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Progress With the Administration

Veena Thomas

The student-administrator relationship, long at an impasse, has suddenly reached a breakthrough. How else to explain the recent slew of events characterized by amazing compromise and rational discussions between the two groups?

The breakthrough began with the announcement of the new Campus Preview Weekend rules. Students had serious, reasonable concerns with them, so they protested and sent numerous e-mails to the admissions office. They probably didn’t expect anything to change as a result of their protests, but at least they wanted their voices to be heard. Dean of Admissions Marilee Jones heard their points, and she listened. She found herself agreeing with the students, and, as she said, “I could not support [the rules] in the face of thoughtful student opposition.” Rather than stubbornly holding her ground because she’s the administrator, she acknowledged the students’ points and rescinded the rules.

Undoubtedly students were a bit surprised by this turn of events, but grateful, nevertheless. But was this to be an isolated incident of administrators engaging in rational discourse with students, or would this be the start of a new trend?

Apparently the latter. Not long afterwards, students got wind of an e-mail sent by the Department of Facilities. This e-mail informed recipients that construction would begin the next day, uprooting McDermott Court to pave the way for temporary faculty offices (TFOs) that would remain in place for the next three years. The e-mail went on to say that an announcement would appear in Tech Talk a few days after construction had started. Understandably shocked and threatened by their one major grassy area on east campus being uprooted with no official warning, communication, or student input, they decided to stage a protest. Students forwarded this e-mail to major mailing lists, making sure the student body was informed, with an addition announcing a protest at 6 a.m. the next day.

Members of the student body sent complaints to President Vest and to the Department of Facilities. Students turned up in droves to the “Dot” at the appointed time attempting to save their place to hang out and play in the sun. Once again, administrators heard their protests, and listened. President Vest agreed to delay construction in order to review the options in hopes of finding a more student-friendly compromise. After meetings with students, the Department of Facilities decided to move the TFOs to a paved area of the courtyard, keeping the grassy area intact, as per student wishes.

Could the administration and students be demonstrating their ability to work together to reach agreements suitable to all parties? In light of these events and the recent Steer Roast agreements, the answer appears to be yes. Administrators were concerned with the safety of Steer Roast, while students wanted to maintain one of their beloved traditions. Students feared that another one of the aspects of MIT that they held near and dear to them would be eliminated. However, this was not the case. The Steer Roast organizers met weekly with several administrators to communicate with them from the beginning the details of Steer Roast and to ensure that decisions made were acceptable to all. The student organizers worked especially hard to make sure that Steer Roast would be a safe event, and administrators agreed they had succeeded. Steer Roast will proceed as scheduled this year, with only a few minor changes designed to ensure the safety of the event while still keeping the tradition alive. The success of the party planning is due to the cooperation between students and administrators.

The reason for the change in student-administrator relations is uncertain. Perhaps administrators realized that students really do have good, thoughtful ideas that deserve attention, or perhaps students realized that by constantly fighting the administration instead of working together with them, nothing would be accomplished.

While everyone should be congratulated for these successful incidents, they also underscore the serious necessity and lack of early, honest communication between students and administrators. Students should have been informed in advance of the Department of Facilities’ intention to commence serious construction on a major student hangout. A blurb to be placed in the not-well-read Tech Talk describing the construction after it has begun was certainly not one of the best examples of open communication between students and administrators.

While we are certainly making progress, we also seem to have fallen into a pattern. The administrators make a decision which students find out about much too late and through unofficial means. They protest and present rational arguments to the administrators, who then listen and work with the students to make changes. But shouldn’t students be involved in the planning and decisions, or at least be informed of them, from the very beginning? We have made a start, but it’s not good enough.

Administrators, believe it or not, are people too. They’re not just vague shadowy figures hiding in their offices like the Wizard of Oz. Rather, they’re people like you and me, with their own personalities, lives, and concerns. Even to group them all together under the “administrator” umbrella is a generalization, but then too, I suppose, is lumping together “students” into one category.

Each side should recognize and see the unique and individual aspects of the other. I couldn’t have been more surprised to check my e-mail shortly after my column complaining about the proposed CPW rules was published, and to find a message from Marilee Jones. I am embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t fully realized that administrators were actual people, not just decision-making machines. Through some honest e-mail communication between myself and Jones, and a subsequent ice-cream meeting, I finally understood that administrators really do have our best interests at heart, and they really do care about the students.

But this kind of student-administrator informal communication shouldn’t be as rare as it is currently. Jones agreed with me about the severe lack of honest and open communication between students and administrators prior to major decision-making. The current system only serves to foster the rift between them and the notion that administrators rule with an iron fist. Something needs to change. She proposed to me the idea of monthly informal lunches between interested students and administrators, so that both sides can get to know the other and to see them for the unique individuals that they are. Such informal meetings would strengthen ties between the two groups, and serve as a forum for honest discussion prior to decision-making. Hopefully something like this can be implemented; I think it would go a long way towards repairing relations. I’d like to hear what both students and administrators think about this idea.

We’ve been making progress; the Steer Roast was a perfect example of administrators and students working together in weekly meetings from the outset to reach an agreement suitable to all. Even the Johnson Games helped, bringing students and faculty together in teams towards the common goal of winning strengthened teamwork and the notion that we can all work together. Students saw the administrators in an informal setting; watching President Vest walk across a suspended wire in order to help out my team went a long way towards me understanding that he’s just like the rest of us. I can only hope that others understand this too.

The recent willingness of administrators to listen and respond appropriately to student concerns should be noted and applauded by all. Hopefully this is just the beginning of an increasingly positive trend of open communication to follow.