Flawed Process, Questionable Proposals
The recent report of the Presidential Task Force on Student Life and Learning has generated a great deal of skepticism from the MITcommunity because of the questionable circumstances surrounding it. Initially designed by the administration to undertake a comprehensive review of MIT's educational mission (the last such examination having occurred nearly fifty years ago), it has since become a vehicle for the administration's agenda and its attempts to raise money. Its goals were to define MIT's mission and to make recommendations for changes and resources to support the mission. While the report did accomplish these goals, it also told the administration exactly what it wanted to hear.
The task force's report contains both good and questionable proposals. The report's assertion that management courses and education should be more widely available to all MITstudents, regardless of major, is a welcome one. The Sloan School of Management has been allowed to lead a very separate and distinct existence from the rest of MIT's departments for many years. This has made it difficult for non-Sloan students to receive in-depth exposure to managerial subjects, despite the fact that many students with scientific or engineering backgrounds eventually seek or attain managerial positions.
On the other hand, the call for a mandatory freshman research program or requiredparticipation in the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program during the first year is an unwise idea. Research and design experiences are beneficial to many students' student life but usually involve a narrow segment of one specific course of study. Incoming students may believe they know what their major will be, but many are uncertain or end up changing their minds during their first years at MIT. Forcing them to pick an area on which to focus is only a barrier to the wide range of knowledge and experiences that freshmen ought to experience.
In addition, the call for faculty members to become more involved in community or student activities is, while certainly a great idea, not unique to the task force's report. It is one that has been repeated many times over the years but will probably remain unheeded.
The most questionable move of the task force was its extensive reliance on input from the administration. The initial draft of the report was shown to senior administrators and then significantly expanded. Topics such as dining and on-campus freshman housing were pointed out by the administration as loose ends and were subsequently written into the report. The collaboration between the administration and task force members raises questions about the objectivity of the authors and the agenda behind the report.
Also, the apparently coincidental release of the report with the capital campaign, MIT's attempt to generate a long-term fund for building projects and improvement plans, raises further questions. Along with President Charles M. Vest's upcoming annual report, the task force report is being used as one of the two documents forming the foundation of the capital campaign. Serious questions of objectivity arise when the report is not only being scanned by administrators for input and for review but is also being used as a vehicle for financial gain. It is clear from its timing and usage that the report is being used for purposes other than objective evaluation and commentary on student life and learning.
Thus, whether the ideas of the task force are good or bad, the circumstances surrounding the report cause any subject within it to have much less impact on members of the MITcommunity. Although it began as an opportunity for reflection, examination, and hopeful change, the task force has lost a great deal of respectability by bowing to the administration's agenda, and the administration has furthered that injury by using the report as propaganda for financial gain.