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Seneviratne Discusses Upcoming Plans for the GSC

By Nancy L. Keuss


Last month, Dilan A. Seneviratne was elected president of the Graduate Student Council for the coming academic year. The Tech sat down with Seneviratne to discuss his involvement with the GSC and his plans for the upcoming year.

The Tech: How did you first get involved with the Graduate Student Council?

Seneviratne: I got involved about a year and a half ago when I came to MIT. I met a few individuals who were a part of the GSC, and I became involved in the career fair. Afterwards, I attended some meetings of the Academics Research and Careers Committee, which oversees the Career Fair from the GSC side. During these meetings, I became particularly concerned about teaching issues in graduate classes. We were looking at ways of improving teaching and advising. I soon became the chair of the Academics Research and Careers Committee, and then one year after that ran for office.

The Tech: In what direction do you see the GSC moving under your leadership?

Seneviratne: The GSC has a continuous agenda. We have projects that we continue which have been advocated in the past. A lot of these issues fall under three specific areas related to quality of life: the first is in terms of work, including issues such as stipends and benefits for students, health and dental care. The second area relates to housing-related issues like rent levels on campus, and the last area deals with more general issues that deal with the student body.

Then we have the activities side, and that’s an area in which the GSC and graduate students would like to see increased activity, to develop a sense of community that we hope, and can ensure, will be something favorable towards MIT.

The other thing is that graduate students are really interested in meeting other people, and this comes into play in areas like entrepreneurial activities, seeing who is out there, what other ideas are available, and exchanging ideas. We have started community building more on a social level with large events like Hacklink. This year we would like to see more departmental-based activities and also cross-departmental events; for example, things like the Materials Science and Chemical Engineering departments joining together to organize events such as a seminar series, and have graduate students actually participate. We’d like to build these kinds of networks between departments across campus, and then have the “normal” big social events that bring people together. So one of the priorities is building a sense of community. This has been started before, and we would like to continue it.

We’re looking for interaction at an academic, professional level and also at a social level. And for that, we would like to see increased funding, given the large number of requests we’ve had for funding from graduate student groups. We’re also looking at services that students get on campus. One thing that we have been working hard on for the past year is career services. For example, we’ve worked with the UA/GSC Strategic Capital Planning Committee, and this was one of the eight top priorities of students. Another priority was improving the International Student Office and the amount of programs that international students have that integrate them into society.

What we’d like to see in the initial six months are programs that actively link current students with international students and help mentor these students, and this is a program we can expand for all incoming graduate students, like mentoring of junior students by senior students. To build up this program we need administrative support, and we need administrative resources so that there’s continuity. Something which also relates to student services is counseling and support services. There has been a push over the past year to keep up the effort to make sure that we have a decent system for students to go get help in case they need it.

The Tech: You mentioned rent levels. How will you be working to keep graduate rents low, particularly in terms of the rent of building NW30 (a warehouse currently being converted into a graduate dormitory)?

Seneviratne: One thing that is very positive is that the administration is listening to students. For example, when they fixed the rent for NW30 a few weeks ago and it turned out fairly high, we were able to convince them to look at issues they wouldn’t normally look at.

Generally when you have a building, you’re looking at more of the financial structure and how do you pay it back, but we can raise issues about the cost of living, what students get in terms of stipends, and take those issues into account in their revenue model. In terms of keeping rents low, we understand the need for the cost involved in maintaining buildings. However, the rents that they fix should be competitive in the student market. In terms of housing that students cannot afford, it would be a real shame if we have new buildings but these buildings are empty.

The Tech: What does the GSC see as an acceptable rent for NW30?

Seneviratne: For NW30, something on the order of $700 to $750 would be decent.

The Tech: What kind of new projects can we expect during your term in office?

Seneviratne: One will be a research expo at MIT. The idea is to bring together the top research at MIT in a two- or three-day event. It would be presented by different groups, graduate students, and faculty in one setting, which will enable students (UROP students, incoming graduate students, other faculty, alumni, and companies) to come and see what’s going on at MIT, exchange ideas, and see how the research at MIT affects society. That’s something new that we’re very excited about. It doesn’t happen at MIT in a very comprehensive manner.

I’m also very keen on working on the Council on Educational Technology Alumni Engagement Project, which was a joint proposal between the UA and GSC. This will involve bringing alumni to participate in existing projects. We see this as a critical part in integrating the educational research and community experience at MIT. This will involve using an extensive database of students, faculty, and alumni, and linking the three groups through this. I think that will be really interesting and a different approach.

The Tech: You’ve talked about getting more funding from the administration for activities.

Seneviratne: Yes, it will involve educating the administrators and the faculty about graduate student needs. These needs have been and are always changing. They evolve all the time.

What was true in the past isn’t going to be true in the future. Students like to go out and to meet other people to exchange ideas. There’s also a disparity in the funding that graduate students get compared to the undergraduate student groups. We can show the administration that there is more activity needed to develop programs that are genuinely productive and show results. For example, we have Techlink, which runs Lablink. These programs involve costs, but the results are there. We have people, like Sloan students, going into different sectors of technology. A lab that caters to that, meets graduate students’ needs, sees the current technology and where it is heading, builds contact.

The Tech: Can you describe your goal to work on getting medical and dental benefits for graduate students?

Seneviratne: Let’s start off with the dental insurance. At the moment graduate students don’t have any plan that they can sign up for. However, we’ve been working with the Vice President of Human Resources, Laura Avakian, and the provost. The benefits program has been paying off over time, and now is the right time to bring in a greater number of people. We have to look at how this can be implemented, how students can participate in it, and what could be the subsidy the Institute provides. On the medical side, it’s an issue of having medical expenses covered by the tuition and paid by the faculty out of the research funds. We have to make a case for it, and look at what other competitive schools like Stanford, Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, Harvard University and other competing engineering universities like UC-Berkeley and Northwestern offer. It is also a case for faculty. If they want to keep getting the best undergraduates, they have to attract students. Now students look at what their benefits are in terms of their buying power, their cost of living, and the quality of their student life on top of research.

The Tech: There was a recent court ruling relating to the unionization of graduate students. What is your stance on this issue?

Seneviratne: The ruling just happened about three or four months ago. We are just looking to see how it works, if it is effective, and if there is a need to unionize right now. We currently have a great relationship with administrators like Dean Larry Benedict, Chancellor Larry Bacow, and Dean Ike Colbert. We are in a position where we can make our cases and they actually respond. That’s very positive. Simply from our communication line, I don’t see a need for unionization right now. On the other hand, how would unionization affect students? We can inform students what the consequences would be and of what would happen. It shouldn’t be an overnight process.