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UA presidents call for student engagement reform

Five current and former UA presidents joined forces to write a letter addressing the administrative shortcomings in efforts to engage students on campus issues. The letter argued that the Task Force on Student Engagement (TSE) has failed in its mission of involving students in three important decisions from the past two years — cutting varsity sports, increasing enrollment, and restructuring dining.

The letter, which appeared in the January/February issue of the Faculty Newsletter, was drafted by current UA President Vrajesh Y. Modi ’11 and past UA Presidents Michael A. Bennie ’10, Noah S. Jessop ’09, Martin F. Holmes ’08, and Andrew T. Lukmann ’07 (Lukmann is a former Opinion Editor, current Advisory Board member, and current Editorial Board member of The Tech).

The TSE was assembled three years ago following a joint statement affirming the importance of student involvement in strengthening the community. The presidents of the UA and Graduate Student Council signed the statement in conjunction with Chancellor Phillip L. Clay PhD ’75 and Vice President for Institute Affairs Kirk D. Kolenbrander. The goal of the task force was to “strongly promote and value student involvement in issues important to them.”

The letter from the student government presidents argues they have defaulted on that promise, citing three critical student life issues.

In April 2009, the Department of Athletics, Physical Education, and Recreation (DAPER) was required to reduce its annual budget by $1.5 million. Ultimately, DAPER cut eight varsity sports. The writers of the letter argue that students were not involved in the decision to cut varsity sports and that the Student Athletics Advisory Committee was not made aware of the situation until one week before cuts were announced. The presidents also took issue with the administration’s unwillingness to reinstate the wrestling team, even after it raised $1.6 million on its own and then went on to win the National Collegiate Wrestling Association Division II National Championship in 2010.

The UA presidents also lamented the lack of communication on the increase in enrollment that will come with the opening of Maseeh Hall next fall. The letter said student leaders had no foreknowledge of the increase, and that since the announcement there has been little engagement with the student population. They remain concerned about the increase’s effect on advising, academics, and UROP funding.

The presidents also speak about the dining controversy over the past year. Recalling a number of recurring concerns, the writers argued that the quick timeline of the announcement, with the final dining plan being released during the spring 2010 final exam period, stymied input wider student community. They added that the concerns about the homogeneity of the House Dining Advisory Group remained largely ignored.

The letter concludes by proposing several points for moving forward. The UA presidents clarify that they do not intend to prevent the administration from making the final decision on policy.

“To be clear, our intention is not to challenge the right of the administration to make the ultimate decision on any given issue,” the letter states, “but rather to encourage them to put into place a clear and well-understood process that ensures that the student voice is heard.”

Still, the presidents request UA and GSC leaders be promoted to full voting members of the Academic Council. The presidents of those organizations are currently only invited to one Academic Council meeting each year.

The presidents also hope to see more student input through the election of at least one undergraduate and one graduate student to each of the Institute Committees. Addressing recurring issues of time, the presidents also request that all data and preliminary evaluations surrounding major issues be made available to students sixty days in advance.

The letter also asked that the MIT President meet with the UA and GSC presidents on a monthly basis.

—Elijah Jordan Turner