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Vague Goals Limit Student Involvement

@Editorial*:These sorts of events are geared to allow information exchange at the general level between administrators and community. But true committed efforts to getting student participation must not be so broad. Like the aphorism of too many cooks, it seems that the overwhelming number of advisory, steering, and planning committees have diluted the available student interest beyond usefulness.

The variety of committees and groups that the Institute interacts with are nominally intended to obtain student input. But what does this choice phrase "student input" really mean? Students, faculty, and administrators throw it around as if student interest (and the resulting input) is an inexhaustible resource. In reality, however, interest depends upon how a question or issue is framed to the community - and, more to the point, how many questions are framed.

Students will voice their opinions on issues that bear immediate pertinence to their lives. Housing changes, campus dining, and student activity finance have been just a few such areas in which students have been roused and vocal, although even in these cases, the number of students involved has been limited, and there has been little apparent reaction from the student body at large.

Another way to bring students to the table is to design forums with higher stakes and explicit goals. MIT's Institute Committees, for example, generally play fuzzy oversight roles. Re-engineering teams have bogged themselves down in minute organizational tasks. Shadow task forces, advisory groups, and working groups have too often been created only to "gather input," rather than empowered to recommend specific, major changes.

Students need a small number of groups whose goals are clear and important. Nobody wants to invest time in futile or minute endeavors, least of all wearied MIT students. Meetings with vague ambitions of discussion and advising lack the necessary tangible aims to be of interest to more than a small handful of politically-charged students.

It appears grossly ill-considered for the Institute to invent so many opportunities for students to participate when they rarely touch on relevant issues and rarely state specific and realistic objectives. It is no wonder that even the most noble efforts at soliciting participation have failed.