Confusion remains over graduation requirements
By Cliff Schmidt
At the end of last month, many juniors and seniors were startled by a letter that was sent out by MIT Registrar David S. Wiley '61 concerning graduation requirements.
Many students realized for the first time that they needed a few more units to graduate than they had foreseen. For some students, this meant having to take more courses than they had planned, or possibly even having to delay graduation one semester. However, the letter reflected a policy change made four years ago.
"The change [in graduation requirements] was printed in the 1986 fall course bulletin for the entering Class of 1990," Wiley said. Notices were printed many times throughout the year, including the beginning of this year, he noted.
Wiley sent a copy of the latest letter to the departments in early September in order to allow students to pick them up from their advisors on registration day. But many students did not receive the letter on registration day, so Wiley had a copy of the same letter sent out to the students individually.
The basic difference in graduation requirements for last year's class and those for this year's is the change from a standard 360 units for graduation to between 180 to 198 units in addition to the 17-subject General Institute Requirements. It is important that any juniors or seniors who have still not heard of the change, find out immediately what requirements they may have to complete.
A mixed system
Dean for Undergraduate Education Margaret L. A. MacVicar '65 said that the biggest problem with working out graduation requirements has to do with MIT's "mixed system" of units and subjects.
According to MacVicar, this problem has been addressed many times throughout the last 15 years. Back in the mid-seventies, Professor Sheila E. Widnall '60, a member of the Committee on Educational Policy, investigated the possibilities of redressing the courses at MIT to be based on subjects and not units.
Five years ago, Professor Arthur C. Smith, who was then chairman of faculty, stated that the unit requirement for graduation should be variable depending on the department.
Finally, three years ago, the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences distribution program was implemented, creating a stricter requirement than the previous humanities distribution program, but at the same time adding many more 12-unit courses in place of the common 9-unit courses that made up the HUM-D requirement.
"Three hundred sixty is really a mythical number of units," claimed MacVicar. She said that depending upon the department, graduation requirements can range from 360 units to 390 units. It is very unlikely that an undergraduate at MIT today can graduate with only 360 units, she said.
Even the suggested freshman limit on course load is calculated to be approximately four and a half subjects (four subjects plus a seminar), not some number of units, MacVicar said. The HASS-D requirement is eight subjects, not a specific number of units.
However units are still used as a requirement for graduation, MacVicar points out. This is the "mixed system."
MacVicar noted that most colleges use the subject system, and it would not surprise her to see this as an issue in the next decade. "I think we're going to evolve toward the subject count, too," she said.