how to change policies at mit [joint post with Rona W.]
Note: Writing here is joint between Rona and Paolo, except when explicitly marked otherwise. Any opinions expressed are our own, and are not meant to represent the opinion of the Committee on the Undergraduate Program (CUP).
Two weeks ago, MIT faculty passed a motion to change academic policies for incoming first-year students! Starting next school year (2021–2022):
- The spring credit limit for first-year students will be 60 units01 (increased from 57). This will allow every first-year student to take five 12-unit classes in the spring; however, there is also an explicit reminder in the motion that “[60 units] is an upper limit, not a norm or expectation. 48 units is an appropriate load for most students and will keep them on track for graduation.” After the first year, there are no credit restrictions.
- MIT will no longer offer Early Sophomore Standing (ESS) to qualifying first-year students. ESS allowed students with a full year of credits (96 units) at the end of first-year fall to “become sophomores”, allowing them to declare a major, be assigned a departmental advisor, and to register for more units than the first-year credit limit.
- For their fall and spring semester, first-year students can register for 6 units of discovery-focused subjects. This includes advising seminars, discovery subjects, and a few exemptions.02
These changes aren’t made lightly; parts of these changes required a vote at an Institute Faculty meeting to change the MIT Rules and Regulations (section 2.63.3). Changes like this take months of discussions and research and input from hundreds of people across MIT, because they will impact the academic experience of every first-year student who enrolls next year (and for years to come).
How did these changes come about?
We (Paolo and Rona) served as undergraduate representatives for the Committee on the Undergraduate Program (CUP) in the 2020–2021 school year, along with fellow students Shardul C. ‘22 and Leslie Y. ‘22. To be selected for CUP, we applied for the positions and were interviewed by members of the Nominations Committee of the Undergraduate Association (MIT’s student government). After being selected by the committee, we each spoke to Arthur Bahr, Associate Professor of Literature and the CUP chair. Ultimately, the faculty members on CUP chose the four of us!
Rona: I chose to apply for CUP after serving on the Subcommittee for the HASS (Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences) Requirement the previous year. Getting to shape wide-reaching policy and to advocate for undergraduates was a wonderful experience, and I wanted to continue in a broader capacity.
Paolo: I’ve spent a long time at MIT thinking about education, both through classes at MIT (including ones about policy, educational history, and evaluating learning) and my extracurriculars (largely through ESP). Last year, I talked a lot with Leslie Y. ‘22 (who was on CUP already) about changes being made to grading policies at MIT, and I found that I had lots of thoughts about the incentives that policies created and the distributional impacts that they had. When the application for 2020–21 CUP opened up last year, I decided to apply so I could voice these thoughts directly c:
We attended two-hour meetings every two weeks to discuss potential policy changes with other MIT faculty members who served on CUP; in total, there were 14 of us, including faculty, students, and even Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz.
After months of discussion, our committee approved the changes above to first-year academic policies via a vote. But that didn’t mean that our job was done; because our policy impacted MIT’s Rules and Regulations, faculty from across the Institute had to vote on it — and we needed a 3/5 majority to pass these changes. The CUP student representatives did not attend the Institute Faculty meeting, but we were informed that the motion passed 95–12. Success!
What did we do on CUP?
At many CUP meetings, we heard from different people from across the institute about all sorts of academic policies and issues at MIT: copyrights for MIT Theses, how subject evaluations should work in the pandemic, the mission of the newly-made College of Computing, and much, much more. As student representatives, we asked questions and offered our own experiences to shape all sorts of education-related things happening at MIT.
Additionally, we spent many meetings discussing one topic at length: first-year credit policies. In recent years, CUP has run a number of “experiments” with first-year policies, with changes to credit limits, grading schemes, discovery subjects, and more; this year, we tried to take what was learned from these experiments to help craft better academic policies for first-year undergraduates.
These kinds of issues require many different kinds of analysis. Some parts are data-driven, like examining statistics about how students used ESS and discovery subjects in the past. To facilitate student engagement, we sent out a feedback form and held an online forum03 for any undergraduate to contribute their opinions about the motion.
Other parts require high-level philosophical thinking about the value of an MIT education, what goals MIT has (and should have) for incoming students, and how different academic policies impact the student experience. Our committee discussed these issues for hours on end, trying to come up with some unified vision about the values that we had about first-year education, and trying to create policies to implement that mission.
One of the biggest issues throughout every discussion revolved around designing policies that are “good” for everyone, whatever that means. Of course, no singular policy is perfect for every individual by virtue of every individual being different. For example, one discussion that came up was whether to allow instructors to hold remote classes, even after students have returned to campus. After all, some students are thriving during remote learning, and they love the added flexibility of being able to attend lectures at any time. However, others have really struggled without in-person support or engagement, and to allow some classes to remain remote could be detrimental to them. It’s impossible to create policies that are perfect for everyone, and while it’s tempting to allow people to do anything they want in the name of freedom, a laissez-faire attitude can perpetuate inequity between students.
We discussed our proposed changes to ESS at length. ESS had some wonderful benefits; it allowed first-year students to take as many credits as they wanted, and they were assigned their department-specific advisors early. However, it also was unavailable to students who came to MIT without previous college credits, and thus inequitable.
When ESS was in place, approximately 5% of all students accepted ESS and then enrolled in over 60 units; those students would no longer be able to do so. Was it good for us to restrict the credit load of this small minority? Or were we being paternalistic by doing so?
In the end, we think that this restriction was good for everyone, in part because it reinforces the idea that there is more to life than just classes; learning happens everywhere, including through UROPs, clubs, and just by being around new people.
How can you get involved?
CUP is just one way that MIT students can be involved in governance at MIT. There are dozens of institute and faculty committees at MIT that students can join, that use the same application process that we went through. They touch almost every aspect of the student experience at MIT, working on issues and policies related to:
- Physical education, athletics programs, and intramural sports (DAPER Advisor Board)
- Creating, revising, or removing undergraduate subjects and degree requirements (Committee on Curricula)
- What MIT’s graduation ceremonies look like (Commencement Committee)
- Anything that President Reif wants direct student input on (Presidential Advisory Committee)
- And so much more!
And of course, you can also join the people who help choose the members on these committees — the Undergraduate Association. As MIT’s undergraduate student government, the UA supports students by advocating for us in MIT’s policy-making process, creating projects to address student needs, and managing events to just help make students happy. The president and vice-president, elected by the student body every year, choose the rest of the UA officers.
Yet another way to get involved in governance at MIT is through DormCon! Because dorm culture is one of the most unique parts about MIT, and around 75% of all undergraduates live on-campus, it’s important that the dorm policies and dorm-wide events are done well. DormCon helps manage CPW (to help prefrosh learn about MIT) and REX (to help first-year students find the best dorm for them). DormCon also works with administrators from around MIT on issues such as dorm placements, funding for events, and COVID-era policies like pods of students04 and SCUFFY.05 DormCon elects new officers at the end of each semester, but any student can also show up to their biweekly meetings. Similar bodies exist that govern fraternities (the IFC), sororities (Panhel), and Independent Living Groups (LGC).
The powers that students can have through institute committees, student government, Dormcon, or anywhere else, can have broad impacts on life at MIT. As students, we can literally be in the room where it happens. Of course, that doesn’t mean that we’re always listened to, and we could talk at length about all the ways that we aren’t. But there are ways that student voices can matter — hope to see you all involved in them one day :)