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Inside the Institute-wide Planning Task Force

Members of education working group reflect on their experiences

The Education Working Group of the Institute-wide Planning Task Force faced a daunting task: Survey every element of MIT students' academic experience, with an eye toward cutting costs and improving efficiency while maintaining a high quality of education.

But committee members say they viewed it as an opportunity, not a burden.

"Everyone recognized that there are ultimately going to be some difficult choices, but I came away pleasantly surprised with the overall attitude of optimism," said working group member Stephen Graves, professor of management at the MIT Sloan School of Management. "This is a big problem, but let's look at it as a way to figure out how to do business better."

The Institute-wide Planning Task Force, which was set up in response to the decline in revenues as a result of the global economic crisis, is charged with identifying opportunities to reduce MIT's expenses by $50 million to $100 million over the next two to three years, starting with the 2011 fiscal year. These reductions will follow an initial $50 million expense reduction already underway for FY 2010.

About 30 recommendations from the Education Working Group (one of nine such groups) will be part of the overall Task Force report, to be published next month. Once the recommendations are released, the MIT community will be able to comment on the report via the Idea Bank, the online forum that earlier this year collected more than 1,000 proposals from students, faculty and staff.

The Education Working Group had a broad scope: "We looked at almost any aspect of MIT life that had a connection to the academic experience of students," said Eric Grimson, co-chair of the working group and head of MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

That includes not just classroom experience but also programs such as UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program) and UPOP (Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program), and physical education.

Before considering any recommendations, the working group committed to preserving a set of core MIT principles. For example, the group pledged to uphold the concept of MIT as a meritocracy. To that end, the committee resolved to maintain need-blind admissions.

"I don't remember a single person even suggesting that we should eliminate that," said Grimson, adding that the need-blind admissions policy "is fundamental to what makes MIT what it is."

The working group also vowed to support MIT's motto of Mens et Manus, or Mind and Hand. This translated to a commitment to ensure opportunities for practical, hands-on educational experiences.

Working group member Janet Sonenberg, professor of theater arts, said the group benefited from the broad range of perspectives brought by members from each of MIT's five schools, including faculty, staff and students. Key to the committee's success was members' open-mindedness in considering views from different schools.

"We realized each school, and each department, has its own system of values," she said. "The challenge was to maintain openness to a confrontational idea while finding a way to re-articulate and reshape it so that it made both fiscal and educational sense within your own discipline."

Grimson said he was impressed that the working group members showed a high level of commitment to preserving MIT's core values, at the possible expense of their home department or office.

"There's a natural tendency to protect your turf, but that's not what we were there for," he said.

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