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The Second Step toward Campus Dialogue

Jason H. Wasfy

In the past couple of weeks, much discussion at MIT has circled around a lack of communication between students and administrative staff. Students have voiced their concern loudly about unresponsive deans in the recent Class of 2003 town meeting, in informal discussions, on e-mail lists, and on these editorial pages.

Indeed, the gap between regular students and administrators is too wide. The recent spat over residential advisers and staff members in the dorm has busted that secret wide open for all to see. I’m glad that students have been so active and vocal in its aftermath; that’s the first step towards better communication.

But I’m concerned that the debate has focused too much on hammering administrators. Although opening their eyes to the depth of student unhappiness with the current situation is certainly a worthy goal, we all need to do a better job of examining how each and every one of us can contribute to better Institute-wide communication.

In fact, much of the responsibility for bad communication falls on our shoulders. For example, our student representatives on faculty committees need to make sure they’re showing up to committee meetings and actively participating in policy-making. Much of MIT policy is hashed out in meetings of those committees. Serving on them as student representatives needs to be accepted as a serious responsibility, not just an opportunity for resume building.

We also need to remember that administrators in the Dean’s Office didn’t choose those jobs to avoid talking with students. A big difference between faculty and deans is that faculty have a whole range of responsibilities from research to fundraising to teaching, while deans focus only on student life and learning. Listening and responding to students is their job.

But many administrators that I’ve talked with seem perplexed as to why students don’t give more input on important decisions. For the most part, they’re willing to listen, so we should forcefully pursue our agenda and our concerns with them over e-mail or in person. They’d appreciate that.

For most of the almost four years that I’ve spent at MIT, I felt that high-level administrators were not responsive to students because they simply didn’t care. I was wrong. Slowly, I have begun to see the deep frustration among many administrators that students are either too shy or too busy to let them know their ideas about routine decisions. I’ve only realized this after years of conversations with deans and other administrative staff.

The all-too-wide chasm between administrators and students is obvious to just about anyone involved in Institute affairs. But the reasons behind that chasm are far more subtle and complex.

I know that some of what I’m suggesting here might be hindered by the realities of the MIT undergraduate experience. Students swamped with problem sets often are understandably reluctant to meet with deans about questions of academic and student life policy. But even just a thoughtful e-mail now and then from students, including students who aren’t involved much in Institute affairs, would make a meaningful difference.

So to all the students who have expressed their concerns recently, thanks. Keep it up, because this sort of dialogue may open up new avenues to communicate with administrators. I just wish that the tone of the dialogue would shift somewhat from just blaming administrators to thinking about what all of us in the MIT community -- administrators, students, and faculty -- can do to strengthen the lines of communication.