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Broader MIT Mission Demands Recruitment Changes

Column by Anders Hove

What makes MIT what it is? Most people would answer that our commitment to science and engineering, our emphasis on hard work and academic excellence, and the value we place on learning-by-doing determine what we are. These answers may suffice to describe the product we receive at MIT, but they do not explain much of the actual character of the Institute.

MIT's character is determined in a large part by the recruitment and promotion processes that bring and keep people here in the first place. Three such recruitment/promotion processes of concern to me are the admissions process, the orientation process, and the tenure process. The first two of these affect the character of the undergraduate and graduate student bodies, while tenure affects the character of the faculty.

In my previous column ["MIT Should Overhaul Its Badly Broken Tenure Process," May 6], I discussed how tenure helps shape and define what role faculty play on campus. By placing a high value on research and de-emphasizing teaching and community involvement, the tenure system establishes the relative worth of these activities.

To those outside the system, recruitment and promotion activities often seem relatively unimportant. Students, for example, spend less than a week doing residence selection. Academic orientation - which really lasts throughout the freshman year - seems much longer and more visible than residence selection. Yet it is the intense, sometimes grueling experience of residence selection (and fraternity rush) that is often the most contentious issue among undergraduates, and between undergraduates and the administration.

True, the residence selection side of Residence and Orientation Week has a specific constituency associated with it. R/O is of primary importance because it is the period when students put their values on the line - namely the value they place in the living group experience, the value of living-group-based social groups, and the value of participation in a living-group-based community.

The exercise of recruitment into the living group, short though it may seem, plays an intense role in shaping the character of the undergraduate student body. The strength of our living group communities, and the concomitant weakness of the undergraduate community as a whole, is directly related to the intense, value-laden R/O experience.

A second recruitment process applicable to the student body is the admissions process. Unlike R/O, admissions is not associated with any particular constituency. Indeed, much of the admissions process is beyond MIT's influence; we cannot control who applies here, for example. Much of the recruitment process in terms of admission relates to MIT's reputation among high school students and their guidance counselors. We can't completely control the information that's out there and, in a sense, that is a real problem for MIT.

It might seem strange to suggest that MIT has a reputation problem, since we consistently rank high in various formal studies of college programs. But I mean reputation in a larger sense: People who apply to MIT and choose it over other colleges have a conception of what MIT is and what will be expected of them when they get here. I will not be the first to point out that that conception - even on some of the most basic points - is badly out of line with reality.

Take MIT's educational mission. Since the Institute's founding, there has been an acknowledged consensus that the purpose of education here is to prepare the student for life. While this same philosophy has ostensibly guided MIT's institutional and educational forms, many (if not most) students come to MIT with the belief that they are here to learn about science and engineering exclusively, and that anything else is a cultural side dish.

There has been some effort to counter this notion through the introduction of the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences requirement and the relabeling of community and athletic activities as "co-curricular." Nevertheless, MIT cannot eradicate the perception that its students "are only here to do science and engineering" without changing its reputation among the applicant pool.

At first glance, the tenure process may seem far removed from the recruitment and promotion processes of admission and orientation. After all, only 20 percent of all faculty don't have tenure, and they make up a small portion of MIT's total population. Like orientation, however, the effect of a recruitment process extends much beyond the duration of the experience itself. The effect of tenure reaches way back to the decision to attend graduate school, and it shapes the way faculty order their lives all the way through retirement. If the tenure system places value on research interests alone, those are the values that will dominate the faculty, the graduate school, and, to some extent, the whole working of the department.

MIT's recruitment and promotion processes play a disproportionate role in determining the character of the place and the nature of the educational product delivered. If we are to succeed at our broad educational mission, these important processes have to be designed to meet the overall mission of the Institute. (The Dean's Office calls this "intentionality.") Right now they are geared toward meeting the goals of certain constituencies, and changing them will mean confronting those constituencies. If MIT is a rational, "intentional" institution, we will not shrink from that confrontation.