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MIT’s educational excellence is not a matter of chance. Attracting talented faculty and students is, of course, essential. But an MIT institution that dates back to the 19th century also plays a vital role.

Since 1877, when the two-year-old MIT Alumni Association appointed an Alumni Committee on the School, graduates have been invited to review educational offerings and administrative policies and recommend improvements. In 1884, the Corporation began formally appointing departmental visiting committees to expand this work. Today, the visiting committees, composed of industry and academic leaders and other innovators, are crucial to academic improvements. The 425 people currently serving–including hundreds of alumni–get a taste of new knowledge as they help shape the future of the Institute.

“It is a wonderful experience to meet with people who are such a tremendous cross section of business and intellect,” says Harbo Jensen, PhD ‘74, president of the MIT Alumni Association and a member of the Corporation and several visiting committees. “I always learn something.”

How Visiting Committees Work

“MIT’s visiting-committee process is singular among our peer universities,” says Corporation chair Dana G. Mead, PhD ‘67. “The committees provide a unique Corporation-­Institute mechanism for addressing areas of special importance, such as diversity, and because the committees are well established and have a long and successful history, they can be relied upon by the departments to be strong and positive partners in striving for continuous improvement.”

The 30 visiting committees managed by the MIT Corporation appraise, advise, and offer insight on academic programs and major Institute programs such as athletics and the libraries. Each group of about 17 people includes five Corporation members, one of whom chairs the committee; six MIT graduates appointed by the Alumni Association; and six presidential appointees. Visiting-­committee recommendations are delivered to the president, senior administrators, and the Corporation chair.

Every two years, visiting committees arrive for a two-day visit that includes presentations by faculty, and often the dean, on such topics as faculty recruitment and curriculum development. Separate meetings are held with senior and junior faculty and with graduate and undergraduate students. This independent audit allows members of the MIT community to raise concerns–for example, a lack of mentoring or a need for innovative classrooms. “It is important to meet in separate sessions because issues differ,” explains Jensen. “The meetings are very honest. People tell us what is on their minds.”

Empowering Change

Over the years, visiting committees have been instrumental in some major changes, says Brian Hughes ‘77, a Corporation life member. In the mid-1990s, when Hughes was serving on the visiting committee to the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the department needed a new strategic plan because NASA funding had declined. With committee backing, the department fostered more interdisciplinary faculty relationships, launched curriculum initiatives, and secured funds for new research and teaching facilities.

The new Department of Biological Engineering, Course XX, is another innovation supported by the ­visiting-­committee process. With the encouragement and advice of the visiting committee, plus the enthusiasm of faculty, students, and administrators, the bioengineering division officially became a department in April, says Susan Lester, associate secretary of the MIT Corporation. The department offers the first entirely new curriculum established at the Institute in 29 years.

This year, the political-science visiting committee helped address key recruitment issues, says department head Charles Stewart. “We are facing some strategic challenges in terms of competition for the best faculty and best graduate students,” he explains. The visiting committee helped diagnose the issues and communicate them to the administration; committee members even donated money to help with strategic planning. “The committee is composed of people who care very much about political science and about MIT,” Stewart says.

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Credit: Courtesy of the MIT Museum

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