When Chancellor Phillip Clay PhD ‘75 was a doctoral student at MIT in the early 1970s, he had one main goal: to conduct and complete his research so that he could launch his academic career. Intramural sports, student government, performing groups, residence hall activities-any kind of life outside research-was just that, outside. He neither expected nor desired a graduate community. To satisfy the occasional craving for a social experience, Clay would attend a lecture at Harvard University or hang out in Harvard Square. “There was a time when graduate students saw MIT as a place to come and work on their thing,” he says. “And their life, to the extent they had one, was separate. They didn’t really expect a lot.”
Today they do. And Clay, now MIT’s senior administrator responsible for all facets of student life outside the classroom, recognizes that. He has made money available to fund community-building efforts, and his message to everyone is that these efforts are important.
In a nutshell, Clay wants to develop a sense of community through social and academic events that put students in touch with peers outside their labs and departments. Clay didn’t come to this realization alone. During the last few years, students have been pushing the point and setting up their own programs and events. “Students today are looking for a broader skill set beyond just academic training,” says Sanith Wijesinghe, a doctoral candidate in aeronautics and astronautics who is president of the Graduate Student Council. Students want the financial support to develop their own communities through events and programs they create, but Wijesinghe says they also expect the Institute to provide some venues for community building and to address major quality-of-life issues.
Those issues have been on everyone’s mind since the Task Force on Student Life and Learning released its report in 1998. In the two years leading up to the report’s publication, the committee found that a quality education contains three important aspects-academics, research, and community-and that to answer the needs of today’s students and society, MIT would need to join these three formerly discrete realms into one triad. That report focused on undergraduate life, but a survey that MIT’s Office of Institutional Research administered to MIT’s 5,984 graduate students revealed that more than 70 percent of those respondents found the triad concept was relevant to them as well. Even before getting that verification, the Institute had committed itself to forging a new relationship with its graduate students and creating an integrated educational experience.