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Student Input Needed in Re-engineering

The re-engineering of student services seems destined to become the most momentous project the MIT administration will undertake this year. We urge those who are in charge of the effort to remember to include student input at every stage of the process.

Planning and decisions made on the basis of community consensus have a proven track record of success. Those based exclusively on administration wish-lists have generated conflict and discord. Recent years have provided ample evidence that the process of considering proposals by members of the MIT community, such as those of administrators, is often as important as the outcome. The inclusion of community groups must take the paramount role in reaching any outcome.

Of all the methods for including input - surveys, focus groups, town meetings, information kiosks, discussions with student leaders, infrequent open meetings or "town meetings," regular meetings - open planning sessions and regular meetings with student groups stand the best chance of fostering consensus. Openness and inclusion are essential features if distrust and suspicion are to be avoided. Furthermore, the novelty of this method ought to recommend itself to an institution so eager to experiment with new ways of solving problems.

Of the remaining options, the survey is the least effective means of gauging student preferences. Students have been swamped with so many surveys over the past two years that many have become cynical about their impact. Town meetings, another option, tend to fail to reach any closure or consensus. Since everyone has something to say, the flow of the discussion tends to jump around from topic to topic with no real clash or continuity between ideas. Also, the town meeting format focuses attention on panel members or administrators, inappropriate for the community-based approach administrators should be pursuing.

Finally, the leaders of the re-engineering effort should not poison the well of student input by bringing too few issues to the table. If members of the community find that their input is only desired on the matter of sandwich display arrangements or cookie selection, re-engineering will fail. Big issues, such as the Aramark contract, bringing food truck vendors into Walker Memorial, the limits to the use of the MIT Card, and other such issues need to be discussed in an open and flexible manner. If administrators are not prepared to change their standard operating procedures when they arrive at the table, they will never succeed in rebuilding the students' trust.

In the upcoming months, student groups will be expecting invitations to fact-finding sessions and open discussions. It is absolutely imperative that the directors of the re-engineering effort succeed where previous efforts have failed so miserably. By working with interested student groups from the outset, and by remaining flexible on issues of real concern to students, the administration stands a chance of building trust and reaching consensus. If anything needs re-engineering on this campus, it is the process of making decisions.