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Administration offers answers to parents at Family Weekend

Parents of MIT undergraduates inquired about mentoring and oversight, educational practices, the future of FSILGs, diet and safety during a two-hour Family Weekend session with President Charles M. Vest, Chancellor Lawrence S. Bacow and Dean of Students and Undergraduate Education Rosalind H. Williams on Saturday in Rm 10-250.

President Vest reminded the parents of the "common trust" MIT shares with them. "Your children are our students," he said. "Our challenge is to build on the strong foundation you have given them so far��������������������������� and help prepare them for active, fulfilling personal and professional lives."

He reviewed programs aimed at enhancing and improving the student experience at MIT, referring to the improved orientation, the expanded Student Services Center, residence hall renovations and team learning, among others. He also looked ahead to the new undergraduate residence hall and the Computer, Information and Intelligence Sciences (CIIS) building.

Dr. Vest said recommendations for expansion of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program and the five-year master's of engineering programs were "on the horizon." He also expects that opportunities for faculty/student interaction outside the classroom will increase. "Your daughters and sons are here as MIT enters its most intense period of learning and change since the mid-century," President Vest said.

He then invited Dean Williams and Chancellor Bacow to discuss the details of the Task Force on Student Life and Learning report. Before turning to the report, Chancellor Bacow listed the traits that define MIT on the chalkboard:

1. Meritocracy ("How smart are you? Can you do the work?")
2. Focused ("The finest institution for science and technology on the face of the earth")
3. Intense ("Our students are as passionate and intense about music and athletics as they are about academics")
4. Inventive ("We're not tradition-bound; we're continually reinventing the place")
5. Relevant ("We take pride in generating useful knowledge")
6. Utilitarian ("We're more preoccupied with function than form")
7. Entrepreneurial ("Around here it's much easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission")
8. Unconventional ("You'll see faculty wearing little badges that say 'Nerd Power;" our students all march to a different drummer")
9. Irreverent ("Hacking is part of our tradition; pomposity is not").

Chancellor Bacow said the task force urged MIT to improve its ability to teach teamwork, communications and leadership skills as graduates explore a wider variety of career paths. "Nobody does a better job at teaching problem-solving" than MIT does, he said.

Quoting from Page 18 of the report, Dean Williams said the document echoes the message she hears from parents: "The task force's central finding is that the interaction among these elements [life and learning] of the student's experience is fundamental."

The section continues: "The combination of structured learning and unstructured or informal education is critical because it enables us to educate the whole student. It is this very combination that results in MIT's reputation for providing a world-class education as opposed to a merely skill-based or knowledge-based education."

She noted that MIT is creating a stronger sense of community by expanding on-campus activities and increasing the opportunities for informal contact between faculty and students. "We're future-oriented," she said, "but we always believe that the future is now."

Opening the question-and-answer period, the father of a freshman from Illinois sought assurance that an MIT official would get to know his son outside the classroom and be available to address parents' concerns. He added that he hoped students were matched with the appropriate academic advisors and that teaching assistants (TAs) could communicate effectively in English.

Dean Williams assured the parents that MIT officials were interested in their children's activities and development outside the classroom and welcomed contact with families. "These people exist," she said. During orientation, she said, "we've got to do a better job of getting their names and phone numbers to you." Chancellor Bacow said that advisors were matched to students' interests in most cases, but "part of our obligation as educators" is to broaden perspectives.

The question involving TAs is "less of an issue here" than in other research universities, President Vest said. Student evaluations for TAs were consistently high, although he acknowledged a disparity between departments. "We must and will continue to use TAs," he said.

The mother of a crew team member wondered whether food was available after practice. Other parents inquired about nutritional balance (one father said, "my son informed me that beef and chicken are vegetables") and the dining offerings at fraternities.

Phillip J. Walsh, director of the Campus Activities Complex, said the Institute is reevaluating its dining options and conducting a national search for a new director of food services, he said, adding that the department was keenly aware of special dietary concerns.

A father whose son had joined a fraternity was concerned about the future of FSILGs (fraternities, sororities and independent living groups). President Vest noted that the system is in transition and bound to change, regardless of what MIT does about housing freshmen. He said the decision to house all freshmen on campus starting in 2001 was made to help develop "a higher degree of commonality" during their first year. "We need to build a stronger sense of community" in developing a new system, he said.

Students will play an integral role in creating the new housing system, said Chancellor Bacow, who noted that a design competition would be conducted in January during IAP. "We'll identify three or four potential feasible alternatives" and blend the best of each, he said. "This is MIT. We're not shy about confronting problems. We'll find a solution."

Addressing a concern raised by the mother whose freshman daughter has to cross Memorial Drive from the boathouse after crew practice, President Vest said MIT had been discussing safety on the road with the Metropolitan District Commission since the 1960s, often at cross purposes -- the MDC wants to maintain traffic flow on a major east-west artery while MIT wants to slow it down. "We have a plan" which will be implemented in the near future, he said. "We'll have to pay for it. The government won't."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 21, 1998.

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