Report's Academic Suggestions Lack Ideas for ImplementationBy Zareena Hussain
and Neena S. Kadaba
While the task force outlined a wide-ranging cross-section of goals with respect to academics and research, it left little consideration of the problems that may arise in the course of implementing those goals.
High on the list of academic recommendations is a proposed 100 percent undergraduate participation in research activities. In addition, the task force calls for the creation of freshman advisory subjects. However, the task force leaves little recommendations on how to best go about expanding the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, leaving many to wonder and decide whether this is even a feasible goal.
"If all freshmen were to be accommodated, and presumably keep it up through their careers, we would have an average of about a half-dozen UROPs per faculty in the sciences and engineering. This would approximately triple the supervisory load on the groups and I would think it would be strain," said Professor of Physics David E. Pritchard, who serves as that department's UROPcoordinator.
This factor - the enormous supervisory load that may be a burden to professors - becomes especially troublesome because the size of the faculty is not projected to increase in coming years.
"It's a no-growth plan," said President Charles M. Vest with respect to faculty size. "We would rather improve the level of support. We think that's more important than increasing sheer numbers," Vest said.
As part of the reengineering efforts that began in 1993, the Institute offered an early retirement plan to faculty and staff. While staff numbers were meant to be reduced, the intention was to replace tenured professors with younger - and cheaper - junior faculty. However, while the size of the faculty did not change, distributions of professors in departments did change. Science departments such as chemistry were especially hard hit, with a higher proportion of professors than ever having to take on teaching loads.
While some departments may be hit hard, others may be in good shape to handle 100 percent participation. Chemical Engineering, for instance, is currently able to meet demand, according to Michael C. Mohr, UROPcoordinator for the department.
In contrast to UROP, the freshman advisory research subjects, while noble in idea, may be tough to implement despite proposed incentives to faculty.
"Freshmen become a much more serious problem," said Alan V. Hein, professor of brain and cognitive sciences.
Factors including the number of courses and the level of commitment a freshman would have for a given research project are questions in the minds of many faculty, Hein said.
The task force did recommend that there be formal recognition for faculty who involve undergraduates in research - and that this formal recognition might be a consideration, if only as a minor factor, in tenure decisions.
"Most of our professors are tenured, so that's not going to make much of a difference," Hein said.
The solution may be to increase the number of people allowed to supervise research to the realm of principal research scientists and postdoctoral fellows. The freshman advisory subjects might be relegated to junior graduate students, Hein said.
However, it is unclear how many new graduate students would want to participate in advising undergraduates in a research setting.
"It's a time commitment to help a student," said Gerald E. Schneider, professor of brain and cognitive sciences.
Schneider also said that he didn't think this responsibility should devolve to junior graduate students who are getting themselves acquainted with the workings of their lab and new surroundings.
Advising teams also highlighted
Another recommendation made within the report was to create advising teams composed of faculty, administrators, and graduate students that would work together to aid undergraduates.
A stand-alone team of advisors may be ineffective because of a lack of an inherent incentive to advise or be advised within such teams.
"It has to occur in situations where people have the time and the natural associations," Smith said.
But, for some graduate students, working in advising teams may give them the educational opportunity they are looking for, according to Schneider.
"Mentoring the student would be really beneficial to both the graduate and the undergraduate," Schneider said.
However the concept of an advising team itself may be a moot point as an expanded UROP program comes to encompass advising goals.
"What if I were to take UROPand expand it by a factor?" asked Chancellor Lawrence S. Bacow '72. "If we were able to do that and do that successfully, the advising problem would disappear."
Sloan School singled out
Breaking from form, the task force specifically points out the Sloan School as slighting undergraduates with respect to allowing non-Sloan School students to enroll in management courses.
Somewhat surprisingly, however, there has been a nearly instant commitment to reaching, in some measure, that goal, as the provost and the dean of the Sloan School broker a deal over the coming year.
"The demand for participation by the Sloan School faculty is enormous in all parts of our educational programs, both undergraduates and graduate. We are launching discussions with the Sloan School to help them respond to this demand. It is difficult to promise that we will be able ," said Bacow.
While both the provost and Sloan are actively engaged in discussions to help open management courses to undergraduates, there are still many obstacles that need to be overcome.
Currently Sloan has too many majors, Masters of Business Administration, and full graduate students to be able to meet the demands of the MIT community at large, as well as limitations on space and finances, according to Richard Schmalansee, interim dean of the Sloan School.
"Since most of our graduate students pay full tuition, we could not balance our budget if we were to reduce graduate enrollments to make room for undergraduate non-majors," Schmalansee said.
And while changes are being discussed now, it will be at least two to three years until anything actually happens.
"The way the academic market works, even if we reach agreement in early spring on what sorts of additional faculty to hire, it will be impossible to hire them for the next academic year, 1999-2000," Schmalansee said.
"We should be able to hire for 2000-2001, but our space constraint will likely still be binding then," Schmalansee said.
Educational technology stressed
The recommendation of increased educational technology also seeped into the report - a move aimed at keeping MITcompetitive in the context of a rising tide of distance learning-based educational initiatives elsewhere.
"The things that will define an institution of our type will be the people and the processes," said Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics R.John Hansman Jr. PhD '82 said at a faculty meeting.
Hansman, who co-chaired the task force, noted the oncoming competition of web-based learning as information technology reaches new heights.
However, it is not clear how well-equipped the Committee on the Undergraduate Programis to initiate such experiments.
In the past, with respect to educational innovation, the CUPhas been a gatekeeper. The CUP"can license an educational experiment," said Suzanne Flynn, professor of foreign languages.
While the CUPcan act as an advocate for funding a given project, the committee itself has limited funding powers, according to Flynn.
One example occurred last year when the CUPapproached the provost for funds to provide incentives to faculty to teach freshman advising seminars, Flynn said. During the spring of last year, the number of faculty volunteering to teach the seminars was too low to meet demand, prompting the CUP to make such a move.
However, Flynn adds that, in the coming year, the committee will attempt to take a more proactive stance with respect to educational innovation. Flynn said the CUP will sanction at least one educational experiment by the end of the year.
Ultimately, the call for carefully designed experiments in distance learning and technology may increase the time needed to implement new ideas and in effect may stymie the rapid incorporation of educational technology into the curriculum.
While the task force has outlined its academics and research recommendations, what is clear is there still lies a long road ahead to achieving those goals.