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Student-services offices plan to forge closer ties

This month, more than 100 members of the MIT community came together for an unusual event. Representing a number of different offices that serve students, they convened over four half-days to begin planning a new organization that will better integrate the services now provided by the offices of Student Financial Aid, the Bursar, the Registrar and the Student Information System.

The need to reorganize the way these services are offered has been recognized for a number of years. "MIT was spending a lot of money and a lot of good people were working hard, but our students were still unhappy," said Shirley Picardi, a director in Information Systems who served as bursar from 1985-95. Called the Learning Forum, the sessions were sponsored by the Financial and Academic Services Transition team (FAST) of Student Services Reengineering (SSR). The Forum's goal was to bring together the people who provide these services-the people who know both their virtues and their problems-to explore ideas for redesigning them.

Most of the participants were members of the offices being reorganized. Because their functions are now separate, however, they rarely work together. The meetings gave them the opportunity to interact directly and share their ideas and concerns. They were joined by people from other offices that serve students, including Residence and Campus Activities, Undergraduate Academic Affairs, and laboratories and departments around the Institute. A few faculty and students also took part. "None of us works in a vacuum," said Stephen Immer-man, director of administration and operations in the Office of the Dean for Undergraduate Education and Student Affairs. "We need input from everyone for this reorganization to be successful."

In the new alignment, the four offices being reorganized, as well as the Admissions Office, the Department of Athletics and Physical Education, the Campus Activities Complex, the Office of Career Services and Preprofes-sional Advising, and Housing and Food Services will be part of one integrated organization reporting to Dean Rosalind Williams. Dean Williams is the overall sponsor of Student Services Reengineering.

Each of the first three Learning Forums contained the same parallel sessions, each organized around a topic critical to the redesign. Because people could select which session they would attend on which day, the groups were quite diversified. The FAST human resources team organized the discussions around information they gathered from focus groups with staff, interviews with students and faculty conducted last spring by the SSR Assessment and Redesign teams, and research on other academic institutions provided by the FAST best practices team.

In one session, participants discussed what students, faculty, staff, parents, alumni/ae, and even the public want in student services, and what conflicts exist in the MIT culture that might interfere with their delivery. Explained Melinda Cerny, a member of FAST: "For example, students want easy and direct access to their records by having as much information and as many transactions as possible online. But this expectation could conflict with the desire of faculty and staff to maintain meaningful personal contact with students. We discussed ways to accommodate both wishes."


In another session, participants considered the responsibilities of each office and ways the offices could be reorganized to do the work better. In the third session, they explored the concepts behind the process-centered organization, a new practice of organizing a large-scale enterprise around its goals rather than around the tasks necessary to achieve them. Once the group became familiar with the principles, they met in smaller groups to discuss the goals of MIT's financial and academic student services and to propose better ways to accomplish them.

Records of the issues raised in all sessions on these first three days were put on posters, so that in the fourth session all participants could see all the ideas the groups considered. People reviewed the suggestions and concerns, and identified the themes and trends that were most important.

Arnold Henderson, associate dean of counseling and support services, was one of the staff members who came from outside the four offices being reorganized. "We rely heavily on the people in these offices, so to be effective, we need to be able to understand their functions," he said. "I was also glad to be able to share my own perspective on working with students."

The ideas developed in the Learning Forum will become the basis for the Design Forum to be held Thursday and Friday, Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, where some of the participants will regather to recommend an organization that will reflect these ideas. "From these four days, those of us providing these services were able to evaluate what is important to us and the people we serve, what are the challenges, where are the problems," Mr. Immerman said. "Now we can build an organization around this understanding."

For Martin Schlecht, professor of electrical engineering and computer science and FAST team sponsor, one of the most exciting parts of the Learning Forum was seeing all of these people working together. "A hundred people from a wide range of offices were working with great enthusiasm and collegiality to design their future work environment," he said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 30, 1996.

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