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Student Life Group Needs Student Members

Column by Anders Hove
Executive Editor

The deans' office is at it again. Sometimes it seems that the full-time mission of our friends in Building 7 is to set up committees with broad missions while allowing only token student involvement.

This time the culprit is Rosalind H. Williams, the new dean for undergraduate education. She's spent the last several months recruiting faculty members to pack the task force on student life and learning. No small job, given the blandly-stated mission of the group. The mission statement includes the following murky projects: to "review and articulate MIT's educational mission" and to "evaluate MIT's current educational processes and identify changes that would enhance or support the educational mission." If someone wanted me to undertake such a project, I'd head for the hills.

Surprisingly, however, Williams had little difficulty signing on nine big-name professors from a variety of departments. Although the committee may be joined later by two students, MIT wasted no time in packing the faculty members off on a Cape Cod junket and bull session. Cushy.

I'm willing to admit that the esteemed faculty members chosen to sit on the committee are a lot savvier than most of their colleagues. I don't know many of the members personally, but I know that some are highly involved in the community, and that others have a good rapport with their students. Associate Professor of Political Science Charles Stewart III is even housemaster at McCormick Hall. So I can't say this group is completely out of touch with students. No doubt President Charles M. Vest and Williams found that these nine people were among the most qualified faculty at MIT to study issues related to students.

The fact remains, however, that this committee embodies the paternalistic and condescending attitudes held by the faculty and, it appears, Williams herself. The committee was conceived and formed by administrators and faculty; it is packed with faculty. Its mission is to address issues of student life, yet none of the current members are students.

By way of example, just have a look at a map of where the committee members currently live. Only one lives in Cambridge. One third of the members live in Lexington. How many MIT students have ever even been to Lexington? As far as student life is concerned, Lexington might as well be Siberia.

Of course many faculty spend a great deal of time on campus. They work in labs, often with students. Sometimes they teach. A handful of them attend faculty meetings or sit on Institute committees. When they interact with other faculty they do so as colleagues, sharing information. When they interact with students they do so as imparters of information. There is little dialogue.

Williams does not regard any of this as a problem. She is sure that, with study, these faculty will come to understand student life issues. According to a Sept. 11 article in Tech Talk entitled "Task Force to Review Student Life and Learning," the committee will be chatting with some students right after it gets done meeting alumni, staff, and various Institute committees. How reassuring. The entire operation smells more like an exercise in anthropology than a serious attempt to bring the community together.

I believe that the Institute would be better served by opening up these processes to the whole community. Faculty members have a lot to learn from students; furthermore, students have a lot to learn about managing their own lives. It is within the bounds of MIT's educational mission that the students be asked to work with the faculty in moving this organization into the next century. Instead of making the students their partners, MIT has asked them to just put up with whatever the faculty or administrative departments paternalistically decide.

It's worth saying that the real reason this committee has been stacked with faculty has nothing to do with qualifications or information and everything to do with standard operational procedure. Williams and Vest are faculty members and administrators. They regard what happens at meetings of the academic council and faculty as real and everything else as peripheral. The institutional symbols and prestige are designed to place value on their place in this community. Small wonder that they should select from among their own group rather than from the community at large.

MIT may lead the world in science and technology. But as long as it clings to the sort of outmoded policy-making norms exemplified by the task force on student life and learning, MIT the university remains a 19th-century organization.