase students might be put at a disadvantage in the fall, Fortenberry feared, especially because "the Institute in general expects students to enter [with such previous experience]."
Fortenberry's concerns were echoed by Edward L. Jones '89, one of the students who participated in the May 23 meeting. Jones said it would be necessary to examine the performance of Interphase students in fall term chemistry subjects in order to gauge the effect of chemistry's exclusion from the Interphase program.
Frederick J. Foreman G, another student representative at the meeting, said only analytic geometry and other pre-calculus mathematics would be included in the summer study, while Interphase students should be exposed to calculus to prepare them for fall term math classes. Foreman said deficiencies in the Interphase summer program would have to be made up by the Project XL fall program.
Despite these concerns about Project Interphase, the student representatives contacted by The Tech all believed Project XL could make a valuable contribution.
Project XL will provide a supportive academic atmosphere for participating freshmen, Jones said. Not only will it include personalized study groups, but it will bring to the attention of first-year students the variety of resources and opportunities available to them. Students now often do not learn valuable things, such as how to approach a professor, until late in their MIT careers, Jones said. Project XL will start the learning process much earlier.
Foreman said Project XL would be even more helpful if it were complemented by a similar set-up over the summer.
Comparing the effect of Project Interphase alone in previous years to the combined impact of Project Interphase and Project XL in the future is difficult, Fortenberry said. In particular, Fortenberry said it would be necessary to see how Project XL is implemented in order to judge the usefulness to students of the new arrangement.
The series of discussions that led up to the creation of Project XL were begun in late April when the administration's plan to change Project Interphase was made public. The original plan called for Interphase to be extended through the fall term and for students to take a prescribed set of classes in the fall. Interphase freshmen who dropped out of the program after the summer would be penalized by not receiving any credit for writing done over the summer -- credit students participating in the fall segment would receive.
This plan immediately drew sustained criticism from former Interphase participants who disliked the rigid course requirements and feared that extending Interphase into the fall term would "fragment" the minority community and encourage the formation of cliques.
Many students also complained that the policy decision was made too quickly and without taking student input into account. "It was clear that this proposal was created by a fairly small group of people," Fortenberry said.
Foreman said the students active in devising Project XL believed it was important to approach the problem by thinking of alternatives rather than focusing on criticizing the administration plan. He said the student group had been in contact with Associate Provost S. Jay Keyser and that the May 23 meeting grew out of these discussions.
One of the most important lessons to be drawn from the Interphase controversy is about the breakdown in communication between the administration and students, Jones asserted. Too often administrators assume that if students are not complaining, they are satisfied, he said.
Fortenberry said the May 19 demonstration and other student criticism had a very definite effect on the administration because they evidenced student concern and highlighted issues that administrators had not considered thoroughly.
Better communications require efforts on both sides, Fortenberry said. Student must do the background research necessary to address policy issues intelligently, and administrators must have a basic respect for the insight students can bring to discussions.