Elango, Green on institutionalizing transparency, working towards free tuition, and eradicating food insecurity

Candidates for UA president and vice president discuss their platform

This year's Undergraduate Association elections are underway. The Tech sat down to talk with candidates Mahi Elango ’20 and Kelvin Green II ’21, who are running for UA president and vice president, respectively, to discuss their platform. 

Voting will open April 15 and close April 19. 

The Tech: Why are you running?

Elango: Now is truly the time for student voices to be elevated and to be unified. I believe that based on our collective experience and our vision for MIT from the very first day that we came here — empowering each and every student to voice their opinions and to know that they are being heard — can only be best achieved through the Undergraduate Association. I am running for president because I want to lead the UA and MIT in that direction.

I also see this big dream. This place is full of magic, and craziness. It is such a unique place, and there is so much potential for students to further change what MIT is and will be known for.

Green: Mahi reached out to me to run alongside her as the vice presidential candidate, and the reason I chose to run was that we had a shared vision for the future of MIT and for the welfare of the undergraduate student population. As a team, I believe that we can serve MIT in a unique way by prioritizing first the voices of our community.

The Tech: A year from now — in what tangible ways do you want MIT to be different?

Elango: In so many ways. There’s an endless list of tangible things this community can do to better itself. I think our platform really reflects where we prioritize those changes.

Green: We like to think of our platform as a vision. We want the changes that we’re proposing to be sustainable, and so we are not necessarily thinking about making sure everything that we’ve mentioned in our platform is executed in 365 days. However, we would like to lay the groundwork for those things to come into fruition.

Elango: I think you will see tangible differences with institutional change that’s codified. Each year, 25 percent of the undergraduate population is recycled. It’s quite a fast pace to evolve at, and the result of that is we have to be even more proactive at unifying and democratically understanding what students believe, and then actually instituting that change, so that a year later, four years later, 10 years later, that voice isn’t forgotten.

The Tech: How has running unopposed affected your campaign, if it has?

Elango: Absolutely not at all. Kelvin and I have opened ourselves up to any student to come and voice their opinion about our platform, what they would like our agenda to look like, and what they would like the UA to look like. We’ve also hosted a campaign launch party, which was a great way to see the community at once.

The Tech: The first idea listed in the “Rethink Education Policy” section of your platform is free tuition. Your website says, “Potential solutions include transparency regarding how tuition rates are calculated and subsidizing via fundraising, different budget allocations, and the endowment.”

Can you elaborate? How can the UA acquire and exert the power to influence these processes, and how will this lead to free tuition?

Elango: Admittedly, it’s a big, bold, audacious idea.

Green: We have learned that students are dealing with financial burdens directly tied to what they owe MIT. And it affects not just their present circumstances, but through their decision-making it ends up affecting their future.

Elango: Back in 2012, President Reif had convened this Institute-wide Task Force on the Future of MIT Education, and the task force released a report with 16 recommendations. One of them was that MIT should strengthen its commitment to access and affordability, and I directly quote, “MIT needs to do even more” in terms of “making an MIT education as affordable as possible for students from all socioeconomic backgrounds.”

What Kelvin and I are proposing is not radically new. It’s something that even senior administrators know is something MIT must do, and must continue to do.

The Tech: But have you heard or read anything that suggests MIT considers free tuition specifically to be within the realm of discussion?

Elango: Kelvin and I have been in discussions with students and administrators who have access to information about how our tuition number is created, but because these are confidential numbers right now, one of our biggest goals with this initiative is to make that transparent, so that every single student here understands where every dollar they’re putting into their tuition money goes.

Green: Also, MIT purports to be affordable. And when we speak with students who have a variety of experiences (including my own), it appears that as MIT continues to purport that, it feels like it’s invalidating the experiences of students who will never be able to say that MIT was affordable for them.

Green: We’ve learned that the debt that [students] are incurring also influences the internships they choose to pursue, the majors that they choose to take on. We’re doing a huge disservice if MIT is de-enabling the ability of students to pursue the passions that they came with.

The Tech: An additional idea you list is to “decouple [the] current advising system and create an Institute-wide matching system.” How will this be implemented, and in what ways will advisor-advisee relationships be improved?

Elango: This is something that Vice Chancellor Waitz is very much in support of. Right now the expectation is that our advisor does a myriad of roles: he or she is responsible for life advice, career advice, major advice — prerequisites, course mapping, add-drop forms, petitions.

When we look at our peer institutions and we reflect back on what are sources of knowledge in advising, it’s not just our major advisor. There are deans and counselors and alumni and upperclassmen that have a lot of collective experience that could help reduce the burden on our current advisor. And so when students are actually picking their advisor, it doesn’t have to be to satisfy all these roles, but actually perhaps the intended role of career and major advice.

The Tech: Another pillar of your platform is “Eradicate Food Insecurity.” This has been an important priority for many student leaders and administrators. What is your opinion on their progress so far? Will your approach differ, and if so, how?

Elango: I think we’ve made great strides in eradicating food insecurity, but we’re not there yet. Success is only when zero percent of students face food insecurity. Programs like TechMart, SwipeShare, and free grocery shuttles have all helped move us in the right direction.

Kelvin and I see even more conversations in our meal plan system — what is the real cost to our meals, and where does that number come from? How can we redesign existing student spaces to provide low-cost, nutritious, diverse food? How can we address understaffed dining halls, long waits, poor food quality?

Like you said, there are so many student groups working on the same issue, and we all have the exact same goal. We can put all the voices that worked on this issue in one room and really put our resources and ideas together to tackle it.

Green: MIT must accept that changes must be evaluated and new ideas created to make sure that MIT doesn’t only eradicate food insecurity, but that it never affects the undergraduate student population again. This takes continual and consistent efforts by our community.

The Tech: The next pillar I’d like to discuss is “Institutionalize Administrative Transparency and Accountability.” Why “institutionalize”?

Elango: I think this particular idea requires permanency in establishing a culture. And while we can talk about it, discuss it, and hope for it, [transparency and accountability won’t] permeate every single office and arm at MIT unless it’s institutionalized. And we need that.

This isn’t just externally facing. We’re also talking about ways we can institutionalize the UA’s own transparency and accountability. Kelvin and I want to put all non-emergency initiatives seeking approval from the UA Council online for a week to allow students to review and comment on them before they are enacted.

And it’s not just about collecting feedback, but also responding to it so that students know that anything they say is actually discussed and addressed, whether that be through aggregating data we collect, responding to particular students, reaching out to them and including them in our working groups, holding forums and town halls, holding office hours, or having feedback boxes around campus.

Another important part of transparency and accountability is the budget. All budgetary decisions seeking approval from UA Council must be available to the public, as well as our rationale for making those choices. Our hope is that in institutionalizing real transparency and accountability in the UA, and showing how effective it is, then the rest of our community will follow.

Green: Leadership changes, students come and go, and maybe there is a culture now where this would be accepted, but when Mahi and I are both gone, we could enter new leadership where that culture is not accepted. So we believe that institutionalizing demands that MIT value transparency and that the different arms of MIT are on board with that shared value into perpetuity.

The Tech: What kind of relationship do you envision between the UA and administrators?

Elango: I truly believe that we all have the same goal, which is to make MIT a better community for everyone who is a part of it. I see a very cooperative [relationship], one where we’re honest, and we’re open to change.

The Tech: In situations where students and administrators are in disagreement, what do you see as your role?

Elango: I think the UA is the bridge that connects these two stakeholders together. We need both stakeholders to mutually agree for anything to be successful. But at the end of the day, we’re in these conversations for students, and that will always be our number one priority.

Green: Mahi and I believe that it is our job to push back if we must. Through those difficult but critical conversations, a greater outcome that benefits both groups will be reached.

The Tech: One issue that is not addressed in your platform but that has been a heated topic recently is mutual selection. What is your view on this issue? What do you see as your role?

Green: I would push back in saying that we are not addressing it. I think the fundamental issue was not why senior administration was advocating for the culture around mutual selection to be changed, but how they went about communicating that with the student body. So through our platform about administrative transparency, I think we are addressing the frustration and the concerns of why this topic created so much stress for so many students on campus.

The Tech: Of course, we did not have time to discuss every part of your platform. Among the things we missed, is there a particular one you would like to highlight?

Elango: I think a lot of questions that students have can be rooted back to lack of clarity of what MIT truly stands for. Our hope for a MIT-wide policy platform is that we come together as a community and think about our shared values and how they translate into solutions that resonate with everyone, and that in doing so it sheds light on how policy decisions are made.

For example, the MIT Corporation sends visiting committees for each department and senior administrators. That fact is not highly publicized, and the methods in which they collect feedback are not unified. We also don’t always consult experts when we’re making policy decisions, whether that be faculty members or institute offices.

And there’s no institutionalized student involvement when hiring new faculty and staff and constructing new buildings. What exists now is a particular administrator thinks it’s in the community’s benefit to include students on a particular task force, but that’s not a guarantee, and it only invites particular students; it doesn’t invite the entire community. The hope is that the policy platform does exactly that.

Green: Regarding the College of Computing, I think we’re at a very critical moment — honestly, in the history of the world — around how we think about ethics in this technological period of moving toward computation as the predominant method of solving complex problems. And we’ll now have a college completely dedicated to computation. It would be a huge mistake if we did not consider the ethical implications of such a design.

Elango: I think we need to create benchmarks that foster inclusion and support diverse faculty members, staff, and students from the very beginning, and develop milestone goals to actually achieve those benchmarks. This isn’t just an idea that may come to fruition: it must. We need to think about engineering ethics and the social implications of technology for all students who are a part of the College of Computing.

Editor’s note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.