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Vest report discusses three key questions about MIT's future

In his 1998-99 Report of the President, Dr. Charles Vest raises "Three Questions in Search of Answers" that affect the future of MIT: whether merit-based financial aid serves the common good, what the faculty's collective responsibility to students should be, and whether industry sponsorship of research will distort MIT's mission.


For decades, financial aid at many private universities including MIT was need-blind (meaning that those making admissions decisions don't know the financial status of the applicants) and "need-based" (meaning admitted students and their families must pay what they can, and the university then makes up the difference). Schools consequently avoided giving students preference or discouragement based on financial status.

However, changes in government funding and tax policies have resulted in more financial pressure on families, and there has also been an increase in "bargaining," Dr. Vest said. "The squeaky wheel increasingly gets the financial oil, in the form of 'discounting'" -- overt bargaining or matching of offers from other schools -- for individual students and families.

At some universities, this has been taken to the extreme of "enrollment management," he said. This involves "a combination of merit aid, a conscious attempt to attract a certain number of wealthy students and a certain pot of money with which to conduct bargaining and discounting."

MIT should stick with its need-blind, need-based policies, Dr. Vest said. "I believe that our continued adherence to these principles will, at least in part, help to stem the flow of financial aid away from those who truly need it toward many who do not. And I believe that it honors the wishes of most donors to our financial aid coffers.

"But why wouldn't MIT want to optimize the quality of its student body by providing extra financial incentives to the very best students to attend?" he asked. The answer lies largely in the fact that MIT already is able to admit and enroll "truly exceptional students" because of its programs and reputation.

"Dean of Admissions Marilee Jones has said, 'A lot of schools offer merit awards, but we'd have to pay every kid who walked in the door. Three percent of the class we just admitted has 800s on every single test -- in all, that's five tests... By every measure we use, a full third of the entering class will have either national or international distinction in something. So that's hundreds of kids. How do you pick the Top 20?'"


MIT faculty members define admission policy and criteria, as well as develop academic subjects and curricular requirements. Some feel their responsibility ends there, and that they should have no input on such issues as residential life, Dr. Vest noted. However, the 1998 Report of the Task Force on Student Life and Learning takes "a diametrically opposite view," calling for a "cultural shift" so that MIT's educational philosophy is explicitly based on a triad of academics, research and community.

"The term 'cultural shift' makes it clear that as life in our universities has become increasingly complex, intense and demanding, some ideas of the collective responsibility of faculties have changed as well," Dr. Vest said.

Universities are offering an ever-greater scope of services to students. Societal expectations, funding patterns and legal requirements have also evolved. "As a result, student services professionals have taken on many duties once performed by faculty -- including aspects of personal, career and even academic counseling. Generally, this is more efficient and in many dimensions more effective. Still, the nagging internal voice suggests that the balance may have swung too far," Dr. Vest said.

Today, he said, faculty members have "three critical duties" beyond the primary classroom and research duties:
To visibly engage in responsible, moral and ethical action and decision-making
To recognize the cumulative effect of incremental decisions
To work toward better integration of life and learning within our campus community.

With regard to the first point, MIT has an advantage because of its strong science focus. "Integrity is the only possible substrate upon which science can be built. In teaching, demonstrating and guiding our research by the rigorous methods of scientific inquiry, we set a tone of action and decision-making that is very important. But this is not enough," Dr. Vest said.

"Although some others may disagree, I believe that our institution has worked hard to act in a responsible, ethical and moral manner in many other important though controversial instances: in acting to build the diversity of our community, in battling the Justice Department over the matter of implementing need-based financial aid, and, quite recently, in engaging students, faculty and alumni/ae in the redesign of our residential system."

On the cumulative effect of incremental decisions, Dr. Vest said, "There is continual opportunity to make decisions or take actions without considering, or even recognizing how, in the aggregate, they affect our students." One example is when faculty members deviate from the rules for assigning term-end exams or reports. While there may be good reasons for individual changes, they can cause "unresolvable conflicts for students who are balancing the demands of several subjects."

Similarly, the Report on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT found that individual decisions and actions had an unintended cumulative effect. Quoting the report, Dr. Vest said, "'While the reasons for discrimination are complex, a critical part of the explanation lies in our collective ignorance... [Tenured women faculty] found that discrimination consists of powerful but unrecognized assumptions and attitudes that work systematically against women faculty even in light of obvious goodwill.'"

Faculty members have always been dedicated to research and undergraduate education. "But -- as noted by the Task Force on Student Life and Learning -- the third element of the living environment and experience of our students needs to be better integrated," Dr. Vest said.

"Change need not be dramatic, but it needs to be systemic. A modest involvement with living groups, a few evenings or lunches spent in discussion with undergraduates, holding seminars in residence halls, teaching a freshman advising seminar, creating exciting field trips or other off-campus experiences for students, participating in a pre-term orientation program, conducting an informal IAP class, talking with students on the net, or simply stopping to chat in the hallway can have an amazingly positive influence on students. Many of these things happen quite naturally in graduate education, but not always for our undergraduates."


Since World War II, the federal government has been the primary supporter of US university research. "But now things are changing, as they should. Some would argue, and I am one, that MIT became overdependent on federal support. While the federal government will -- properly, in my view -- remain the dominant source of research support, industry is starting to play a more substantial role at MIT," Dr. Vest said. The Institute has cultivated research relationships with private industry to improve education and expand sources of financial support, but MIT must be aware of the implications of such relationships.

Faculty members and others are required to make sure their non-MIT activities avoid legal and ethical conflicts of interest and make sure those activities don't conflict with their obligations to the Institute. New guidelines have been established to avoid conflicts regarding ownership of intellectual property and equity in companies, Dr. Vest said.

Entrepreneurship raises similar issues. "Today, the movement of ideas, technologies and graduates from universities to the world of commerce occurs at a blinding speed. And the rapidity at which money can be made in conjunction with this movement is sometimes astounding," Dr. Vest observed.

MIT actively fosters entrepreneurship in several ways. "These activities demonstrate an important aspect of MIT's nimbleness in responding to a rapidly and fundamentally changing world. I would have it no other way," he said. However, he added, there are three dangers to be aware of.

The fast-paced and potentially lucrative environment for startup companies, especially involving biotechnology and the Internet, "require special vigilance regarding conflicts of interest and commitment," he said. Also, the possibility of personal wealth or fame can erode the spirit of teamwork that is important to accomplishments at MIT. "Third, students can easily lose a sense of balance and perspective about what aspects of university experience are of fundamental, long-term value to their lives." MIT must promote public service and idealism as well as personal accomplishment, he said.

Because of the increased pace of industry productivity, "relatively little corporate research is now fundamental and long-term in nature and shared openly and broadly with the scientific community. Increasingly, universities are the only game in town when it comes to developing fundamental knowledge through research," Dr. Vest said. In recent years, MIT shouldered this larger role while aiding its own educational and research missions by "forming new partnerships, alliances, consortia and centers involving industry collaboration and funding." These initiatives also include partnerships with individual corporations.

These partnerships "include a strong component of support for graduate education," he said. They also allow open publication of research results and MIT's retention of intellectual property rights, with ground rules for the partner company to negotiate for patent rights.

"Increased industry sponsorship of university research does not distort our mission; it widens and enables it," Dr. Vest said. "However, as with any other partner or patron, there are risks and potential conflicts to be directly confronted... Above all, we must protect the overall freedom and flexibility of our faculty and students to pursue research and scholarship wherever it leads."

The three interrelated questions raised by President Vest "may still hold more questions than answers," he said. "I offer my views here in the hope of stimulating an ongoing discussion of matters that I believe to be of fundamental importance as MIT responds to a rapidly changing world. They speak to the questions of who we educate, how we do so and what principles we rely on to guide our future."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 12, 2000.

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