They Said/We Said: the 2010 Visiting Committee Report and DUE Response- Part 2

By Elizabeth Reed, Senior Associate Dean, DUE

The last issue of this newsletter included part 1 of a summary of the Visiting Committee report based on their March 2010 visit and the Dean Daniel Hastings’ response to that report. This article picks up where part 1 left off. The Committee report included observations, concerns and recommendations related to some of the topics discussed during their visit. This article summarizes their thoughts and the Dean’s response as of September 2010. Since then, through the work of many of you, progress has been made in several areas of interest to the Committee. In a few cases, I include a brief “editor’s note” about steps taken since Daniel Hastings’ response. When the Committee returns on March 20 and 21, 2012 there will be much to report and discuss with them.

Creating a Supportive Environment for Underrepresented Minority Students

Visiting Committee perspective: The Committee made it clear that they want MIT to take the lead in addressing inequities and pipeline programs for underrepresented students as the Institute has done on issues of women and science. They expressed particular concern about the fact that fewer underrepresented students than majority students participate in UROP and they wondered if there are similar gaps in internships and overseas experience. They discussed approaches that other U.S. universities have used to improve the environment for underrepresented students and made two “modest suggestions”:

  1. Learn from the University of Maryland’s Meyerhoff Program* and other programs that have had some success in mentoring URM undergraduates and
  2. Explore possibilities for more outreach to underrepresented students including facilitating UROPs, internship and advising opportunities and connections between students and alums.

(*The Meyerhoff Program, http://www.umbc.edu/meyerhoff/about_the_program.html, has become a national model for minority achievement since 1988 when it set out to address the disparity in math and science scholastic achievement between underrepresented students and their white and Asian counterparts.)

Committee members said they will want to hear about what was discussed at the April 2010 “Working Together” conference when they return to MIT. Planning for the conference was well underway when they visited.

DUE response: To a large extent, our efforts to provide a supportive environment for URMs overlap with efforts to support the development of our students’ self confidence (See “Building Student Self-Confidence- http://due.mit.edu/news/2010/they-saidwe-said-2010-visiting-committee-re....) At MIT as well as at many peer institutions, extremely talented URM students sometimes do not do as well as other students, in academic terms. We are taking steps to understand in what ways observed gaps may be traced to the environment at institutions of higher education including MIT, so we may target our efforts effectively. The Working Together conference, which brought 75 representatives from 17 institutions to MIT to discuss improving the college experience and academic success of underrepresented students, was an opportunity to increase our understanding. Right after the conference, a team was formed to follow up on some of the ideas that emerged. Members of that team -- Daniel Hastings, DiOnetta Jones, Lori Breslow and Julie Norman -- visited the Meyerhoff Scholars Program last summer. They are working with MIT faculty and staff to determine which aspects of the Meyerhoff model can be successfully implemented at MIT and to integrate those aspects into programs like Interphase and Seminar XL. This team also led the development of a strategic plan for addressing the performance gap between equally talented MIT minority and majority undergraduates and increasing the number of MIT underrepresented students who complete advanced degrees.

One recommendation from the Working Together conference was for an event that would provide students with no UROP background an opportunity to connect directly with departments, labs and centers that regularly host UROP students. That recommendation became a reality at a very successful UROP Expo held during IAP http://due.mit.edu/news/2010/first-annual-iap-urop-expo-will-be-held-dur....

Last Fall OME joined forces with UAAP and freshman advisors to provide ongoing follow-up and support to all students who received multiple 5th week flags. Several other new initiatives are underway with the goal of addressing URM inequities and pipeline problems, and supporting the academic success of our underrepresented students and improving the campus environment in ways that are conducive to their success.

International Undergraduate Students

Visiting Committee perspective: As MIT prepares to admit more undergraduates once sufficient campus housing is available, the Committee asserted that it is time to reconsider current limits on the number of international students in each class, within appropriate financial constraints. There is a growing pool of excellent students from other countries interested in matriculating at MIT. The Committee believes the presence of international students adds immeasurably to the overall quality of the class and richness of the educational experience for all students. They posed two questions they thought should be considered: 1)What is the “right” size and character of the international student body, given the Institute’s overall international strategy? 2) How might the Institute fund this? Committee members thought it would be useful to think through the first question and then refine the answer based on the practical reality imposed by current resource constraints.

They recommended that DUE identify appropriate selection criteria for international students at the undergraduate level. These already include individual merit and geographic location. They proposed that there may be additional criteria that make sense in the context of MIT’s overall international strategy.

DUE response: The Committee’s questions about MIT’s enrollment strategy for international undergraduates have been the basis of intense discussions in the Enrollment Management Group (EMG), the Committee on Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid (CUAFA) and other quarters. The context for these discussions included the fact that in 2007, CUAFA recommended that the Institute raise the official cap from 8% to 10% of the incoming class. Academic Council heard but had not acted on this recommendation: their focus was on considering financial aid changes.

Members of the MIT community have repeatedly proposed that MIT reconsider the international undergraduate cap. Recent MIT reports on our international strategy point in that direction, citing the extraordinary caliber of our international applicants and their value to MIT and the need for graduates to be prepared to navigate an increasingly global environment. Several aims and policies have collided in this issue, including our goal to admit the best students from around the world, and our policies of need-blind admission, need-based financial aid and meeting the full need of candidates. The realities of the cost of financial aid are constraining: our International students use a disproportionately high percentage of the financial aid budget. For example, from 2008 to 2010, international undergraduates comprised 8% to 9.1% of the student body; related financial aid expenditures for the same period ranged from 13% to 17%. In his response to the Visiting Committee, Dan expressed hope that these competing views could be reconciled soon, to arrive at a well-reasoned decision. (Editor’s note: Recently a set of changes were adopted, based on recommendations of the Enrollment Management Group. After a year or two the outcomes of these changes will be assessed and decisions about MIT’s long term policy will be made accordingly.)

Systems Infrastructure and Academic Advising

 

Student Information System

Visiting Committee perspective: Four years ago, Committee members were surprised to learn the state of IT software systems, databases, and hardware available at the Institute for managing student and faculty data. They described student data systems at MIT as far below par, noting that there was no online registration and no online system of accessing and updating advising information. They now understand that financial resources are not available to do a wholesale modernization of these systems, and they support DUE’s plan to concentrate first on improving the systems available to support academic advising.

DUE Response: In March, members of the DUE leadership team updated the Committee on the plan to evolve the student information system incrementally rather than undertaking a full blown system replacement as had been considered. In Daniel Hastings’ response, he assured the Committee that online registration and an online system of accessing and updating advising information were top priorities for the DUE/IS&T team which was already making progress on both. He reported that Phase 1 of online registration would be in place within the next academic year and Phase 2 improvements in online advising would be well underway by their next visit. He also reported on plans for a related project, Scheduling Analysis and Requirements, the first step in replacing the existing Classroom and Student Scheduling System.
A few months after the Visiting Committee was here, DUE and IS&T completed the Education Services roadmap to move forward many essential improvements to the SIS legacy system. The roadmap includes guiding principles, strategic priorities, and a 3-5 year timeline to prioritize high visibility customer-facing projects that meet student, faculty and staff needs, and SIS technology stabilization projects that ensure the sustainability of the existing system. We feel that this direction positions us well for the future.

Academic Advising

Visiting Committee perspective: Committee members were concerned about advising and had specific questions about the possible move away from faculty advising to “professional” staff advising that was being considered. At the same time, they acknowledged that academic advising is not a high priority for many MIT faculty members. They stated that an effective academic advising system that relies on MIT faculty must include a way to incentivize and equip faculty to be good academic advisers. They said they will return to this topic at the 2012 meeting when they “hope to see preliminary results from a better designed advising system.”

DUE response: Our most acute academic advising problems are issues of culture rather than insufficient funds to incentivize faculty. We reaffirmed DUE’s on-going efforts to strengthen undergraduate advising and referred to the advising pilot for 150 freshmen for which UAAP was preparing and the assessment of that pilot which TLL will oversee.

Conclusion

Members of the Visiting Committee were impressed by the quality of the undergraduate experiences MIT continues to offer its students and by the ingenuity of the faculty and staff in continuously strengthening MIT’s educational programs. They noted the substantial progress evident in the activities of the Office of the Dean for Undergraduate Education during a period of particular challenge. They encouraged the Dean and his team to continue reassessing our strategic goals and priorities in light of changing circumstances, new pressures and heightened demands.

In response, the Dean acknowledged that there have been significant changes both within DUE and externally since we formulated our strategic plan in 2006. These changes include the addition to DUE of several new units, widespread changes at the Institute, the emergence of new issues and priorities, and considerable progress on our strategic themes. He said that in the near future we will reflect upon where we are now with regard to the goals of the 2006 plan and where we need to focus moving forward. He thanked the Committee for their perspective.