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Task force to review student life and learning

The Presidential Task Force on Student Life and Learning has formed and is about to begin a "fundamental, comprehensive review of the Institute's educational mission on the threshold of the 21st century," according to President Charles M. Vest's charge to the group.

The panel, which will be co-chaired by Professor John Hansman of aeronautics and astronautics and Professor Robert Silbey of chemistry, will carry out four tasks over the next two academic years:

  • Review and articulate MIT's educational mission.
  • Evaluate the interaction between student life and learning at MIT in the context of that mission.
  • Evaluate MIT's current educational processes and identify changes that would enhance or support the educational mission.
  • Identify resources that would be required to support the educational mission, including proposed changes.

Dean for Undergraduate Education Rosalind H. Williams, who is a Task Force member, has worked with President Vest and others over the past year to establish the group's membership and charge for the group.

Other members of the Task Force are: Professor Sallie W. Chisholm (civil and environmental engineering), Professor Jesus A. del Alamo (electrical engineering and computer science), Professor Hermann A. Haus (EECS), Professor June L. Matthews (physics), Professor Mario Molina (earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences), Professor Charles Stewart III (political science), Professor Marcus A. Thompson (music and theater arts) and Professor J. Kim Vandiver (ocean engineering).

There will also be an undergraduate and a graduate student on the Task Force; the co-chairs are working with the Undergraduate Association and the Graduate Student Council to solicit applications. Student members (each of whom will serve one-year terms) will have a strong liaison role and will maintain lines of communication between the Task Force and the student community.

MIT's curricular framework has undergone periodic review; the most far-reaching re-examination was in 1949 by the Committee on Educational Survey (commonly known as the Lewis Commission). As a result of the Lewis Report, the Institute made major changes, such as strengthening the role of science as a basis for engineering education and establishing the School of Humanities and Social Science. Subsequently, MIT's model was widely adapted by other colleges and universities in the United States and around the world. More recently, the Committee on Curriculum Content Planning made its report in 1964.


Fifty years after the Lewis Report, "MIT has reached another historical crossroads," the charge to the Task Force notes. One factor is the weakening of the political and fiscal support for science and technology on which MIT and other research universities have thrived since World War II. Also, corporations demand employees who approach problems flexibly and have wide-ranging knowledge in addition to technical knowledge that can quickly become obsolete. As a result, MIT and other universities must consider how to create an educational environment "far richer than [that] connected only to the delivery of instruction."

To do this, the charge continues, universities "must reexamine their accustomed educational formats held at certain times and places with certain instructional equipment. They must also reexamine the educational benefits derived from living in a residential community; the traditional line between in-classroom and out-of-classroom experiences may become less obvious in an age of widely distributed information. The need to undertake these reexaminations is especially compelling as the costs of residence-based higher education continue to rise."

"In identifying the issues and potential solutions, community involvement will be an integral part of the Task Force's work. Members will develop a plan for soliciting community input from faculty, students, staff and alumni," Professor Hansman said. The Task Force will work closely with existing faculty committees, particularly the Faculty Policy Committee and the Committee on the Undergraduate Program. The group will also work with the UA and GSC leadership to encourage student participation. The Task Force plans to solicit input from outside MIT, as well.

The Task Force held its first regular meeting on September 9. Over the next few weeks, members will be getting ready for the upcoming Alumni Leadership Conference on "Student Life and Learning at MIT" to be held here September 20-22. Dean Williams will moderate the plenary session on Saturday, Sept. 21; that afternoon, Task Force members will hold discussions with groups of alumni/ae.

The Task Force will provide the MIT community with frequent interim reports or proposed alternative scenarios, possibly including recommendations for educational experiments and programs, and for residential and campus development. The panel is expected to issue a preliminary report by the end of this academic year and a final report by the end of 1997-98.

"It is exciting for the campus to address this fundamentally important topic," Dr. Vest said. "There is enormous talent, experience and breadth of view on the Task Force. By emphasizing involvement, ideas and implementation, it is anticipated that this activity will have significant influence on the future of learning and campus life at MIT."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 11, 1996.

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