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Provost Wrighton Just Doesn't Get It

Column by Dan Dunn
Associate Night Editor

Provost Mark S. Wrighton just doesn't get it. I'll get to what he doesn't get shortly.

Wrighton recently appointed a search committee to find a replacement for Dean for Undergraduate Education and Student Affairs Arthur C. Smith. "Why," you ask, "should I care about this dean?" A good question, and one that is easy to answer. He is the policy maker on dormitories, independent living groups, student counseling, minority affairs, Residence and Orientation Week, and the freshman experience in general.

If there is one person who affects your daily life here at MIT, it is this dean. Not to mention that the dean is the only spokesman for undergraduates on the Academic Council, the secretive bunch that decides the fate of the Institute every Tuesday morning.

Back to the provost and the search committee. Wrighton appointed four students to the committee. "Great," you say, "my thoughts and opinions as a student will be represented on this very important Committee. So what's the problem?" The problem is the way that the students were chosen. At no time did the provost or anyone else ask a student leader or a student organization, (or a student, for that matter) who they would like to see on the committee.

A little history about the provost and search committees: In 1990, Provost Wrighton chose the committee to find the new dean of the school of engineering. He chose not to put any students on the committee, because, as he put it, students "would not offer a unique perspective, and thus was unsure whether students would be valuable members of the committee" ["Provost Rejects UA, GSC Request," The Tech, Nov. 6, 1990]. Pretty revealing statement, isn't it? Students not having a unique viewpoint?

"Wow," you say. "This guy is really out of touch." Yes he was, and, as I argue here, he still is.

As you can imagine, there was a lot of furor over that statement. Wrighton still didn't put any students on that search committee, but he put students on the search for the dean of the school of science the following year, and at least two other committees since then.

Let's talk for a minute about the way that Wrighton should be choosing students. Every other faculty committee, from the Committee on Discipline (they can expel you) to the Committee for Academic Performance (they can expel you) to the Committee on the Undergraduate Program (they just make your life hell) goes to the Graduate Student Council or the Undergraduate Association. These organizations have committees that interview interested students and send a list of possible names to the chair of the committee.

It is easy to understand that sometimes there is not enough time for the interviewers to operate properly. In those cases, it is reasonable for the dean or committee chair to just call up some student leaders (the presidents of the UA, GSC, Interfraternity Council, and the Dormitory Council, perhaps) and see who they would nominate.

But Wrighton didn't do any of these things when he chose this new search committee. And he had plenty of time to do it right. He knew that Dean Smith was resigning. He knew he would have to create a search committee.

Weeks before the committee was formed, the President of the IFC, Prashant B. Doshi '95 and the UA President Vijay P. Sankaran '95 independently wrote to Provost Wrighton asking about how students would be put on the committee and offering input. But Wrighton let all of this slip by without any attempt to ask students who they wanted.

But we shouldn't put all the blame on the provost. After all, he's too busy deciding which centers and departments to close. To be fair, we should ask where the chair of the faculty, the current dean, and the president were when the provost was forming this committee? Each of these individuals is very good at telling students (and faculty, for that matter) that their opinion is being heard and taken into consideration. Thankfully for them, MIT students are usually too busy to challenge their records in the student involvement department.

Instead, students were presented with a fait accompli. The chair of the search committee, Professor of Materials Science and Engineering Linn W. Hobbs, said "The students selected were chosen after wide consultation with deans and staff in the UESA."

This translates into the associate advisor of a professor on the committee and a couple of students with very close ties to the Dean's Office. Is this representation of student opinion? The individuals may be intelligent and competent, but is the student body represented? Who is better equipped to pick a spokesman for the students, the students themselves, or the provost? The answers to these questions are obvious.

So why is it that some committees are chosen well, but when the provost chooses one, he botches the job? The answer, as I said in the beginning, is that Wrighton just doesn't get it.

Four years ago he said that students don't have a unique view to offer. He was burned by this statement. He learned that he had to put students on search committees. But it seems to be a reflex, a Pavlovian response. Wrighton doesn't know why he is putting students on the committee. He just does it. If it was more than that, if he really understood why he was putting students on search committees, he would understand the following: If you want student opinion, just putting students on a committee is not enough.

You have to allow students to choose their own representatives. No administrator can speak on student opinion with surety. Only students can speak to their own opinions.

Dan Dunn '94 hopes that his name will remain on the June 1995 degree list.