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Review Committee on Orientation releases recommendations

Students move into the dorms during Orientation last year. A new report calls for improvements to MIT’s Orientation program, as well as Residential Exploration (REX)
Students move into the dorms during Orientation last year. A new report calls for improvements to MIT’s Orientation program, as well as Residential Exploration (REX)

To ensure that first-year students form lasting connections and transition successfully to the undergraduate experience at MIT, Orientation should be an ongoing process that intentionally extends throughout the first year, not simply a week-long event in August, according to the recently released report by the Review Committee on Orientation (RCO). The report also recommends that Residential Exploration (REX) should continue, but needs a renewed focus that better integrates with Orientation.

The RCO spent the past year conducting a comprehensive study of this critical period. The report offers specific recommendations in four primary areas:
  • Orientation programming;
  • Freshmen Pre-Orientation Programs (FPOP);
  • Residential Exploration (REX) and Housing;
  • Fraternities, Sororities, and Independent Living Groups (FSILG) recruitment.
The RCO's priority was to make Orientation the best possible experience for incoming first-year students, according to committee chair Merritt Roe Smith, Cutten Professor of the History of Technology and housemaster at Burton-Conner. "Throughout the proceedings, we reminded ourselves of this principle, and the recommendations are in the spirit of fulfilling this goal," Smith says. The committee also defined critical outcomes for Orientation, such as ensuring students connect with other students and feel welcome in their residential communities, are settled in their selection of first-semester classes, and know how to get help when facing academic, personal or medical issues.

"It is vital that we introduce first-year students to our community in a way that makes them feel connected and that positions them for academic and personal success," says Dean for Student Life Chris Colombo, who, with Dean for Undergraduate Education Daniel Hastings, gave the committee its charge. "This report represents a lot of work by the RCO members and provides welcome insight into how MIT can better achieve these goals."

Deans Colombo and Hastings say that several recommendations could immediately be put in place for the Class of 2016 Orientation, while others will require more extensive planning. In some cases, the deans say, new committees will be formed to lead in-depth research and discussion.
The Committee also conducted surveys to understand the impact of Orientation on first-year students by tracking a subset of the Class of 2015 throughout Orientation and comparing the Class of 2015 against a 1997 incoming class and a national benchmark survey of students from other universities. The results showed that although MIT has made significant gains in welcoming students to campus, challenges remain in key areas such as informing students about available resources and how to manage the processes of enrolling and studying at MIT.
Orientation programming

Orientation programming, the wide-range of activities that welcome and integrate students into the community, has continuously evolved and expanded. As the Committee considered possible improvements, they established criteria to determine if a program is essential to Orientation. Through this process, the RCO recommended eliminating or rescheduling several programs and identified important new programs that should be added.

Key recommendations that will be implemented for the Class of 2016:
  • Add a program that addresses academic integrity through a multi-pronged approach including Orientation, First Year Experience (FYE), and at the start of classes;
  • International students will be able to participate in all FPOPs and international student orientation will be more fully integrated into Orientation;
  • Replace City Days with a community service day that engages the full MIT community during the academic year;
  • Replace the Tuesday evening event planned by the Student Life Orientation Programs and Experiences Committee (SLOPE) with dorm-wide community building activities planned and/or overseen by DormCon.
Key long-term recommendations:
  • Extend the conversation around diversity, alcohol, drugs, sexual harassment and hazing beyond Orientation to an ongoing discussion in the residential communities;
  • A new faculty committee should be formed to address the timing of Advanced Standing Examinations (ASEs) and the Math Diagnostic Exam for Physics, as well as student preparedness to take the exams;
  • Currently, MIT is covering the cost of orientation programming, housing and meals during Orientation. MIT should consider charging an orientation fee. An in-depth cost accounting study should be conducted to determine the full cost of Orientation and whether such a fee should be charged.

The RCO affirmed the success of Freshman Pre-Orientation Programs (FPOPs) in effectively "orienting students to the intellectual life and larger culture of MIT," but also recognized that MIT must plan for the long-term sustainability of the programs. In order to further strengthen this program, the following recommendations will be implemented for the Class of 2016:
  • All FPOPs will have a common end date;
  • All FPOPs will ensure participating students are aware of MIT resources that support safety and student well-being;
  • All FPOPs will ensure participating students are engaged in activities throughout the day, including evenings;
  • FPOP students who reside on campus will be charged a fee for housing. This policy will not affect FPOP counselors or students who arrive at MIT and immediately leave campus for another location.
Residential Exploration (REX) and Housing

The RCO found that although satisfaction with REX is high, students do not participate in REX because they want to transfer to another residence, and high levels of participation in REX does not make the adjustment lottery decision easier. As a result, the report concludes that MIT should continue REX but rearticulate that its primary purpose is to welcome first-year students to the Institute and to the residential community. Other recommendations include:
  • Housing should retain a process for students to move to another dorm, but REX should focus on community building and sustaining dormitory cultures, not the adjustment lottery;
  • REX should be better integrated with Orientation to eliminate the common problem of REX activities overlapping or conflicting with Orientation activities;
  • Organizing REX events should be optional for dorms, but the process must be inclusive to avoid making any living group feel excluded;
  • The Housing Strategy Group should be assigned the task of reviewing in-house "rush" and room assignment procedures, to ensure that all procedures and events are welcoming, and that no actions violate MIT policies;
  • The Housing Strategy Group (HSG) should develop a clear rationale and policy for which upperclassmen may return early for orientation-related responsibilities without charge and hold these students accountable for their obligations.
FSILG recruitment

According to the report, Fraternities, Sororities, and Independent Living Groups (FSILG) recruitment was the most contentious topic for the campus and the committee, with some believing that recruitment occurs too early in a student's first year to make a well-reasoned decision and others holding that the current system provides enough time and support. The committee recommended that MIT charge another group, with appropriate stakeholder participation, to examine the timing of FSILG recruitment, including its social and financial implications.

Independent of FSILG recruitment, the RCO recommended that FSILGs be permitted to participate in the Activities Midway Orientation program, an event they are not currently allowed to join. This recommendation will be implemented for the Class of 2016.

Next steps

In reflecting on the recommendations of the RCO, both Hastings and Colombo noted that improving Orientation and REX does not mean that cherished aspects of Orientation and REX will be abandoned. "I believe our incoming students will see a better and more integrated Orientation serving all the stakeholder interests," Hastings says.

Beyond the current report, the RCO recommended that the assessment of Orientation should not be a singular event but an ongoing process. The committee encouraged the creation of a comprehensive assessment program that would assess Orientation against its goals and with other universities. To facilitate ongoing feedback, the committee also recommended the creation of a Strategic Orientation Advisory Committee made up of faculty, students and staff.

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