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Task Force Discussion Turns to the Details

By Susan Buchman, Neena S. Kadaba, and Zareena Hussain
Staff Reporters

With the release of the report of the Presidential Task Force on Student Life and Learning, which was at once lauded, criticized and ignored nearly one month ago, the focus of discussion has turned toward how the goals outlined within the report will become a reality.

Charged with examining MIT's changed educational mission in light of years of decline in federal research funding and a changing economy, the report itself represents a well-thought out mission statement for MIT in the coming century and, as intended, little else.

"We made a conscious decision early, that we were not going to make many very particular decisions," said Professor of Chemistry Robert J. Silbey, co-chair of the task force. "We wanted to write a report that got widespread consensus," Silbey said.

Its recommendations range from the controversial - expanding the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program to include all undergraduates and freshmen, and the stated acceptance of the inevitability of housing all freshmen on campus - to the bewildering - a fuzzy sense of what defines community and a call for a complete cultural shift at the Institute. And from there to the generally well-accepted - a commitment to diversity, and a reaffirmation of the principles that have guided MIT in the past century and a half.

The educational triad

The major idea to come out of the report as a whole is the concept of an educational triad that combines academics, research, and community into an integrated whole when educating students.

"Given the challenge of helping students develop the qualities of the educated individual, it is appropriate that the task force was asked to examine the interaction between student life and learning. The task force's central finding is that the interaction among these elements of a student's experience is fundamental," the report stated.

"The central and distinguishing feature of an MITeducation is that it incorporates the three elements of its educational triad - research, academics, and community - into an education that is greater than the sum of its parts," the report said.

In all, the task force made 13 recommendations and, in the interest of building consensus, set no explicit priority to any one recommendation over another. As the goals outlined by the task force are still in their nascent stages of implementation, what is becoming clear is that the process of setting priorities is falling into the hands of those who will implement the changes.

The realization of the goals outlined in the report now rests in the hands of the three men at the top of the administrative ladder: President Charles M. Vest, Chancellor Lawrence Bacow, and Provost Robert Brown, and to a smaller extent, in the hands of faculty committees, including the committee on the undergraduate program.

Implementation advice missing

Despite all its aspirations, the task force report could be known as the report that set out big dreams but fell short of giving any assessment - at least within the report - of how to go about achieving these goals.

As a result of not setting priorities, the actual implementation of the goals outlined in the report - and the decisions of what will actually happen and what will fall to the wayside in the zero-sum game of resource allocation - have been taken out of the hands of the faculty and the students who created the report and put into the hands of the administration.

"They've left [the recommendations] to be done piecemeal," said Arthur C. Smith, professor of electrical engineering and computer science. Smith, who served as dean of undergraduate education and student affairs during the early 1990s, criticized the task force for not looking more closely into the specific resources that would be necessary to achieve the goals outlined. "What they haven't done is the hard work," Smith said.

And while no priorities were set, priorities are slowly and subtly taking shape, depending not so much on the deliberations of any given committee but on what is immediately feasible and necessary.

Brown is currently in discussions with the Sloan School of Management to broker a deal that would open management courses to larger number of undergraduate and graduate student non-majors. However, whatever plan is decided upon is likely not go into effect until the year 2000 because of the long amount of time required to hire new faculty, according to Richard Schmalensee, interim dean of the Sloan School.

The other looming project, the construction of the new undergraduate dormitory, is proceeding despite the plethora of recommendations with regards to community outside the specific purview of freshman housing.

The proposed dormitory is being molded into an extension of the task force report itself by being dubbed a model for what MITdormitories and residential life may be in the future. The process of deciding how to build the dorm and what form it will take will be an "open collaboration process," Bacow said.

However, until this construction is achieved, other planning projects that might be called for by the task force will be held off by budget constraints, according to O. Robert Simha MCP'56, director of planning.

Improving faculty interaction

Another issue raised by the task force was improvements in incentives for faculty interaction with undergraduates, both in their research efforts and within the community. A revamped reward system might ultimately create a larger sense of community through increased faculty-student interaction, realizing one of the larger goals outlined within the report, that of creating an integrated campus community.

Task force member and McCormick Housemaster Charles Stewart III commented that the role of the faculty should change. "The cultural barriers between the students and faculty do not encourage frequent interaction," he said.

However, faculty may differ on the ways to go about fostering faculty involvement in the larger MITcommunity.

"Should some form of service be a factor in tenure decisions? I believe that it should play a role but I believe that it should not be considered as major a factor as scholarship and teaching. We are a school that prides itself on research excellence and teaching," said John M. Essigman, professor of toxicology. Instead, he says, "We should find a way to show faculty that community involvement for themselves and for their families is a rewarding experience in itself."

But despite talk of faculty-student interaction, few faculty to date have taken an active interest in the recommendations made in the report.

Chair of the Faculty Lotte Bailyn compared the reception to report of the task force to attendance at meetings of the faculty meeting. Currently, 50 to 75 faculty members attend any given meeting - out of an excess of 900 total faculty members.

"It's never very many," Bailyn said.

Task force commissioned in 1996

The task force, commissioned in June 1996 by President Charles M. Vest, has been lauded as the most extensive review of MIT's educational mission since the 1949 Lewis Commission, which reviewed MIT's educational mission in the wake of World War II.

The task force was charged with four goals as stated in the report: to review and articulate MIT's educational mission, to evaluate the interaction between student life and learning at MITin the context of that mission, to evaluate MIT's current educational processes and identify changes that would enhance the educational mission, and to identify resources that would be required to support the educational mission including proposed changes.