2012 DUE Visiting Committee Recap

Elizabeth Reed, Senior Associate Dean, DUE

On March 20 and 21, 2012 the Corporation Visiting Committee for DUE conducted its biennial visit. This Committee, which acts much like an advisory board to DUE, is comprised of 17 Corporation members, alumni and leaders in higher education and business. 16 members —eight of them new since the 2010 visit-- attended, including five people who hold similar positions to Daniel Hastings (at Stanford, Yale, Princeton, Caltech and Harvard), the President of Harvey Mudd College and the former President of Wellesley College.

Setting the Context for the Visiting Committee

The meeting began with a private discussion among Chancellor Eric Grimson, Dan Hastings, and the Committee in which the Chancellor shared his view on the undergraduate experience at MIT. He characterized the current generation of undergraduates as “mobile, wired, networked, globally oriented, likely to have fluid careers that require transferable skills and broad leadership capability more than specialized knowledge”. He identified some of the challenges these students pose and reaffirmed MIT’s commitment to residential education.

Prior the meeting, a data report, “The Undergraduate Experience at MIT,” prepared by DUE Communications Manager, Anna Babbi Klein, in collaboration with Institutional Research, was sent to the Committee. This extensive document enabled them to gain a quantitatively-based understanding of the curricular and co-curricular undergraduate experience, especially in areas where we were seeking their input.

The Committee gained additional insight at a lunch with “random, typical” MIT students at Maseeh Hall and a breakfast discussion with faculty who are closely engaged in issues of undergraduate education. These discussions provided Committee members with a first-hand perspective from some of DUE’s primary stakeholders.

Three Critical Issues for DUE

After their initial meeting with the Chancellor and Dean, the Committee was joined by members of the DUE Leadership Team. Dan Hastings gave the Dean’s Overview which featured the recently revised DUE Strategic Plan, progress since 2010, and current and emergent challenges and opportunities.

Dan characterized DUE as a strong organization, with an excellent leadership team, well-defined strategic direction and good relationships with the faculty governance. While noting that undergraduate education at MIT is generally in very good shape, he identified challenges in these areas:

  • faculty/student interaction
  • space allocation (for offices and teaching, where we are seriously underresourced)
  • sphere of influence
  • ensuring all our students’ ability to thrive at MIT
  • redefining the residential experience in light of online learning
  • providing intentional opportunities for students to develop global leadership skills
  • advising and mentoring

The remaining day and a half focused on three critical issues which DUE faces:

  • Online Learning and the Residential Community
  • Promoting Student Success
  • Advising and Mentoring Students

Presentations on these topics were followed—or punctuated-- by spirited, thoughtful comments by the Committee whom Dan had asked for advice on DUE’s role and strategy, and actions we should take over the next few years.

Online Learning and the Residential Community

Dan Hastings introduced and led a three-person panel on the topic of the value-added of residential education, how we manage it and take advantage of online tools. Inevitably, this discussion included reactions to and questions about the recently announced and emerging development of MITx.

  • Lori Breslow, Director of the Teaching and Learning Lab, identified four ways that online tools can strengthen learning.
  • Vijay Kumar, Director of the Office of Educational Innovation and Technology, described some of DUE’s efforts directed towards both curriculum enhancements and infrastructure.
  • Diana Henderson, Dean for the Curriculum and Director of the Office of Faculty Support, spoke about building on our 15+ years of sponsored work on curriculum development and pedagogies and addressing what we have learned.

MITx and other online approaches were framed as opportunities to reinvigorate cross-unit discussions of education and shared teaching practices. Questions for discussion included:

  • What role shall DUE play in developing and implementing MIT’s strategy to integrate online and other technology-enabled tools into the residential campus and classroom experience?
  • What are and shall be uses of online educational opportunities?
  • Is this a disruptive change for residence-based education?

From Admissions to Outcomes: The role of MIT’s Admissions process in promoting student success and a discussion on improving the academic outcomes of underrepresented students.

Stu Schmill, Dean of Admissions and DiOnetta Jones, Director of the Office of Minority Education co-led a session focused on promoting student success at MIT. Stu talked about an approach his staff is developing to identify students who will thrive, not just survive at MIT.

  • Though we cannot know for sure who will thrive at MIT, they plan to analyze and use data on past admissions decisions and outcomes to help make informed predictions.
  • Stu identified three components believed to contribute to academic performance (capacity to perform, opportunity to perform and willingness to perform) and spoke about how the Admissions Office factors these into their decisions.
  • There was much discussion of what constitutes “thriving” and “right fit” and what criteria should be considered in admitting students to and calibrating their success at MIT.

Acknowledging overall positive outcomes for our students, DiOnetta spoke of several areas of concern, particularly a disparity in academic outcomes between underrepresented and majority student.

  • She referred to data that shows MIT enrolls a large percentage of the nation’s best academically prepared URM students and the fact that, irrespective of incoming academic and socioeconomic profiles, on average these students don’t do as well as we expect or hope. This is a national trend.
  • MIT graduation rates for underrepresented students are good, from a relative viewpoint. In fact, they are double the national average. However, DiOnetta emphasized DUE’s intention to do even better.
  • She described current efforts to understand why the disparity exists, determine whether there is an “MIT effect (i.e., deterrents to student success at MIT) and make appropriate changes.

Stu and DiOnetta’s presentation and a cohesive background data document prepared by Ingrid Vargas, sparked a vibrant discussion of how to ensure all students thrive at MIT.

Advising and Mentoring Students: What are best practices for advising and mentoring students and how can we improve?

Julie Norman, Director of the Office of Undergraduate Advising and Academic Programming and Kim Vandiver, Director of the Office for Experiential Learning, provided the Committee with an overview of the ways DUE supports effective advising and mentoring, and some of the related challenges and considerations. They stressed the need for more formal and informal contact between students and faculty, pointing to the decisive role that the “entire ecosystem of student-faculty interaction plays in promoting student confidence.

  • Julie detailed ways in which DUE is well positioned to influence advising and mentoring, with great programs in OME, UAAP, GECD, the Freshman Learning Communities, S3 and Student Disability Services, to name a few.
  • She underscored the need for developing broad-based collaborative efforts rather than expecting any single entity to significantly improve advising and mentoring.
  • Julie also emphasized the importance of building relationships with faculty committees, undergraduate officers and administrators and first year instructors; and the challenges of recruiting faculty advisors.
  • She pointed to senior survey data that shows 71% of respondents are satisfied or very satisfied with academic advising, but MIT students spend less time than students at peer institutions talking with faculty about their post-graduation plans and far fewer feel they know three or more faculty well enough to get a recommendation letter.
  • In addition, she reported that about 70% of MIT alumni think MIT should emphasize faculty-student contact outside the classroom more.

Both David Randall of S3 and Alan Siegel, Chief of MIT Mental Health, who were on hand to answer questions, attested to the fact that faculty rapport (or lack of it) significantly affects student well-being. Alan pointed out that the past ten years have seen been a threefold increase in faculty who take students to Mental Health Services for help. He attributed this “change in faculty culture” to several factors including students’ greater openness to adult intervention, increased awareness among faculty of signs of mental distress, broader outreach to students and changing needs of students and faculty.

The challenges which Julie and Kim described resonated with Committee members who made it clear that they face many of the same challenges. They seemed eager to trade experiences, lessons learned, successful and failed experiments and good practices in advising and mentoring.

All members of the DUE leadership team contributed to the labor-intensive preparations for this visit. They carefully considered how to best call upon the Committee’s expertise, thoughtfully developed and delivered presentations and provided additional context throughout the proceedings. Thanks to Anna Babbi Klein, Sheila Barnard, Martha Janus and Stephen Pepper, we have a skillfully-written permanent record of these sessions.

In Closing…

After conferring privately in a closed Executive Session, the Committee ended its visit with an oral report to the Senior Administration. According to an “inside source”, DUE received high marks on many counts. At a university that does not engage in grade inflation, this means a lot!

We look forward to receiving the Committee’s written report early this summer. Early indicators suggest that it will include many useful insights and ideas, and will lead to a strong set of recommendations for DUE. A future newsletter article will summarize these recommendations and some of the actions DUE will take in response.