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Building a support system that works and that students trust

Last week in this space, a recent graduate shared a painful story. We commend the writer for coming forward with such a deeply personal account. Shining a spotlight on sexual assault, mental health, and medical leave will help our community come together to continue to improve our support for students.

Over the last two years, candor about these issues is exactly what’s prompted change. The 2014 Community Attitudes on Sexual Assault survey detailed MIT students’ experiences with a variety of unwanted sexual behaviors, and MIT has been responding to the lessons learned from that survey. Examples of improvements include more support staff at Title IX and Violence Prevention & Response; expanded education, training, and outreach programs; and simpler procedures for reporting incidents of sexual assault.

MIT is applying a similar model to enhancing mental health and wellness. Data from the 2015 Healthy Minds Study, which examined student mental health issues and how students engage with campus support services, are informing immediate and long-term actions, and the new MindHandHeart Initiative is bringing our community together to talk openly and solve problems.

As chair of the Committee on Academic Performance (CAP) and Dean for Undergraduate Education, we can speak most directly to the issues the writer raised about withdrawal and readmission. In November, we wrote in The Tech about how Chancellor Barnhart has asked CAP to identify ways to make MIT’s personal, academic, and medical withdrawal and readmission policies fair, transparent, and supportive. To date, that review has engaged with hundreds of community members, including 200 students who returned to MIT from leave, and examined the best practices employed by several of our peer institutions. Among the recommendations the CAP is considering are:

• Making clear that MIT is committed to helping all students who take a leave return and obtain their degrees;

• Ensuring students fully understand and have a voice during the leave process;

• Expanding mentoring programs to help students considering leave;

• Providing more active, direct, and holistic support to students on leave, including thinking about ways the student can keep connected to the MIT community, and expanding support upon their return;

• Addressing issues related to housing when a student departs from and returns to MIT; and

• Establishing a Leave of Absence status to make it easier for students to leave and then return to the Institute.

There is still time to add your voice to this important conversation. We want to hear from all of our students, colleagues, and staff who have ideas about how to improve the support system for students who are facing these difficult issues.

Please email wdreview@mit.edu with your input and feedback. You can help us get this critical task right.

Dennis M. Freeman
Professor of Electrical Engineering
Dean for Undergraduate Education

Charles Stewart III
Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science
Chair, Committee on Academic Performance