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Student Responsibility And Student Voice

Guest Column
Tracy Purinton

As one who has a lot of interaction with students, I often hear statements like, “Student voices must be heard;” “The decision was made unfairly and did not take into account student opinion!”; “The administration doesn’t understand students.”

The challenge with these assertions is determining what “student voice” means. Should one student shouting his or her opinion on an issue be viewed as representing the whole student body? What about a gathering of 100 students who oppose a recent decision or course of action? Should the squeaky wheel always get the grease? Should those 100 be viewed as representing the opinion of all 5,000 undergraduates or 10,000 students as a whole?

I wholeheartedly agree with students that their voices must be heard. Students must be represented at the table when decisions are being made that affect the entire community. I think the hope is that that student (or students) will have the wherewithal to think beyond their own experience and their own four plus years at the Institute, but it is crucial that those who eat, sleep, study and live on our campus are able to share their perspective and be a significant part of the conversation. But what is effective representation? What happens when that one student or those 100 students who raised their concerns make their complaints known without presenting an alternative plan or proposal? Then what? Students need to be engaged in the problem-solving process and must be active participants in that process. And, indeed, there have been a number of positive outcomes of this kind of engagement in recent years including the Dining Board, RSIT, the Founder’s Group, etc.

In light of current issues with respect to the UA elections, it seems like an appropriate time to be thinking together about what effective representation looks like. Getting a unified and representative voice of the student body and making sure that those ideas are heard at faculty, presidential, and Institute committees is no small task. It involves bringing not only your opinion, but also the opinions and concerns of all undergraduates to the chancellor, the chair of the faculty, the dean for student life, and the dean for undergraduate education.

Several students with whom I’ve spoken during this election claim that, “the UA doesn’t do anything anyway.” The UA, however, consistently provides representation and a voice at the table around issues like the meal plan and dining, pass/no record, input on the new dorm design and management, residence system implementation for next fall, FSILG recruitment, and orientation. Each residential area has a representative to the UA Council. Your UA representative makes a genuine effort to gather input and solicit feedback from their constituents on a regular basis. If you don’t let your opinion be known to them (or if you continually delete their e-mails) it’s hard to get mad when your views aren’t presented. If you are dissatisfied with the current structure, a responsible thing to do is to provide useful feedback with an alternative or a solution. MIT is currently dealing with substantial and important issues regarding the student experience and these issues require thoughtful ideas and proposals of real substance. Some people feel that the UA’s representation on many of the above-mentioned issues hasn’t amounted to anything anyway, but I beg to differ. The senior administration specifically looks to the UA and the GSC (and other governing groups) to get the sense of how undergraduate and graduate students might react to a change or new policy. There are many discussions that are going on around campus that the UA and other student government leaders are involved in that are extremely important to our community. Those students’ input often has a serious impact on what the final iteration of that initial idea looks like. The final outcome may not be exactly what all students would want, but it probably looks a whole lot better than if they weren’t asked!

Currently, the UA is representing undergraduate opinion on such issues as expanding the MIT Card, review of MIT alcohol policy, further improvements to SafeRide, making improvements to freshman advising, meal plan/dining issues, giving input on the new dorm design and on the new housing system, determining a reasonable solution to the crowding issue, working on the new orientation schedule and FSILG recruitment/rush, strategic planning for the Stata Center, student center, and Walker, voicing student concern on the pass/no record decision, gaining new funding for student life initiatives (including athletics and student organization funding), thinking about new modes of information display in Lobby 7, Lobby 10, the Stata Center and student center, and keeping attention focused on mental health issues and confidential medical transport. The UA is also responsible for the Association of Student Activities who oversee the student organization recognition process, bulletin board and office allocations, the first-year summer mailing, the activities midway, the use of MIT space/reservations. All of the events coordinated and sponsored by class councils are also funded through the UA and the fact that class councils can borrow against their proceeds from ring sales and career fair money is because of UA proposals. The UA is also responsible for the creation of the annual Spring Weekend events as well as large event funding that can support student organization-initiated events.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, the UA is responsible for nominating students to sit on the following committees and represent the undergraduate community at large.

Committees of the faculty include: the Committee on Academic Performance, the Committee on Curricula, the Committee on Discipline, the Faculty Policy Committee, the Committee on Examination and Term Regulations, the Committee on Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid, the Committee on the Undergraduate Program, the Committee on Pass/No Record and Advance Placement Credit, and the Committee on the Communications Requirement. Committees appointed by the president include but are not limited to the Committee on Campus on Race Relations, the Commencement Committee, the IAP Policy Committee, the ROTC Oversight Committee and the Committee on Safety.

This is not to say that the UA is perfect. In fact, I think there could be some serious overhaul to the way information is shared and student opinion is gathered. I think students could be doing even more to ensure that student perspective is heard earlier on in the decision making process. I think students could become even more engaged in problem-solving around some of the issues that face our community as a whole.

But that is for you to decide.

Tracy Purinton is assistant dean for student activities.