Student input is valuable
MIT has undergone two major administrative changes in the past few months. President Paul E. Gray '54 and Provost John M. Deutch '61 have stepped down from their respective positions, and the MIT community looks toward Charles M. Vest and Mark S. Wrighton to lead the Institute into the future. The installment of these new leaders brings a great potential for change which has not yet been realized -- the beginning of a restructuring chain which will move closer and closer to everyday student academic life.
The next major link in this chain is the selection of non-academic and academic deans and other higher-level administrators. Appointment of candidates for these positions is ultimately decided upon by Wrighton, who selects an advisory committee to aid him in the process by providing recommendations. The question is: What perspectives should be represented in formulating these recommendations?
The provost receives a $1 billion budget at the beginning of each fiscal year, from which he allocates certain amounts to each of the Institute's eight deans. The amount given to each department depends greatly upon lobbying for respective interests by the deans, who then distribute the resources as they see fit.
How much money is received and how it is spent affects the research undertaken by each department, which has an effect on the faculty drawn to the Institute. Furthermore, the teaching faculty hired in terms of number and quality, and the classes and supplemental programs offered by the department are all determined by this process as well.
Every choice made when selecting the deans will directly or indirectly affect students in a substantial way. The focus of the Institute could very easily change from its current engineering bias to one of science or even liberal arts. Programs such as the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, Media Lab, Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, and departmental lectures and colloquia could lose or gain funding. The classes offered to students as well as who teaches those classes could also easily change.
I assume that the administration holds education in high regard, and thus would want to provide students with the best means of preparation possible. This can best be accomplished with student feedback and input. Since the deans affect every aspect of academic life, student perspectives should logically be considered when selecting deans. At the moment, however, such is not the case; there is no current plan to include a student representative on the advisory committee to Wrighton to select a new dean of engineering. Is this beneficial to the Institute as a whole? I contend that it is not.
It is a shame that the burden of proof should lie on the students every time we desire to voice our concerns. Are we not an integral part of the MIT community? Students should automatically have positions on all committees unless a compelling reason exists for them not be involved. I fail to see why a student position should not be included on the soon-to-be-appointed advisory committee -- there is no limit to the number of members; it is not a salaried position.
A student member would have no detrimental effect whatsoever and would give further potential to the committee to select the best candidate. What loss can occur through inclusion of another viewpoint? One of the responses given to student groups was that student inclusion on the committee would prevent faculty from speaking candidly about their peers. I challenge someone to substantiate this as more than an ego problem -- faculty members may command student respect, but they certainly should not pretend to be flawless.
Is it fair to deny us the right to represent ourselves simply to preserve a lofty illusion? Furthermore, by not including a student position, a feeling of alienation between students and administration is fostered -- not at all like the "community" which MIT supposedly strives to be.
As far as precedents are concerned, there are several major universities which currently have student members on committees to select faculty and administration. MIT's political science department allows student participation on all levels of the department's legislative board -- including the faculty tenure processes. All have positive results and provide for stronger faculty-student relations. If students are as important to MIT as the administration claims, I can see no reason why students should be denied participation.
The only other objection to student membership voiced by the administration was that students would not present a new, valuable viewpoint. But students would provide a unique perspective on such committees. To say that a student would not have a unique view is equivalent to saying that the other members of the committee would be able to substitute for every idea, value and experience that a student has ever had -- something which is simply not humanly possible.
What if the student is able to see an important point from a perspective which the others overlook? Granted, this is true of any member, but the chances of a student being able to do so are much greater for many reasons: Students interact with groups most administrators infrequently see; we were raised in a different environment than those not of our generation; we have to be more concerned with job opportunities than those who already hold positions; our very lack of experience in these matters has not made us jaded.
It is very true that most students do not have the experience of our administrators and faculty. I do not deny in any way the importance of having the better-informed people take on the greater responsibility of choosing a dean. We are not asking for student voting power to balance out that of the faculty. We are requesting a voice in the hope that we may contribute a new perspective to the process. It is not too much to ask.
Manish Bapna '91 is president of the Undergraduate Association.