Immerman Reflects on His 17 Years of MIT CareerBy Shang-Lin Chuang
With the administration restrucuring announced earlier this week, several key operational and administrative offices moved from Senior Vice President William R. Dickson '56 to the Dean for Undergraduate Education Rosalind H. Williams.
The new chain of command was not the only change, however. Stephen D. Immerman, formerly director of special services under Dickson, has been named the new director of operations and administration in the Dean's Office, and will likely play a major role in managing the reorganization of the Dean's Office.
The new position caps a 17-year career at the Institute that has seen Immerman working in areas as diverse as the Dean's Office, the Student Center, resource development, and re-engineering.
Barely one day after Immerman assumed his new position, I caught up with him for a 90-minute interview. Immerman, taking a break form his increasingly hectic schedule, reflected on his past experiences, his new responsibilities and how they relate to re-engineering, and what he sees in the future of student services at MIT.
The Tech: Can you provide a description of your MIT career?
Immerman: I started in 1979 as MIT's first full time adviser for fraternities and independent living groups, much like Neal Dorow is right now. Back then there were no sororities on campus. I was instrumental in the process that brought the first sorority on campus.
Eventually I was handling by myself what Dorow, Phil Walsh [Director of the Campus Activities Complex Phillip J. Walsh], and Katie O'Dair [Assistance Dean for Residence and Campus Life Katherine O'Dair] take care of now. Because I was unable at the time to adequately do the jobs of three people, I left the Dean's Office to go to resource development. There, I met with successful alumni, people who are out in the real world doing interesting things. And it was remarkable for me to go from seeing students as undergraduates to alumni using their MIT experience to make the world a better place.
In the interim, the decision was made to move the Coop [Harvard Cooperative Society] out of the Student Center and into its current location in Kendall Square, leaving some 30,000 square feet that needed to be dealt with. Back then the Student Center was often described to me as large and largely dysfunctional. Before I left the Dean's Office, I had talked to Vice President Dickson about a vision for the Student Center to better support students.
The current structure is based largely on that vision. And this is one of the great things about MIT, that if you have a good idea, people will hear you out and try to carry it out. This was in many ways a re-engineering activity, where 300 to 400 volunteers, mostly students, were involved.
As a result, I left resource development and came back to the Dean's Office to develop the Student Center, which was literally a four year process. Students told us what they wanted - where they spent their money and what stores they wanted. That was a great experience for me, and I am hoping that someone will take another whack at the building in 20 years because there are always changes to be made.
When the restructuring of the Student Center was completed about ten years ago, Vice President Dickson invited me to work in his office on a variety of special projects as director of special services. A lot of them would not have been visible to students because there were targeted solely to the administration. But some of the student-related projects were buying the first sorority house, starting Safe Ride, creating the Religious Activities Center, starting student services re-engineering, and renovating Senior House.
The Tech: What part of your past experience will help you in your new position?
Immerman: I have been at MIT for 17 years, and I have had the opportunity to work across boundaries. Some of the projects that I have been able to work on are not appreciably different than what I think I will be doing in my new job. I have always been involved with students, whether as a dean, freshmen adviser, nightline adviser, or fraternity adviser.
The things that make me feel the most useful and satisfied have always related to student life and activities, so this is basically just a homecoming for me. My guess is that it is not going to be easy, and none of us have a clear understanding of where it is going. However the expression of bringing all these activities into the educational fold is a strong statement of what MIT stands for. It is time to support MIT's mission and the needs of students.
The Tech: What is your new job? What specific areas will fall under your new job?
Immerman: Some of it remains to be seen. What I do know is that a team of us have the opportunity to bring together an integrated division of student affairs that thinks about supporting students in a holistic way. My job is to help figure out how to make that happen, and what that means on a day to day basis. Come and talk to me in a few months and perhaps I will a better understanding of it.
We are still talking about the specific areas that will be falling under my new job.
The Tech: Who will do your old job?
Immerman: There are many issues on how the transition will occur, and I don't know the answer to that.
The Tech: Is this the position that you have always wanted?
Immerman: What I wanted was for MIT to bring these services together and to allow for an integrated and holistic approach to student development. I have always been less worried about my position or title, and more worried about how effective I will be and how much I can do in my job.
The Tech: What was your part in planning the reorganization?
Immerman: It has not been any secret that I have advocated the need, desire, and hope that we might bring what is now in place into reality for at least 15 years. But this is the president's decision on where the Institute needs to go. I certainly endorse it, and am excited by it. This is one of the greatest opportunities we have had to make a strong statement of the importance of student life and services.
If you would have asked me whether this would happen last year I would have said no. However, the president has thrown the boulders out of the way. It is a incredibly visionary decision. And I believe as a community we will be able to pull it off.
The Tech: Was the plan a result of re-engineering?
Immerman: It would be a mistake to say that. Did re-engineering have an effect? Definitely. The basic tenet of re-engineering is to break down institutional barriers and look at processes rather than functions. Re-engineering had a huge impact on the reorganization, but to say that it is the only thing responsible would be overstating it.
By the reorganization, the president gave us the opportunity to realize what re-engineering wants to achieve.
The Tech: How will re-engineering be affected?
Immerman: This also remains to be seen. If you are asking me to guess, then I would say that the reorganization will dramatically energize re-engineering and help it move forward. It will in some part remove the kinds of worries people have of where they will end up and what the Institute will look like. The reorganization does not presuppose what any re-engineering team is doing, and will certainly not take anything away from them.
The Tech: Will you remain closely involved with re-engineering?
Immerman: I don't know. These new responsibilities will in some way make changes in my work life, but I don't know what these changes will be. I have learned so much from re-engineering in such a short time and I am forever grateful for the personal growth it has offered me. Re-engineering is difficult, but it has allowed us to make more progress faster than anything I have seen thus far.
The Tech: What do you see as your biggest challenge in your new position?
Immerman: To understand and figure out how to put together a system that supports student services fully and maximizes our resources. The good news is that there are a lot of bright people who care deeply about MIT, including a lot of students, and together we will figure it out.
The Tech: Is this the right thing for MIT's future?
Immerman: Absolutely. What is the central mission of MIT? Research, education, and public service. Lots of people talk about the definition of education, the president gave us the opportunity to make it real. I don't want to presuppose what the task force on student life will establish, but think about what the president is asking us to do.
What does a student have to learn outside of the classroom? They learn to recreate, to socialize, and to obtain skills that are needed to be successful in the real world. Students need to learn how to work in a group, to deal with people different from than themselves, and to express themselves. They need to know how to negotiate in an organization, how to participate as a citizen, how to make decisions, how to deal with issues of injustice, how to balance work and recreation.
We here at MIT have the best opportunity of any other university I have every seen to allow students to help students realize their potential. That's why tying student life to the educational process is so important. The two are not separated, they are a whole, and should be thought of as integrated. This is a very practical thing to do in a very practical place - people who are incredibly bright, who don't need much coaching, will use the opportunities and tools put before them and run with them. Our jobs is to put forth the opportunities and tools, and then get out of the way.
The Tech: Are you happy about this from a personal standpoint?
Immerman: It is funny because I don't usually think in those terms. I am incredibly happy for MIT, and hopeful the impact will benefit endless generations of students. Students who are here are an endless resource for the world, and we need to be conscious of that and serve them the best way we can. At the prospect of doing that, I am beyond happy.
I am really motivated and energized, and to some extent, respectfully terrified about what lies before us. It is big, it is complicated, and how do you make sure you are doing the right thing? We have daunting responsibilities. I like to work, which is not uncommon in this community, and for the first time in my life I felt I really belonged when I came here. Students at MIT are an absolute joy to work with.
The Tech: Why did the reorganization happen when it did, and was it the best time?
Immerman: We will have to evaluate that later. Right now I have to assume that the right time is now. There are arguments for any action. You need to go with what you got and assume that it is the right answer.
The Tech: It seems recently that when MIT administrators leave a position because of death or retirement, a major restructuring and realignment of their responsibilities takes place? Do you think this position will outlast you?
Immerman: If I do my job well, then no. And that is the best kind of job. If I am successful, the need for this position will not continue. But this is only speculative on my part. My goal is to help facilitate a transition and to do that in such a way to allow the system to operate itself. Part of re-engineering is to remove management, and to empower folks who are close to the students and the problems.
The Tech: Is the recent administrative turnover at MIThealthy?
Immerman: It depends on who you ask. One set of people say it will be a constant change and flux, since change is needed so rapidly. Another perspective is that things have to come to some point of stability, that it is difficult to be in this much change and to constantly to have to learn new things.
There are so many variables it is difficult for me to speculate. I think we need to be stable, but that stability will not be stagnant because of all the changes happening around us. It would probably be a mix.
The bottom line is, students know how to serve students better than we do, and you need that kind of input to do your job well.
The Tech: Where do you see yourself one and five years from now?
Immerman: In one year, I will be up to my elbow with organizational changes. I will also be thinking about the closing of re-engineering. In five years? I have no idea. I hope I will still be doing interesting work.
The Tech: What positions at MIT do you see in your future?
Immerman: I literally love MIT, and I would hope that I will be here for a very long time. However, some of us believe it is not a good idea to stay at one place for a long time. They believe that we should do what needs to be done, but then move up and out to provide growth. I don't know what will happen. Too much is going on for me to say for certain.
The Tech: What do you have to say about the perennial concerns of the administration not getting enough student input?
Immerman: We have to together define a process that will help us solve that problem. Even if there is no problem, the fact that there is a perception that there is a problem, then we have a problem. I view the problem in less problematic terms than have been described in student media.
I have always been surprised to the extent to which students describe the great skill and forethought the administration has put into this conspiracy. It is absurd to believe that the administration has such well thought out and devious plans. The administration and the students need to sit down together, understand, and figure out how to solve the problem.
But with whom do we sit down? Who speaks for students? How do you come to a point of agreement with so many student groups with so many different views? Who needs to be involved? These are very difficult questions and unless people are willing to be open-minded, they will not be resolved. Do I know how to solve these problems? No. Do I know how to start? To sit down with everyone and talk.