Billed as the most comprehensive review of Institute life and academics since the Lewis Commission evaluated MITin 1949, the report of the Task Force on Student Life and Learning offers many good and solid recommendations. In reading the report, I found the best recommendations to be those concerning academics, rather than those concerning building community. Whether administrators will choose to implement those recommendations, however, is a separate issue.
Several recommendations concerning academics were immediately striking as I read through the report. They address critical problems that currently plague the Institute.
First, it's great the report suggests that management subjects be opened up to the undergraduate program. More and more students are finding at least a general background in management useful, but the current implementation hinders students from taking management subjects because of the lottery system. In addition, the fact that the Sloan School ofManagement has lotteries for its subjects sends a message of elitism to non-Sloan students at a time when more interaction among departments and schools is necessary.
Another recommendation I especially liked was focusing the growth of information technology around the library system. I have found that the library system at MIT is entirely inadequate for student study. Most people I know spend their time studying in their dormitories or at various clusters scattered across campus. It's seems reasonable that the center of any campus should be the library system, and that students should do most of their study in a place where study is encouraged, rather than in front of the television or on the bed. Centering changes in information technology around the library system may just be the solution to bringing in more students to libraries, where concentrated learning can take place. Students will go where the resources are, and putting the resources in the libraries is a step towards betterment.
In addition, the report makes a good point in endorsing distance learning. I hadn't considered the point before reading the report, but it struck me as such an exciting possibility for the future. Wouldn't it be great to get out of bed, turn on your computer, start up Netscape, pop a waffle in the toaster, and view the 9:00 a.m. lecture on the web? If we had questions, we could simply submit them through an online form; if we missed lecture, we could always search the online archives. Although personal faculty-student interaction may be decreased, I think distance learning would greatly optimize and make flexible education at MIT.
Other good recommendations I found concerning academics include expanding the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, creating Freshman Advisory Research subjects, and encouraging educational experimentation. In addition, the report makes a good observation that the purpose of the undergraduate education has shifted over the last quarter-century; more people now than three decades ago consider the undergraduate degree as a step towards a graduate degree rather than as a terminal degree. Accordingly, it might befit MIT to make its undergraduate program more broad while still retaining its science and engineering focus.
The task force recommendations weaken when they focus on building community. The idea of tying considerations of faculty tenure and promotion to community service is a solid recommendation, but the recommendation to house all freshmen in dormitories seems politically motivated more than anything else. The report offers few reasons for housing all freshmen on campus besides the all-together fishy notion that on-campus housing will create a stronger community.
The report praises the diversity of fraternities, sororities, and independent living groups but offers no reason freshmen should have to give up that diversity to remain on campus. Isn't diversity what builds community? Doesn't this recommendation contradict the report's stated principle that "diversity of the community will serve to enhance the educational experience through interaction and exposure people with different experiences, beliefs and perspectives?"
Overall, aside from its weak and nebulous recommendations regarding building community, the task force report is excellent. Its recommendation for improving academic life are what I find the most appealing, and also the most easy to implement. I hope the administration will seriously consider them.