Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart announced today, in a letter to the MIT community, a “roadmap for change” in MIT’s undergraduate withdrawal and readmission policies. The enhancements are based on a comprehensive review conducted by the Committee on Academic Performance (CAP) and the Office of the Dean for Undergraduate Education (DUE).
“I am incredibly thankful to Professor Stewart, Dean Freeman, and the entire CAP for the thoughtfulness, compassion, and diligence they exhibited throughout the review process. These are complex issues with human impacts,” Barnhart wrote. “The committee took great care to listen and learn and, as a result, developed a framework for a support system that students will believe in.”
In response to community concerns about “the clarity, transparency, and fairness” of existing withdrawal and readmission practices, and as part of a larger announcement about steps to enhance mental health and well-being at MIT, Barnhart charged the CAP and DUE with reviewing current policies and gathering community input last fall.
Based on feedback from hundreds of community members — including students who returned to MIT from a leave — the CAP and DUE developed a series of recommendations in five broad areas: openness of communication; terminology; streamlining the processes of leaving and returning to MIT; support while on leave; and returning to MIT.
“I am very grateful to Dean Freeman and the members of the CAP for taking on this challenging but critical review,” says professor of political science Charles Stewart III, the chair of the CAP. “I am especially grateful for the input we received from students, faculty, and staff. What we heard was critical input into our deliberations. We strove to make the findings and recommendations reflect the feedback we received from the community. Our hope is that the report’s recommendations will make a meaningful difference in the lives of all MIT students.”
Barnhart invited the community to read the report and share their perspectives with her, Stewart, and Dean for Undergraduate Education Dennis Freeman at a town hall meeting on April 13 from 5 to 6:30 p.m. in Room 3-270. Comments can also be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gathering community feedback
In September, Stewart and Freeman established that the CAP would be directly responsible for implementing the Chancellor’s charge. The CAP consists of nine voting members (six faculty and three students) and six nonvoting ex officio members.
“We agreed at the outset of the review that it was imperative to capture as many voices as possible,” Freeman says. “These policies are, understandably, very personal to our students. Listening to them helped us delve deeply into the complex, nuanced issues around our current practices and ultimately create new, stronger policies. And we look forward to continuing to listen at the town hall on April 13.”
Throughout the fall semester, the CAP gathered information and input from a broad range of sources, including nearly 20 student, faculty, and staff stakeholder groups from across the Institute; peer institutions; and a cross-section of students. In addition, the CAP met nine times to discuss its findings and recommendations, and Stewart and Freeman wrote two letters in The Tech about the review.
Feedback from readmitted students currently at MIT was gathered in three ways: an anonymous survey, a focus group, and one-on-one meetings for those who preferred to share their experiences and opinions privately. The committee also sought input from student leaders and students who had no direct experiences with the withdrawal and readmission process. Students were also consulted on the report’s final recommendations.
“The report’s assessment of the issues with the current withdrawal and readmission system are acute and comprehensive,” says David Elliott Williams ‘15, a current MEng student who returned to MIT from a leave in 2012 and received his undergraduate degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “A number of the recommendations — especially the ones about extending support to students on leave, the mechanics of the return decision, and guaranteed housing for eligible returning students — will go a long way to alleviate student concerns and improve the leave experience. However, there are still critical issues that need to be addressed, such as the recommended reviews of the psychiatric hospitalization and involuntary medical withdrawal process, the timeframe under which students must vacate campus, and the negative student culture surrounding leave. I thus encourage the community to attend the town hall meeting to share their thoughts and concerns with administrators, to discuss the best ways to turn the recommendations into supportive, effective policies, and to begin the conversation on how we can improve the culture surrounding leave. It’s critical that we work together to get this implementation right and form a culture where students are not afraid of taking a leave."
Report findings and recommendations
In the report, the CAP notes that the most important themes that emerged from the community feedback led the committee to identify three goals for its recommendations:
- new policies should be easily understood and effectively communicated;
- students most affected by withdrawal and readmission must participate in the process; and
- we should help all students who wish to return from a leave and earn an MIT degree to do so.
To achieve these goals, the report recommends the following enhancements:
- creating a new, flexible “leave of absence” category with fewer administrative requirements so that students can depart for a variety of educational, professional, or wellness reasons;
- changing the terms that describe our policies to “leave and return” in order to prevent the misimpression that “withdrawal” indicates a permanent separation from the Institute or that “readmission” implies a student’s initial admission has been revoked;
- working together, students and MIT Student Support Services (and MIT Medical and academic departments) will develop clear, personalized action plans so that students understand what is expected of them during their time away and upon their return to campus;
- developing a new Student Support Services (S3) mentorship program for students who are considering their leave options, are on leave, or are preparing to return;
- updating communications from the CAP and S3 to be more clear and supportive, and altering relevant policy statements such as the Suspension of Services Statement;
- encouraging students on leave to stay in touch with their S3 dean, advisor, and department;
- giving more time for departing students to move out of Institute housing and, if requested, guaranteeing housing for eligible returning students;
- designating the CAP as the sole decision-maker for return requests, in order to ensure that S3 can fulfill its core mission of providing support, advice, and guidance to students;
- redoubling efforts to raise awareness and understanding about the leave and return process; the CAP and S3 will report annually on leave and return data, enhance the information available on S3’s website, and create an online portal of firsthand accounts from students who have spent time away from campus; and
- reducing coursework requirements for students on academic leave and starting to look at the feasibility of providing financial support and health insurance to qualifying students on leave.
Next steps: Addressing required medical leave and hospitalization policies
Noting that the report recommends that a review of required medical leave and hospitalization policies “take place without undue delay,” Barnhart said she and MIT Medical Director Cecilia Stuopis will charge a committee responsible for examining current practices and enlisting the community’s help in developing solutions.
She encouraged the community to share their thoughts about required medical leave and hospitalizations at the April 13 community gathering or by emailing email@example.com. All feedback gathered will be shared with the new committee, which is expected to provide its recommended actions before the 2017 spring term.