I want to begin by thanking The Tech for the opportunity to write in this Commencement issue, which coincides with the culmination of the MIT150 sesquicentennial celebration. The Undergraduate Association (UA) is at a defining point in its history. Over the past several weeks, the UA has been described as “weakened,” “poorly-functioning,” and “unwilling to cooperate.” Disproportionate emphasis on this negative perspective has diminished some undergraduates’ confidence in their representative body. My goal in writing this letter is to leave students with an improved outlook on the state of the UA by providing a different perspective on this year’s successes and failures and by examining upcoming opportunities and challenges.
Successes and Failures
In this section, I have elected to provide a categorized, annotated list of observations to exemplify the scope and outcomes of the UA’s activities; by no means is this list comprehensive. For accomplishments of UA committees, credit belongs to committee members, chairs, and to the vice president, who was irreplaceable throughout the year and who largely ran the day-to-day operations of the organization.
Interactions with Administration:
• After a strong negative student response — including a letter signed by the presidents of the dormitories — to a potential shortening of Orientation, the UA worked with Dormitory Council, the Dean for Undergraduate Education, and the Director of the UAAP to keep the schedule for Orientation 2011 largely the same. All parties stayed in regular and open communication despite a challenging environment that included passionate feedback from students, faculty, and alumni.
• The associate provost created the Walker Memorial Assessment Team in collaboration with the UA and the Graduate Student Council. Membership included undergraduate and graduate students, and the value that students brought to the table was recognized by the associate provost.
• The Senate provided “incredible, valuable input” in a discussion on educational technology with the Director of Office of Educational Innovation and Technology. The UA provided student representatives for the three faculty committees examining related topics.
• Various UA officers and committees undertook new initiatives in collaboration with the corresponding offices at the Institute. For example, the UA worked with IS&T to pilot a hold-and-release printing system and collect feedback; piloted Student-Alumni Dinners, which the Alumni Association supported by donating $1000; replaced 1000 incandescent bulbs through a CFL exchange, which was supported by the MIT Energy Initiative; worked with the Campus Activities Complex to install electrical outlets on the fourth floor of the Student Center and in the Stata Center; and encouraged development with the Office of the Registrar of an online registration system, which will be piloted and implemented next year. On the other hand, an example of a failure was when efforts to implement a freshman mentoring program to complement the advising program ceased after other issues diverted the UA leadership’s attention.
• The Division for Student Life decided on a new dining plan to be implemented next fall. Despite the investment of substantial time and attention, the UA’s efforts to effect meaningful change were unsuccessful. Data collected in the spring “referendum” showed that the UA had accurately represented the student perspective.
Interactions with Student Governments:
• The UA worked with the Dormitory Council, the Interfraternity Council, the Panhellenic Association, and the Graduate Student Council to make recommendations to the MIT President on the new Chancellor. The UA vice president played a major role in coordinating the effort on the undergraduate side, and she said that the recommendations “appeared to be well-received” by the MIT President.
• The AVP for Resource Development co-sponsored a grocery shuttle to Trader Joe’s with the Baker Foundation, the Dormitory Council, and the Graduate Student Council. The Committee on Student Life co-sponsored the Boston Daytime shuttle on weekends with the Interfraternity Council.
• An effort to fundamentally restructure undergraduate student government was initiated on an ambitious timeline. After it became clear that sufficient buy-in was not feasible this term, the Committee on Restructuring, which included delegates from the Dormitory Council, the Interfraternity Council, the Panhellenic Association, and the Senate, was created to continue to discuss the topic into the fall.
Interactions with Students and Student Groups:
• The Finance Board was able to fund 69 percent of student groups’ funding requests (2011 IAP/Spring I), up from 52 percent in the previous cycle, because the Senate allocated 50 percent more money for student groups this spring than last spring.
• The Committee on Public Relations and the former Secretary-General raised the bar on the way that the UA communicates with students. The weekly booths and committee updates, monthly midnight study breaks, and semesterly dinners added to the spirit of holding Exec meetings in dorms and led to the most proactive, deliberate, and focused outreach effort that I have seen the UA undertake in the past four years.
• The Student-Faculty Dinners program, run by the Student Committee on Educational Policy, continued to grow at an incredible rate. This spring, 673 students participated, compared to 574 last fall and 304 last spring.
• Building on work started by the previous UA leadership, the chief of staff conducted a rigorous nominations process to identify and fill vacancies on Institute Committees and maintained contact with the student representatives and faculty chairs. An evaluation conducted in December showed that, across the board, students were attending meetings and participating in them, and they felt that their contributions were valued. The few isolated issues were addressed promptly in conjunction with the appropriate faculty chairs.
• A broad reform of the Finance Board was implemented. The current president of ASA stepped in to chair the Committee on Finboard Policy. A Medium Events Fund was created to meet a need identified by the MIT President.
• The UA Advisory Committee, composed of alumni, faculty, and administrators, met three times and provided invaluable advice, including the recommendation to reconsider the structure of the organization. The UA vice president coordinated these meetings, which were based on the Institute’s visiting committee model.
• Several senators, committee chairs, and officers resigned. The Senate had to change its own governing documents to replace the Vice Speaker with a nonvoting member after several weeks of operating with a vacancy.
These observations indicate to me that, overall, the UA continues to be willing to collaborate and execute initiatives that benefit undergraduates in a tangible way.
Opportunities and Challenges
Looking forward, the incoming leadership faces a set of opportunities and challenges. Taking advantage of these opportunities and rising to meet the challenges will be the key to their success. In this section, I seek to raise students’ expectations of their elected student leaders, which I currently perceive to be somewhat low, by examining some of these circumstances.
• The new chancellor will play a central role in Institute policy governing student life and undergraduate education. He has already demonstrated his sensitivity for process and his desire to be involved. He brings to the position a track record of data-driven decision making, a wealth of knowledge of the Institute, and a desire to involve students where possible.
• Students, faculty, and administrators share a common interest in developing a framework that clarifies the scope of student involvement in decision making by defining extent of involvement by issue or by prescribing a process to define what constitutes adequate involvement for a given issue.
• There is a consensus that the current structure of student government is fragmented and inefficient. The Committee on Restructuring provides an opportunity to greatly improve student governance, and embracing fundamental change in this area will make it easier to start a new chapter in the way students can be involved in decision making at the Institute.
• The Review Committee on Orientation will complete its work next fall. The broad scope of this committee and the willingness of the Deans to keep all options on the table provides an incredible opportunity to examine ways to make orientation better, including potentially adding programs that are currently not feasible due to time constraints.
• A medley of expected and unexpected opportunities and challenges will emerge as the Institute increases undergraduate enrollment. All parties must keep lines of communication open to respond effectively to these issues as they surface.
• The incoming UA leadership brings enthusiasm and a fresh perspective. They can compensate for their lack of experience by consulting with those who have been in or around the organization for longer periods of time. The Advisory Committee will also serve as a great resource.
• Students currently feel unenthusiastic about the UA. A negative perception will hurt freshman and upperclassman recruiting, thereby diminishing the organization’s ability to accomplish its goals, which, in turn, will fuel the negative perception. Luckily, this cycle also works in the other direction. The key will be for the UA leadership to communicate.
From my perspective, the positive factors outweigh the negative ones; this leads me to be optimistic about the future of the UA.
I recognize that certain struggles occurred during the year, and acknowledge that, as with any organization, the UA has its weaknesses. There is certainly always room for improvement. I encourage the incoming leadership to continue to champion transparency and run an organization that remains open to criticism since this allows the organization to improve, and I encourage students to actively continue to hold your elected leaders accountable. While it is often safer to stand on the sidelines and let someone else take responsibility for making decisions, it is said that playing it safe is the riskiest choice that we can ever make.
On that note, to those who are graduating, I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors. To those who will continue at the Institute in the fall, I wish you the best of luck in your studies. To all, it has been a privilege to represent and serve you for the past year. Thank you for the opportunity and for your confidence and support.
Vrajesh Modi was the 2010–2011 president of the Undergraduate Association.