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GSC President Offers His Advice to New Students

By Marie Y. Thibault

This is the third in a five-part series of interviews introducing new students to administrators and student leaders on campus. Today, The Tech interviews Graduate Student Council President Eric G. Weese G, who talks about Ashdown, his advice for incoming graduate students, and future plans for the GSC.

The Tech: You just became the Graduate Student Council president, correct?

Eric Wesse: Yes, my term officially started in May. So I’ve had a couple of months.

TT: What has it been like so far?

EW: Summer is quieter than the rest of the year. I have a lot of people e-mailing me saying, “We should set up a meeting in September.” I’m like, “Great, great, that’s great.”

TT: What kind of people?

EW: You get ex officio positions on a lot of boards. I’m on the Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility, the Alumni Funding Board … All these things start in September. So I anticipate it will get busier during the year. It’s been interesting so far. You get to do a little bit of everything.

TT: Tell me about the GSC committees.

EW: Let’s see, we have Housing and Community Affairs that handles advocacy issues like rents on campus. Right now I’m working with them to plan a survey that is going to be administered to incoming students through OIR [Office of Institutional Research]. OIR is starting a new survey scheme and so we’re putting questions that we’re interested in on the end of their survey, about 15 or 20 questions.

Another committee is Academics, Research, and Careers. They tend to concentrate on running seminar series, doing some things for Orientation on the more academic side. They run an internship program for international students coming in…We have Activities, which has already run some activities this year. They sponsor some things, they run other things themselves. There’s a big acoustic barbeque in the spring, it’s one of the big things we put on. We have plans for a couple of new parties this year focusing on graduating students…

TT: What services and support does the GSC offer grad students?

EW: The biggest single program is Orientation. It’s grown over the past five or ten years significantly, to the point where it’s one of the largest graduate orientations, I think, in the country. I think that’s the most obvious one. We also do a lot of more behind-the-scenes work with committees for housing, for rents. If you have an issue, you can come to the appropriate committee and we can talk to people we know.

We take the data that I was just talking about from the survey. That data is used to make a presentation to senior administration, usually somewhere near IAP [Independent Activities Period] to recommend bands for graduate stipends. The administration recommends a band and faculty and departments have the ability to set their stipends within the band. I think this is only for engineering and possibly science.

TT: You’ve been on the GSC before. What positions have you held?

EW: I was Housing and Community Affairs chair before, which is why all the examples I’ve given you are things that HCA does. Community affairs includes stipends, for historical reasons … We made some somewhat substantial changes to the way the housing lottery was run, which were controversial.

There were basically two things that I tried to do. The first thing was unsuccessful, which was restructuring rents. That is an extremely difficult thing to do. I hear some people are trying to do it again this year, I predict they’ll also have difficulty. The other thing we tried to do more successfully was, there was a subcommittee of HSG [Housing Strategy Group] formed … [Dean for Student Life Larry G. Benedict] has this committee and he said, “We need to look at the housing system in Tang [Hall],” or whatever. He gave some initial charge that was very narrow, but as we started looking at it, it became apparent that … the problem was there were vacancies in Ashdown and Green. And vacancies cost the system money and force the rest of our rents up.

As we looked at the problem more and more, it became more apparent that the way to fix this was to change the way the system ran. And Tang was previously officially for first-years only, so that’s changed this year, and all sorts of grad students are allowed to apply there initially to live. And by forcing, effectively taking first-years out of Tang, it forces them into the other dorms. But there are people at Tang who have yelled at me at times.

TT: Why?

EW: Because there’s a view that it’s important to have a first-year dorm and this is a valuable commodity and I was partially responsible for destroying it.

TT: And what’s your response to that?

EW: Well, the system needed to be fixed. When you say it cost the system a lot of money, it costs us a lot of money, because we’re the ones paying for it. So that was really the only way we could see to fix it. No other options were presented that worked.

TT: Give me a little bit of background on what happened with Ashdown last year.

EW: The quick version: it’s been understood by people for a long time that financially it would be advantageous to turn W1 into an undergrad dorm … And they’ve tried to do it in the past. And so this time they announced that they were going to build a new graduate dorm and move the graduate students from W1 to NW 35, which is the new building, and then convert Ashdown or convert W1 … The naming is still undecided, but there’s a large number of people pushing for the new building to be named Ashdown house, Ashdown was the graduate housemaster in that building, and then put undergrads into W1.

This was done with extremely limited consultation with graduate students and faculty. The result of this was a building design where the initial design was not entirely what graduate students wanted in a new building. In particular all the rooms were going to be quite expensive. After considerable discussion, a compromise was reached that we’re happy with, where a significant number of rooms – about 150 – will be available at significantly lower rents. And the rent structure still hasn’t been decided, but three of these new rooms fit into the space of two of the old rooms. So you could imagine the rents would be substantially lower for these new ones. The result was in the end, satisfactory to most people, but the process was somewhat tense at times.

TT: What are the three top issues the GSC is dealing with right now?

EW: There are issues and then there are things we think we can fix. For example, an issue might have been the process by which the new dorm was designed. I mean, it’s done now. We’re happy with the outcome, the process was not great. That’s an issue, but upon further reflection, it is difficult to think of a way to make substantive improvements, given that the next grad dorm will probably not be designed for another decade. And a good number of the people who are involved will probably no longer be in their present positions in a decade from now. In a way, that’s something that’s important, but it’s difficult to think of ways to substantially improve it.

On the other hand, there are things we can definitely work on. For example, the funding of graduate students report. Dean [of the School of Humanities and Social Science Philip S.] Khoury, who is now associate provost … chaired this committee that made these recommendations about things you can do to help graduate students with funding, and so that’s something we could work on, because there are some recommendations in there that would be helpful but aren’t unduly onerous on the Institution as a whole.

TT: Give me an example.

EW: For example, a lot of people in Architecture and HASS declare nonresident status because they don’t have funding. ... You can declare non-resident status and then your tuition drops substantially. Most universities have what’s called ABD [All But Dissertation], called the dissertation. MIT does not have an ABD status, so this is sort of like a pseudo-ABD status. So one of the recommendations in the report is to decrease non-resident tuition. I think that’s a good idea. It’s going to cost money, the money has to come from somewhere, somebody has to okay this, it would probably be fairly high up. So it’s not clear whether it’s actually going to happen, but that’s something that we can at least go and talk to people about. It’s something definite that we can work on.

TT: What was your first impression of MIT when you came here as a new grad student?

EW: The buildings are more modern than the buildings at Yale. That was my first impression. But the people are very nice.

TT: What advice do you have for incoming grad students, based on your experience so far?

EW: Well, the GSC is an excellent way to get involved in student life. [Laughs] But more seriously, I think my only firm recommendation would be, don’t spend all your time in the library. That’s a road to nowhere.

TT: What do you think are going to be the major joys, challenges that new grad students will be facing?

EW: I would say one of the major challenges would probably be adjusting to the standards at this august institute, because they might be somewhat higher than what people experienced in other places.

TT: Even at Yale?

EW: Well, don’t forget that you can take a variety of courses at Yale. Some of them may be similar and some of them may be different in the level of work expected. Along with that is perhaps the joy of meeting many students who are extremely similar to you, with the corollary being that you are now perhaps average.