Opinion editorial

An action plan for the UA

Suggestions for effective student advocacy

How exactly can students make a difference on campus? Is there anything that students who care about MIT can do to influence Institute policy? There are concrete things the new Undergraduate Association leadership can — and should — do to enhance the student experience.

Since the space of possibilities for student advocacy is so large and spans so many issues, here we’ll address only two issues that go hand-in-hand: the MIT 2030 campus planning initiative and the online learning project edX. The Tech touched on these topics before in a February editorial, but plenty has changed between then and now.

2030, a framework to envision the physical campus in 20 years, and edX, an online learning initiative being championed by MIT and Harvard, are both vital to the future of undergraduate education at MIT. Administration officials say they want edX to enhance the residential learning experience by moving “chalk-and-talk” learning online, freeing up in-class time for close faculty-student interactions. MIT 2030 is a vision for a 21st century campus — it lays out extensive plans for campus renovation and new construction, in addition to generous promises for nearby commercial development (much of which is already being fulfilled).

But the visions don’t match. How, under a new educational model of hybrid online-classroom learning, can we make do with a 20th-century educational infrastructure? What good will a plethora giant lecture halls do us when we no longer go to lecture? Where are the visions for dynamic new learning spaces that facilitate the type of close faculty-student laboratory interactions that edX officials have talked about?

To be sure, MIT 2030 does promise substantial renovation of existing academic space within the next 10–20 years, but the plans are still vague and the completion dates yet-to-be determined. Meanwhile, the edX initiative is being pushed aggressively by MIT’s senior administration. What happens if our educational model outpaces our physical campus?

Even closer to home, MIT has been gradually increasing undergraduate enrollment while also preparing for a possible reduction in student activity space; Walker Memorial, home to many student groups, may soon be repurposed for the Music and Theater Arts department. The 2030 framework, while envisioning sprawling new campuses for Novartis and Pfizer, currently includes no new space for nonacademic student use. According to the current iteration of 2030, MIT expects the student community to still be making use of a virtually unchanged Stratton Student Center in 20 years (the building may see “capital renewal,” e.g. roofs, elevators, and systems renewal). The idea that the ’60s-era Student Center will be the center of campus life for the MIT student of 2030 is almost embarrassing.

Fortunately, both edX and MIT 2030 are still flexible. In the most recent faculty newsletter, Executive Vice President and Treasurer Israel Ruiz SM ’01 and Associate Provost for Space Martin A. Schmidt signalled they were willing and expecting to hear student input on campus planning.

The UA and Graduate Student Council’s focus on space planning, addressed under their vision statement in this issue, is also heartening. UA and GSC leadership say that we should continue our history of involving students in discussions on campus planning, and they’re absolutely right. The UA has already established “working groups” on MITx and MIT 2030, another promising sign.

But we’d like to take it a step further. Here are some concrete steps we think the UA president can take to effectively advocate for students on the issue physical space for undergraduates:

1. Recognize that though edX and MIT 2030 are distinct initiatives, they go hand-in-hand. Faculty and administration alike care deeply about both, so using edX to bolster your argument for enhanced student space will be particularly effective.

2. Develop clear, ambitious proposals. One solution to diminishing and outdated student space for academics and extracurricular activity may be construction of a brand-new building for students. The idea may seem crazy to some, but with so much talk of new laboratories for pharmaceutical companies, is it actually so crazy to ask for new buildings for students, too? Imagine a “student center” fit for the 21st century — one that provides opportunities for extracurricular exploration and innovation while also facilitating dynamic faculty-student engagement. Think to yourself, “what would be awesome for students to have?” Then ask for it.

3. Sell your idea. The only way big things can happen is if people get excited about them. Schedule meetings with alumni who have deep pockets. Get their contact information and then give it to our new president. Invite students to forums where you tell them why they, too, should be excited about cool new space. Write columns in The Tech. Remember, faculty members who were once undergraduates are particularly valuable allies!

4. Don’t let faculty and the administration forget. The UA president should exercise his speaking privileges at faculty meetings early and often. Bring up the idea of a new, second student center as often as you can. Tell the administration (whose senior leaders go to faculty meetings) which alumni to call for funding. If the idea is cool and exciting, the money will follow — after all, alumni were once students just like you. It will be hard for our new president to ignore calls saying, “I want to give you money for this.”

The new UA and its partners are ideally suited to pull off something big. MIT students often go to great things for the rest of the world, but they can start right here. And 2012 is the year to do it.