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Task Force report targets MIT educational, cultural priorities

Though the timing of the work by the Presidential Task Force on Student Life and Learning was coincidental to the events of the past year, it has taken place in the context of a time of introspection and crisis at MIT.

In the two years since President Charles M. Vest formed the Task Force, some momentous and tragic events have taken place at MIT, including the death of Scott Krueger last September. In the wake of Mr. Krueger's death, the administration, student body and faculty devoted an unusual amount of attention to issues of student life, particularly housing and alcohol policy.

One of the most widely discussed recommendations in the Task Force's report (to be distributed in print on Friday and on the web after September 7) concerns housing all freshmen within residence halls. The panel's proposal, upon which President Vest has already acted, calls for a transition to housing all freshmen within residence halls. The Task Force also specifies that MIT's system of fraternities, sororities and independent living groups (FSILGs) has merits that should be preserved, adding pointedly that if some steps, such as temporary financial assistance to FSILGs, are not taken, "housing all freshmen on campus could result in a system much worse than today's."

The recommendation also states that freshmen should share residence halls with older students, "rather than in a residence constructed exclusively for freshmen."

Another prominent recommendation calls for a dramatic expansion of undergraduate research, especially in the first-year program. The report calls for the expansion of UROP and the creation of Freshman Advisory Research subjects to make participation in the Institute's research activities an integral part of undergraduate education. The Task Force already has received a great deal of positive feedback on this idea from students and administrators.


The historical context of the Task Force's review extends far afield from the immediate issues of policy and student life. Indeed, the report places itself against the backdrop of such seminal events as MIT's founding in 1861, the complete overhaul of engineering and science education that took place after World War II, and the change in national priorities heralded by the end of the Cold War.

The Task Force, chaired by Professors Robert J. Silbey and R. John Hansman Jr., was conceived as the heir to the 1949 Committee on the Educational Survey, popularly known as the Lewis Commission. Charged with examining MIT's educational mission in light of the changes in society and industry following World War II, the Lewis Commission recommended creating the School of Science and the School of Humanities and Social Science. These changes were intended to recognize the changes in the field of engineering, and the need to broaden the curriculum to meet the needs of the day.

Just as the founding of MIT in 1861 and the Lewis Commission in 1949 brought about dramatic changes in American higher education, the Task Force hopes that its report will help MIT and America bring about a fundamental shift in higher education today. After spending nearly two years collecting data, conducting surveys, talking to students, alumni/ae, staff, faculty, sponsors and industry leaders, and most of all, thinking about how to make an MIT education work in the next century, the panel has issued a report calling for a redirection of educational priorities and a basic shift in MIT culture.


The central finding of the Task Force's review is that the interaction among student life and learning is fundamental. The group wrote, "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 education."

The Task Force's model for an integration of student life and learning is embodied by "the educational triad," a phrase coined by the Task Force's Student Advisory Committee last year. The triad is composed of educational activities that take place through the three elements of the triad: research, academics and community interaction. The Task Force endorsed the triad concept, including it as one of the principles that define MIT as an institution.

The group's findings in the areas of research, academics and community make up the bulk of the report, and 15 of the report's 20 recommendations concern the three elements of the educational triad. The recommendations are generally broad in scope, proposing general changes that will have to be examined in the coming months by faculty committees, departments and offices.


President Vest's charge to the Task Force highlighted the need to reexamine MIT's educational mission to prepare for the next century. The report contains a new educational mission statement, along with a list of principles that define MIT as an institution. Eight of these principles were derived from MIT history; four were articulated by the Lewis Commission in 1949 and four were stated by William Barton Rogers when MIT was founded. The report adds three principles to this list: the educational triad, the importance of diversity, and the special role of "intensity, curiousity, and excitement" at MIT, adding that these principles should guide the development of MIT's educational processes in the decades to come.


The report makes seven recommendations that suggest ways to bring about increased interaction among faculty members, graduate students and undergraduates. Its proposals include a more thoughtful approach to orientation, dining, housing and campus planning. In addition, the document calls for increased recognition of faculty and student participation in community activities, and increased recognition of faculty involvement in research activities with undergraduates.

One of the longer range issues facing the Task Force involved educational technologies, including distance learning. Because many of these technologies are still in their infancy, the group recommends a cautious, experimental approach. The report adds that educational technologies should be employed mainly to enhance the education received by MIT students.

Another difficult strategic issue that MIT faces involves maintaining the focus and excellence of the curriculum while expanding it where necessary. The Task Force report takes a cautious tack on this issue as well, endorsing the principles of "excellence and limited objectives," and "the value of the fundamentals" -- principles that have limited and guided the curriculum in the past. Quoting the architect Mies van der Rohe, the Task Force writes, "The motto 'less is more'" can be a guide to the design of the undergraduate curriculum.

Anders Hove (SB 1996, SM 1998), is on the staff of the Task Force on Student Life and Learning and is a member of the Task Force's Student Advisory Committee.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 2, 1998.

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