Should MIT Have Fewer Grad Students? Admins Still Evaluating Options

Among the 200 cost-cutting ideas presented in the preliminary Institute-wide task force report, several ideas stand out for their potential to impact graduate student life at MIT, if implemented:

¶ “Right-size” graduate student body ¶ Reevaluate TA costs ¶ “3+2” transfer programs ¶ Online-based masters degrees

Some of the ideas pertaining to graduate student life — made public this past August with the release of report — were discussed in the September community forums, and have since gained the attention of MIT’s Graduate Student Council.

GSC President Alex Hamilton Chan says that the GSC plans to release a short memo next week to the Deans for Graduate Education and Student Life and the Chancellor, addressing some of the GSC’s concerns with those ideas.

One of the biggest concerns voiced by MIT community members at forums was the idea of “right-sizing” the MIT graduate student body. At the forums and reported in The Tech, there was discussion that such drastic measures as reducing 1,000 graduate students could result from “right-sizing” efforts.

Administrators Deny 1,000 Cut

In a recent interview, Dean for Undergraduate Education Daniel E. Hastings ’78, clarified that cutting 1,000 graduate students was a misconception, saying there was “no number implied” in the Task Force’s suggestion. Hastings is a co-chair of the Task Force’s Academic Education team.

Hastings explained the Task Force’s motivations: historically MIT had an equal number of undergraduates and “sometime around 1980, the Institute came to be majority grad from majority undergrad,” where now the student population stand roughly at 6,000 graduate students and 4,000 undergraduates — a shift done while maintaining an “approximately constant faculty,” Hastings said.

Hastings said the biggest growth in the graduate student body was likely due to the large increase in doctoral students in the School of Engineering, and that a number of departments experienced “basically, unparalleled growth” where “the correlation with research is very high.”

W. Eric L. Grimson PhD ’80, who co-chairs the Academic Education team with Hastings, clarified that “We aren’t explicitly saying decrease the size [of the graduate student body] … What we’re saying is in the last thirty years, MIT has gone from being roughly equal size [between graduate students and undergraduates] to majority graduate students, raising the question of ‘Is this the right thing for MIT?’” Grimson is also head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Grimson said that the idea to “right-size” the graduate student body, if pursued, would foremost require further research and data collection, and that the Institute would likely create a small group to construct a model of the net benefit of the average graduate student in order to better understand the student’s impact on space, infrastructure, and other resources, such as faculty work load. Grimson also said that graduate student growth is currently unregulated beyond the scope of individual departments, and there is no centralized planning on the number of graduate students admitted.

GSC Responds, Concerned

Chan, the GSC President, gave the graduate students’ perspective on the “right-sizing” idea, saying, “Graduate students are very data driven,” and “before we start talking about right-sizing, a lot of data needs to be collected.”

Chan said the biggest GSC concern is that the cost of the “average graduate student” might be overly generalized during later research assessments — the time to complete a degree can vary greatly not only between departments, but even across lab groups.

Also, Chan worried that some of the less-tractable sources of revenue, such as the intellectual property generated by graduate students’ work and research grants brought in, might also be underestimated during “right-sizing” evaluations.

GSC Concern on TA Cost

Separate from the “right-sizing,” Chan said that the GSC also had “very strong opinions” on the Task Force idea for reducing TA costs as well as concern over ideas to implement new ways for students to obtain masters degrees, either through a “3+2” program or online.

Both Task Force Academic Education co-chairs, Grimson and Hastings, spoke on these issues during interviews, and said that, like in the case of “right-sizing” the graduate student body, any future changes in TA pay or the implementation of transfer-student or online-based master’s degree programs would require extensive research before any serious changes would be considered.

Grimson said that the Task Force idea of matching appointment and pay to actual TA effort was a reflection of fractional TA appointments which may exist, where not all TA appointments require the formal full 20 hours a week.

“The main part [of this idea] is to not treat all TA appointments to be full, but fractional,” such as in the case of TA appointments requiring only 10 hours a week of preparation and teaching time, Grimson said.

Likewise, Grimson says the report’s idea to “consider providing every doctoral student with at least one semester of teaching experience for course credit in lieu of pay” stems from the observation that “a number of departments already have a degree requirement for teaching” decoupled from pay and “a student may TA to get specific credit for [the teaching requirement].”

The idea of offering TA appointments for credit instead of pay “is a way to keep the overall pool of TAs as close to constant as we can with cutting costs,” Grimson said.

Chan, however, says that the ideas for “TA Cost Abatement” found in the preliminary report are discussed vaguely, and if they could ultimately result in decreasing the amount or degrading the quality of TA appointments, it “would both affect graduate students as well and undergraduates” because “it’s a situation where you are also be reducing the learning experience of undergrads.”

On the idea to provide doctoral students with at least one semester of teaching in lieu pay, Chan said that “it’s sort of a disguised sense of creating forced labor” for the graduate students. Moreover, Chan said that “MIT is a research institute, and TA appointments are a way [for graduate students] to get financial support while they do their research — which is their main task as a graduate student.”

Online Master’s Degree Unlikely

The idea mentioned in the community forums for “e-learning” opportunities would likely involve some combination of OCW and distance learning, Grimson said, and it would probably be aimed at people who want a professional master’s degree not intending to later pursue doctoral degrees in academic subjects.

Grimson said that several years ago, “MIT looked hard at this [idea of distance learning], and decided not to seriously pursue it,” but that the Institute may reevaluate the option in this financial crisis.

Grimson said, however, one concern with these alternative master’s programs is that “we don’t want to the diminish quality of a degree by making it easier to get one.” Likewise, in relation to all suggestions by his working group in the Task Force Report, Grimson said “The education group felt it was their responsibility to think of everything they could. This is not to say that everything we listed should be done.”

Chan expressed similar concern about alterative options of obtaining masters degrees, saying “people are worried about the dilution of the reputation of a grad degree at MIT, and how this would effect getting into a master’s program.”

“[How might] this pool of people compete with current students for resources, even if it doesn’t compete for admissions” is an important question to ask, Chan said.