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High turnover rate in OME causes concern

By Linda D'Angelo

Although there has been a high turnover rate in the Office of Minority Education, the new OME Director, Judy Jackson Pitts, plans to stay for a while.

Many members of the MIT community have been upset over the high rate. It has been "very noticeable and disturbing," former Black Student Union Co-Chair Sean Cadogan '90 said.

Pitts, herself, has become aware of this; in the two months she has been with the OME, students as well as staff have told her that the office "needs some stability." One student, after seeing her leave the office very late one night, even warned her not to burn herself out.

"Minority education can be a burnout position, especially for those who are really committed," and this may account for the office's high turnover rate, Pitts said. "Trying to do so much and having the illusion you're the only one doing it" can get overwhelming, she noted. To prevent this, OME personnel need to realize they are not working "in a vacuum"; they need to "see the OME as a necessary link with every other office in the Institute that is involved with student education," she said.

The structure of OME may also be a reason for the high turnover rate. Four years ago the office, which had previously answered directly to the Provost, was brought under the Office of the Dean for Student Affairs. While this move "improved the administrative capabilities" of OME, the office "lost its autonomy," according to Edward Jones '89, a past BSU co-chair who was involved with the office before and after this change.

"By breaking the direct link between OME and the Provost, and making the Dean for Student Affairs the liason to the Provost, the political and financial power of the OME became restricted," Cadogan said. This "resulted in a tension in the office that wasn't there before," Jones said.

The current Dean for Student Affairs is Shirley M. McBay. She could not be reached for comment.

Now, rather than make their own decisions, office members often have to implement the decisions of the Dean for Student Affairs or other high-level administrators, according to Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers President Virginia John '91. "Caught in the middle" between students and faculty, many office members have felt it necessary to leave, John said.

OME funding has remained constant over the past five years, even though the number of minority students at MIT has reached an all-time high. This may be another factor contributing to the office's high turnover rate, Jones said.

Financially unable to increase the staff, some members of OME began to "carry a heavy burden on their shoulders," Cadogan said. "Without the funding and resources they needed to deal with minority students" the members of the office became frustrated, he added.

The administration's attitude toward the office may also be a cause for the high turnover rate, according to John. "I don't think the administration is putting in a real effort" to keep improving OME, she stated. The sentiment on the part of the administration -- that "we set up the office, now our job is done" -- frustrates the efforts of OME members, she explained.

Because all three of its members have come to the office within the last five months, OME has experienced a "slowing down of things," Pitts noted. But "if the bottom line of delivering on the MIT mission for equal opportunities for all students" remains the same, then "there doesn't have to be discontinuity." And if office members can use their prior experience in minority education then "the slowing down doesn't have to be that long," she explained.

OME is still not fully staffed. The ODSA has yet to find an assistant dean to replace Anthony Canchola-Flores, who left OME in September for an admissions position at Brown University.

OME's future focus

OME's main goal is to "identify and focus on the needs of under-represented minorities through strong connection between OME and the rest of the Institute," Pitts said.

The head of the OME hopes to get to know students on a day-to-day basis, rather than just seeing them in crisis. An important part of this is "getting to know parents" in order to see "were the students are coming from," she explained.

During Parents' Weekend in October, Pitts spoke with many parents who were "very open about their hopes and dreams for their sons and daughters." She interpreted this as the "parents laying trust in me" and felt that "now I need to come through."

OME will also be working to extend connections beyond the Institute through programs like the Industrial Advisory Council that give "MIT under-represented minority students practical exposure to the world beyond an MIT degree," Pitts said.

Knowing the world outside makes the student realize why he or she is at MIT, and this in turn strengthens the academic commitment, Pitts asserted. Through the IAC, students will be "assigned mentors from industry, ideally on a one-to-one basis," she explained.

This will provide "a knowledgable, experienced person for students to bounce their ideas off," she said. And depending on the proximity, the program would also involve visits for "first-hand, practical observation so students can understand what their course is leading to," she noted.

While still in the beginning stages, the IAC has received support from at least nine companies and the first meeting is planned for September 1990.

Pitts also hopes to improve and strengthen already existing programs. This includes extending the structure of Program XL (a freshman learning program centered around small groups) to the Black Student Tutorial Program in order to "provide small group learning for upperclassmen," and the revival of the Freshman Buddy Program, which "wasn't functioning last year" but is "now fully operating," Pitts said.

OME also needs to "work to re-establish strong bonds between students and the office," Jones said. "Students have been actively involved with the OME since its creation" but student participation has been noticeably decreasing since 1985, he noted. If this involvement is not continued "the effectiveness of the office can be seriously questioned," he explained.

Many students "like J. J. Pitts but have a low opinion of the office," Cadogan said. Due to past tensions and frequent changes in personnel, OME is "just not as approachable for students," he noted. While "it's going to take some time," actions like "restarting the Buddy program" are steps in the right direction, he explained.

The fact that MIT's "potential for minority education has not been fully met" presents a challenge to OME whose ultimate goal is "diversity and mutual respect," Pitts said. The Institute "has a great deal of diversity, now we just need to work on mutual respect," she explained.