With new CAP procedures, more students return to MIT

The percentage of students who successfully applied to return to MIT after having been on leave increased to 98 percent this fall, from a historical average of roughly 70 percent.

The 98 percent figure includes students who left MIT for personal leave, medical leave, or required academic leave, and requested last spring to return to MIT for the fall semester.

Why has this figure increased? Over the summer, the Committee on Academic Performance — the faculty committee that oversees the leave and return process — began implementing a set of recommendations proposed in a spring 2016 report to make the process more transparent, less ambiguous, and easier for students to navigate.

The recommendations brought existing terminology in line with MIT’s philosophy that students on leave remain part of the community, reduced S3’s decisionmaking role in the return process, and empowered the CAP chair to unilaterally approve return requests.

“It worked as I think we intended it to,” Scott Hughes, professor of physics and chair of CAP, said in an interview with The Tech.

According to Hughes, one of the most important changes has been the creation of a “firewall” between CAP and Student Support Services.

“Student Support Services were more involved in the decisionmaking process prior to our report, and that clouded their mission,” Hughes said. “There was at least a perception that they wouldn’t be acting in the best interest of their students.”

Previously, a Readmission Committee comprising three S3 deans and chaired by the head of S3 would decide whether to recommend applicants to the chair of CAP for readmission. The decision that was ultimately sent to the student would go out in a letter signed by the dean of S3.

Now, S3 administers the return process but is not directly involved in decisionmaking. In practice, this means that when a student submits a request to return, it gets sent first to an administrator in S3 who organizes the information needed to process the request. Information may include the student’s personal statement, transcript, and if applicable, medical information and letters of recommendation from employers or professors from their time on leave.

S3 deans may then get in touch with individual students about their return applications. Students are assumed to have been working closely with an S3 dean prior to going on leave, and to have jointly established clear expectations about how they will spend their time away from MIT.

“The deans are talking with the students about how their return requests look, and based on what was set out when they took leave, they can give honest feedback to students about whether they’ve checked the boxes to be able to return,” David Randall, senior associate dean of student support and wellbeing, said.

“What we’ve seen is that because we’re not the deciders, we can have much more honest and productive conversations with students,” Randall said.

From Hughes’s perspective, the fact that S3’s role in decisionmaking has been minimized means that it “can really be [a student’s] advocate with respect to getting the right information” and helping students present that information in their application.

It’s only after this back-and-forth between students and S3 deans that the application goes on to the CAP.

“I don’t see anything until the student is one hundred percent prepared to say, ‘this is ready to go to CAP,’” Hughes said.

With the new recommendations, Hughes is able to unilaterally approve a student’s request for return. To decline a request, on the other hand, requires consultation with other members of the committee.

“Are you taking our recommendations seriously? Are you ready to have a structured academic life? Those are the two main things I look for in looking over these applications, and that’s what largely drives these decisions,” Hughes said.

Taking classes is one indication that students are ready for that kind of structured activity, Hughes said, but that’s not the only example. Additionally, since classes may be financially burdensome for students, the committee no longer requires that all students on leave take two semesters of class. Instead, students need only take one semester of classes, which they can pair with employment, volunteer work, or something similar. The new process leaves room for flexibility.

“When it feels a little in the gray area, we’re erring on the side of letting people take a shot,” Hughes said. “Even in the cases when I looked at [the application] and I might have some concerns, the question I asked myself was: is further time away likely to help?”

When an application is in a “gray area,” Hughes might take it back to S3 or convene CAP members for a discussion. S3 deans are then able to loop in the student and give them a chance to revise parts of their application.

“Megan [Campbell] and James [Collins] are my usual starting points,” Hughes said. “And then often the individual deans will get pulled in if there’s something I’m particularly concerned about.”

In such situations, Hughes might ask a dean who’s worked with a student, “can you tell me what would happen if we were to require this student to be away for another semester?”

Though this kind of communication may violate the CAP-S3 “firewall,” it still seems aligned with the overall goal of giving students more clarity in the process. From that perspective, it seems preferable to decisions being made by the chair without the additional context.

In general, Hughes said, many return requests reveal a process of self-discovery.

“Especially when it’s an academic leave, there’s no mincing words — when students leave they’re pissed,” Hughes said. “And they deserve to be pissed, because this has been a challenging experience for them. You sometimes read these little narratives, and you see someone coming to grips with things, recognizing that what they were doing wasn’t working, and sort of having a breakthrough when they realize what they need to do to fix it. I love those things.”

In those cases, Hughes said, and in cases where it’s clear that a student met the expectations established at the outset, processing the return is straightforward.

“The expectations should be clear at the outset. If the expectations are clear at the outset, then when a student comes back, [CAP will] make a determination based on those expectations,” Randall said. “There’s no room for the opinion of an S3 dean in there.”

But if students feel like expectations are not clear, they have a recourse: “they should, if they feel comfortable, talk to their S3 dean. If they don’t feel comfortable, I’m happy to talk to them and work through clarifying things,” he said.

“I want the process to be as unambiguous as possible,” Randall said. “This is not like college admissions where you submit your application to MIT and you hold your breath and wait for Pi Day and see what happens… if things feel ambiguous I want to correct that.”