Fixing MIT’s failures in governance

How the Institute must do better

I am deeply concerned by the management and governance of MIT. We need to reform how MIT makes decisions and how the Corporation oversees the President.

The two student suicides that occurred this academic year provided MIT with an urgent imperative to meaningfully examine its policies and decision-making practices. Instead of learning from past mistakes, however, the administration has doubled-down, insisting that it is performing well even in the domain of student life and support services. The Corporation, ostensibly charged with overseeing the administration, has simply accepted these assertions as fact, despite ample evidence to the contrary.

I have been a member of the MIT Corporation for the past five years, and a member of the MIT community for over a decade. During my time here, I have seen our campus undergo two dramatic transformations that run counter to what we used to think of as the MIT culture.

First, the current administration has exercised a greater degree of top-down decision-making than any in recent history. This has led to significant, and understandable, frustration among faculty, staff and students alike, who have been dismissed with superficial pretences of involvement.

Second, we have as an institution increasingly concerned ourselves with our image as opposed to our substance. It is important to communicate our activities to the world, but the degree of strategic emphasis this administration has placed on PR and marketing is troubling, and unbecoming of the finest academic institution in the world.

Effect on student life

These broad shifts have had a particularly harsh effect on that thing we often call “community” — the sense of belonging, support, and engagement that allows individuals to feel like this is their home, and they have the power to shape its future along with their own. I believe that this aspect of our culture has suffered a sharp decline over the course of this administration, and numerous conversations over the past few years with a diverse selection of students, faculty, staff, and alums have bolstered this sense. Members of the Corporation who are actively engaged on campus, and have personally seen far more of MIT’s history than I have, tell me that the situation is the worst it has been in decades.

To wit, I have yet to find even one member of the community, outside of the senior administration, who believes that the Division of Student Life is being run in a manner that reflects an understanding of the MIT culture. Many if not most of the changes that Dean Chris Colombo has instituted in his department, with President Hockfield’s encouragement, have actively harmed the MIT student body. The inability of the administration to provide acceptable reasoning for policies that face nearly universal disagreement is not an acceptable state of affairs.

Examples of mismanagement over the past few years are plenty. Student Support Services has been gutted, and well-respected individuals who have dedicated their careers and spirit to MIT were summarily dismissed or disregarded. We have eliminated the ability for students to walk in to MIT Medical at any time of night. We have gotten rid of Nightline — a service run by student volunteers that, for over 30 years, was the strongest symbol of students helping each other through times of crisis that this campus has known. The symbolic value alone of these services far outweighs the miniscule costs of their operations. How can we possibly justify these cutbacks while simultaneously throwing lavish PR parties to celebrate MIT’s 150th birthday? What message do we send to our community when our actions show that fireworks are more important to us than student support?

Role of the Corporation

Ultimate fiduciary responsibility for ensuring that MIT is meeting its mission rests with the Corporation. It is a core component of this mission that we foster the growth and education of our students by creating a healthy environment for them to maximally fulfill their positive potential. By failing in the domain of student support, allowing our sense of community be damaged, and ignoring the broken decision-making processes that have led to these results, MIT, and thus the Corporation, is failing to meet its mission.

I have great respect for individual members of the Corporation and for its leadership, but I believe that the organization has fundamental structural flaws. Even the most intelligent and well-meaning individuals are prone to a unique dysfunction that befalls collectives: groupthink. It is simply easier to “go along to get along.” The majority of a quarterly Corporation meeting is often more self-congratulation than critical examination, wherein Corporation members are a captive audience to the President’s performance. It is a dangerous thing to believe your own PR, and this needs to change.

The true work of the Corporation is done through its committees. The Executive Committee makes decisions regarding the campus as a whole, and is most directly responsible for overseeing the President specifically. This committee is, amazingly, chaired by the President herself. This inherent conflict of interest makes it all but impossible for the Corporation to properly fulfil its responsibilities, and should be eliminated.

Visiting committees are responsible for oversight of individual departments and divisions within MIT. I was shocked to hear the report of the Visiting Committee for the Division of Student Life at the most recent Corporation meeting. Instead of critical assessment — which is the norm for visiting committees overseeing academic departments — the official committee report simply parroted the administration’s stance. Its conclusions were obvious untenable: it is impossible that we could not be doing more in the domain of student support when we had more and better programs in place only a few years ago; it is impossible that the division is well managed when every single constituency it affects believes that its policies are destructive. In addition, the report failed to include dissenting assessments from committee members. The Corporation must seriously enhance its standards of oversight, or risk losing its credibility as an effective body.

I pointedly raised my concerns at the recent Corporation meeting, just as I have in previous meetings. Having spoken to the Chairman of the Corporation as well as other lifelong and term members, I am confident that there are other members of the board who share the concerns I have raised above, regarding both the management of MIT and our governance systems.

Where students fit in

So why raise these issues in a public forum, and why now?

Large organizations — public or private, for profit or not — are challenging to govern, and MIT is no exception. Making substantial changes is difficult, even when the leadership wishes to do so. It requires fighting against entrenched power structures and managing the political climate appropriately. Public pressure is often necessary to force such organizations to overcome their inertia. At an academic institution, this means pressure from students and faculty.

In the coming months, MIT will elect a new president. This presents a vital opportunity to reset the mode of interaction so that we might honor an ethos that allows MIT to truly shine. This is exactly the time when the community ought to become organized and vocalize the fundamental changes that are needed.

I submit that if MIT students are interested in preserving the culture that has made this campus so vibrant, the student body must:

• Demand greater competence and relevance from your student governments. Organized, principled, well-executed advocacy from these groups can have tremendous impact, and the lack thereof makes it nearly impossible for forward movement. When student governments can find nothing better to do than throw large parties on the graduate side, and face repeated resignations on the undergraduate side, there is a problem.

• Speak up. It is not somebody else’s job to stand up for what you believe in. Those who are unwilling to speak up have little authority to complain, and there are ample opportunities for any student who believes MIT should be functioning better to help it do so: become active in student government bodies, write opinion pieces, or find other ways to be heard.

• Become engaged in the Corporation: The Corporation holds an election among the graduating class and recent alums to elect a new member to the board every year. This is how I was elected to serve. The recent alum members serve a vital function, providing a point of view that is otherwise unheard. Voting to elect the next member is open now: if you are graduating this year or are an alum from the past two years, please vote. If you are a current student, please nominate individuals for the ballot and become engaged when it is your turn.

MIT is an amazing and inspiring place to be a part of. Every institution fumbles, and the best ones are able to correct themselves in time to grow stronger. We should all work to see that MIT is able to understand its weaknesses, regain its footing, and establish itself firmly as the world’s leading example of what an academic institution should be.

Barun Singh ENG ’06, is a recent-graduate member of the MIT Corporation, former president of the Graduate Student Council, and a former Tech opinion editor.

James K Herms MtE \'87 over 11 years ago

Mr. Colombo, a capable administrator, has been doing what the Institute hired him to do. As he notes on his Biography page, he's been:

_ "using [student]-enrollment management as a tool for organizational change."

The passage implies that he's been using admissions and financial-aid decisions to facilitate change. One change he's implemented includes:

_ disbanding independent-minded student groups -- DePhi at Columbia; Crime Club (temporarily) and Beta at MIT -- by fiat.

For helpful background material see http://mitcrimeclub.org/96ccolombo98.pdf

Anonymous over 11 years ago

Chris Colombo MUST GO!

Anonymous over 11 years ago

How can a dean disband a student group? Student groups are recognized by the ASA, not a dean's office.

James K Herms MtE \'87 over 11 years ago

Correct--until March 15, 2011.

The ASA Executive Board may derecognize any activity not meeting its responsibilities ... by first providing one month notice ... followed by a vote of the executive board."

-- ASA, Operating Guidelines art. 2, sec. 3.

"The [two] current student members [who were residents of Next House] met to discuss the future of the club on February 24, 2011. During that meeting, they concluded that they no longer had sufficient interest for the club to continue.... They voted to disband the club, and it is no longer an ASA-recognized student group. This decision is final."

-- Letter from C. Colombo, Dean, to J. Herms, Student Group Alumni Adviser (Mar. 15, 2011), http://mitcrimeclub.org/110315sl.pdf

"Redefining the Role of Student Affairs: An Organizational Change Model."

-- Chris Colombo, Biography, http://mit.edu/officers/dean-studentlife/biography.html

James K Herms MtE ’87 over 11 years ago

"It was [two] students from the [group] that intended for the organization to disband, not ASA."

-- E-mail from L. Flynn, Assistant Dean, to J. Herms (Mar. 15, 2011).

"Rulings by the ASA Executive Board may be appealed at a meeting of the General Body of the ASA. Decisions shall be by a majority vote ...."

-- ASA, Operating Guidelines art. V, sec. 2.

On April 12, 2011, two other students from the group went to a General Body meeting to appeal. The assistant dean pointed out that the ASA hadn't voted to disband the organization -- so the General Body had no authority to vote on the ruling.


"[Beta is] involved in [an] ongoing judicial procedure.... Official information will be released to inform the MIT community of all relevant details."

-- Press Release, IFC, Rush 2010 Violations (Sept. 9, 2010).

"[No] official release ... made by the IFC with regards to this statement [about Beta] can be found ...."

-- E-mail from T. Anderson, President, IFC, to Atty. W. Crowe (Mar. 5, 2012), http://mitcrimeclub.org/120305ta.pdf


Anonymous over 11 years ago

Despite the bad publicity that Dean Colombo gets, there are many students on campus who quietly agree with his actions. Yes, he downsized s3 and cut athletics, but there were institute-wide budget cuts in all departments. He also gave us a new dining plan that many new students enjoy (despite the cost), and has let student government run its course, rather than interfering. He may not be perfect, but all of my ivy league friends have far more student life issues.

Many issues are mentioned with suicides, but the examples most frequently pointed out aren't even under DSL. Nightline was shut down when it was moved to DUE. Mental health is an MIT Medical service, not DSL.

If Dean Colombo was really making so many bad choices, he surely would have been punished or fired. The real problem must lie in upper administration.

Anonymous over 11 years ago

I love how the comments are all focused on an individual person/incident when the article is referencing a structural and organizational flaw within the governing bodies, using specifics as an examples. Claiming someone is a capable administrator within the context of a faulty administration is meaningless. Similarly, singling out an individual within the context of entire administration is meaningless, as no one individual can continue to perform without the consent of the rest. The individual is merely a chosen representative. The important part is what is being represented. Encompass the entirety of the message, and consider the heart of what is being said. This really should go without saying.

RZ over 11 years ago

I agree with the comment above re: quietly agree. Although this is no excuse, a downsized budget is never easy.

I applaud Barun Singh for highlighting this issue, especially for those of us who are slightly removed from campus life. Although the administration should be given credit for commitment and doing what they think is best for the institute, I can totally see how the governance can screw up incentives.

While I was an undergrad, I was a student representative for the DSL visiting committee. The visiting committee went through the administration to arrange the presentations, and surprise surprise, all the presenters had great things to say about the administration. All the students, including myself, were honest in our generally positive opinions about the administration and policies. However, I know quite a few students who would have had more negative opinions, but these undergrads were never selected to present. It would have been better for the committee to use a separate track (maybe directly via student groups, or random sampling) to get a more transparent view. Many students who weren't picked to attend the presentation didn't even know this process was going on.

Honestly, I haven't given the visiting committee process much thought until I read this Opinion, but it makes sense how my small example can multiply through the other committees and escalate to the top. The corporation has so much potential in maintaining and enhancing the culture at MIT. I am optimistic that the student prescriptions towards the end of Barun's opinion can bring some needed modifications to the Corporation-Administration governance structure and select the leadership that best fits MIT.