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How MIT Decides

Graduate Students and administrators now collaborate on decisions that affect grad student life.

Over the past three years, MIT has begun to adopt a new way of making decisions–one that fosters experiential learning of leadership skills and promotes a sense of community among graduate students. While graduate students at many of our peer institutions have moved toward unionization, MIT has embraced the ideals of shared governance and collaborative decision-making. The Institute has not fully realized these ideals, but it has made progress on the graduate level–and the results have been overwhelmingly positive.

I became involved in student-life issues during my first year at MIT, amidst a string of student-life “crises.” In January 2002, a proposal was put forward to convert half of Ashdown House, the cultural hub of MIT’s graduate community, into undergraduate housing. Neither students nor faculty housemasters had been involved in shaping the proposal, and the graduate community, feeling the injustice of its exclusion, quickly mobilized against it.

By fall 2002, the situation at MIT had reached a turning point. Frustrated by a number of Institute decisions, graduate students pushed for increased transparency, accountability, and student involvement in decision-making. When the next major student-life issue arose–the restructuring of graduate residence hall rents to more equitably reflect differences among rooms–the Graduate Student Council (GSC) was invited to help address it.

The GSC worked with student leaders from all graduate residences to develop and conduct a survey of the grad student population and, based on the data obtained, determined an optimal rent structure.

In the spring, graduate students faced another challenge. The Institute announced that health insurance premiums for graduate students would increase by 60 percent the next year. Students were outraged, and some even began to feel that unionization might be the only way to fight back. The Graduate Student Council immediately voiced the students’ concerns to administrators and began working with them to find a solution to the problem. In the end, MIT agreed to fully subsidize health insurance for all graduate students supported by the Institute.

About the same time, MIT began to search for its 16th president. As another sign of the changing MIT culture, students were given a historic opportunity to provide input into the selection process. The students described what they saw as MIT’s opportunities and challenges for the future and the characteristics MIT’s next president would need to best lead the institution, and they nominated candidates for the position. The report presented by the student advisory group is regarded by faculty and MIT Corporation members as having made a significant contribution to the process that led to the selection of President Susan Hockfield.

Through these projects, graduate students have proven that, if given an opportunity, they can bring a level of professionalism, dedication, and creative thought to the table that can result in better solutions to campus problems. They have also proven the value of collaborative decision-making, which involves students in its early stages, rather than leaving them to react after decisions are made. Students have noticed the success of the process over the past few years and, as a result, have become more active in the Graduate Student Council and in Institute affairs more generally.

This year, the council has been proactive in its initiatives and further increased its collaborations. Its initiatives include the formation of a student advisory board (in collaboration with the Undergraduate Association) to orient President Hockfield toward student culture and concerns, an examination of the state of graduate advising and how it can be improved, and an in-depth look at the needs of graduate student families.

Every year, through mechanisms such as national conferences, the Graduate Student Council is able to get an idea of how our peer organizations fare in their efforts to make their voices heard. We see many of them still struggling and feeling forced to turn to the aggressive and polarizing model of graduate student unions. The MIT model of shared governance puts us far ahead of the curve. We must continue to place value on the principles essential to effective collaboration–inclusiveness, communication, transparency, and accountability.

Barun Singh is a doctoral candidate in electrical engineering and computer science and is president of the MIT Graduate Student Council.

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