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MIT must be sensitive to divorse

Column by David Atikins

Last Christmas, I got up early in the morning to visit my father. When I go home, I usually stay with my mother, since my father has only one bed and has not yet sorted the debris from when he moved from our old home. This past Christmas was more relaxed than the Christmas Day freshman year when my parents announced they were planning to separate and eventually divorce, except for one small detail: the MIT Bursar's bill I noticed on the kitchen table.

After almost three years of divorce, my father still receives mail directed to Mr. and Mrs. David L. Atkins. It's one of those little details you don't think about when you're trying to keep your life together and survive MIT. But as I got to thinking about it, I got progressively more upset about the little things that MIT doesn't do that could make students lives so much easier. I determined to find a solution and at least satisfy my curiosity as to what I should have had the presence of mind to do four years ago.

MIT supposes all students have two parents who live at the same address. I spoke with the Bursar's Office, the Registrar's Office, the Undergraduate Academic Support Office, Student Assistance Services, the Financial Aid Office and the Information Office. Of these, only the Information Office was of any help. For seniors, at least, they keep a list of alternate addresses, so students can have Senior Week material sent to both parents. At all the other offices, they defer to the registrar for such information. The registrar's database has one field for "home address." For parent billing, through the Bursar's Office, there is also only one field for a parent's address.

I fixed half of the problem by asking the Bursar's Office to delete the "& Mrs." from my parents' billing address. But this doesn't fix the larger half of the problem, the fact that since my parents' separation, my mother has been effectively written off by MIT. She receives no mail whatsoever from MIT, but is expected, every year, to fill out a "divorced/separated parent's form" for financial aid purposes. MIT expects her to pay for my education, but refuses to acknowledge her existence.

My mother knew nothing of Parents' Weekend, for example. She does not receive a copy of the Parents' Newsletter. My father xeroxed the Senior Week information on hotels and sent it to her. On the positive side, she does not receive any information on the Campaign for the Future, but I am sure she would not mind that small inconvenience for MIT's acknowledgment that she is a parent, of equal importance as my father.

Why is MIT so far behind the times in this area? I am sure I am not the only student with divorced or separated parents. MIT knew my parents were separated in 1986, and divorced in 1987, through my dealings with the Financial Aid Office. Yet they did nothing to even acknowledge that anything had changed. Freshman year was a very difficult time for me, emotionally. Had MIT given some indication that it cared in the least, life might have been easier.

Is it too much to expect that MIT be pro-active in this area? Yes, I could have gone to SAS or the ODSA and discussed my parents' divorce. It might have made me feel better. But why couldn't a flag have gone off somewhere in my files, to alert my advisor to the situation? Even if I had spoken with the various support groups that exist for students, this would have changed nothing for the "little things" like mail addressed to both parents at Christmas. There is no procedure for counseling or even attempting to deal with students whose parents are separated or divorced. Individuals in the various offices are generally supportive and eager to help, but as an institution, and due to the structure and bureaucracy therein, MIT just doesn't care.

Year after year, faculty and administrators complain that they do care and that they are misunderstood by students. I don't doubt that many faculty care and I know personally that administrators care, but the problem is structural. This tiny, specific issue is but the tip of the iceberg indicative of the institutional structure in MIT which is cold and uncaring. I appreciate the sympathy of individuals, but if this school is to reverse the "IHTFP" image it has among students, the system must be changed. Some might call that a change towards paternalism, but frankly, I have had enough of this laissez faire educational system and I would welcome some degree of administration involvement in my life.

I would like to see, before I graduate, a procedure put in place to deal with at least the housekeeping aspects of divorced/separated parents. As a student, I should be able to simply fill out a card with a second home address on Registration Day. That would play havoc with the existing database, but what are my parents paying $14,500 a year for anyway? They have a right to expect some degree of respect from MIT.


Dave Atkins, a senior, is double majoring in political science and management.