Prepared by Leeland Ekstrom, GSC President, 2007-2008
The Graduate Student Councils activities of the past year were many, varied, and by all accounts, successful. Two broad goals guided the officers and Executive Committees efforts: to make the MIT graduate student experience a more satisfying one and leave the GSC a stronger organization. To that end, this years Council deployed a number of exciting new programs, and worked collaboratively with offices across the MIT campus to bring several key multi-year advocacy priorities to fruition. As well, the traditional activities of the GSC were performed with distinction, and several of the new initiatives started in 2006-07, particularly in the Councils internal operations, were expanded upon and improved. At this time, the GSC possesses a strong template for an active, successful and respected student government, and taking this model forward should allow future Executive Committees to explore some larger and more visionary initiatives to better serve the graduate community. A high level summary of the GSCs 2007-08 activities is presented under the following categories:
Advocating on behalf of MITs entire graduate student body is the central role of the Council. This years advocacy efforts were very successful, yielding resolution to several long standing GSC priorities and demonstrating the value students can bring to MITs decision-making processes.
The GSCs annual stipend recommendation to the MIT Administration has been a consistently strong example of the Council and the Administration working collaboratively. Each years recommendation is made from a cost of living analysis, produced from surveys and government inflation statistics. The last Cost of Living Survey was taken in 2002, with only a partial refreshing of this data in 2006; thus, the decision was made this year to resurvey the entire graduate body. The survey was designed to measure both income and expenses, and was administered with the help of the Office of Institutional Research. Subsequent analysis showed that: (i) the average grad student faces 3% inflation during 2007-2008, (ii) many grad students still rely on savings, credit card debt and gifts from relatives to meet all their expenses, and (iii) the cost of off-campus housing is roughly at par with the cost of on-campus housing. These findings were presented to the Dean’s Group at the end of February, resulting in a stipend increase of 3.5%.
One of the most common questions the GSC receives is regarding dental care options available for grad students. This year’s Cost of Living Survey attempted to measure the availability of and preferences for dental insurance. The data showed that most graduate students did not have access to dental insurance and that the majority of students defer dental care due to a lack of insurance. In the survey, a dental plan offered by Delta Dental was presented and met great interest over three fourths of students said they would enroll in the plan. These results were also presented to the Deans Group, and a decision was made in the spring for MIT to adopt this plan for the 2008-09 academic year. Though mainly a preventative and diagnostic plan, it is the first time that MIT has provided such an option to its grad students and provides an opportunity to gather the more accurate data needed to offer more comprehensive coverage. 0.5% of the 3.5% stipend increase is nominally devoted to promoting dental care.
The announcement in January that Green Hall would be converted from graduate to undergraduate housing in summer 2008 and last May of a summer fee for use of MITs athletic facilities represented the most recent example of MIT making decisions with a large impact on students and student life with very limited input from those affected. Following these announcements, the GSC and Undergraduate Association (UA) Senate jointly passed a resolution highlighting this trend and calling for corrective action in such future decisions. MITs primary response was the creation of a Task Force on Student Engagement to examine how students should be involved in decisions that affect student life and to bring student leaders and key administrators and faculty members into regular and structured conversation.
The value of adding breadth to a graduate education outside of ones core concentration is now well recognized. To facilitate this, the MIT Faculty voted at their March meeting to adopt a P/D/F grading option for non-core graduate subjects, for a five year trial period. P/D/F will not supplant Listener status, but rather provides a more accountable yet less stressful route to acquiring an interdisciplinary graduate program. This successful outcome of this student-conceived initiative was the result of two years of effort, research and lobbying by the GSC.
In December, the GSC and UA Senate debated and passed a joint resolution calling for the establishment of Standing Committee on Investment Responsibility, to establish guidelines for responsible investing practices that account for the social, environmental, and corporate governance impacts of MITs investments. The motivation for this body was the preceding years debate on divestment in response to the events in Darfur, Sudan. Specifically, questions were raised as to what less severe actions could be taken in the future, well before calling for divestment. This resolution was then presented to the MIT Administration and members of the MIT Corporation, and is still under consideration.
The on-campus lottery and housing program can efficiently house about 35% of the graduate student population. For the other 65% of graduate students, however, finding off-campus housing can be a tedious and inefficient process. The GSC worked with the Off-Campus Housing Office to create a new way for MIT students to search for off-campus housing Rent Monkey. Rent Monkey tracks rental information provided by MIT students for MIT students. It catalogs listings and sublets, as well as past rents and residence descriptions, aids students in finding roommates and helps students on the market contact landlords directly instead of incurring realtor fees.
The August, 2008 opening of the new Ashdown (NW-35) in the northwest corridor will increase by 50% the number the number of students living in that part of campus. While a 40% increase in Northwest shuttle capacity will shoulder some of the extra demand, complaints of overloaded shuttles from all NW dorms are expected to increase even further. The GSC worked with the Parking and Transportation Office and Charles River Transportation Management Association to move the EZ-ride shuttle stop to directly in front of Sidney-Pacific to make this service more useful and apparent, particularly for students commuting to the east side of campus.
Another key role for the GSC is enabling the growth of graduate community through the disbursement of funding to students and student groups from across MIT. Funding this year was distributed through many of the GSCs traditional channels, and three new initiatives were started to augment these channels.
Recognizing that grad students participate in a broad array of artistic and sporting activities, sometimes at a very high level, the Council started an Athletic and Performance Activities Grant to help students pursue these types of hobbies at competitive levels. This grant represented the first of its kind on campus, and was tremendously popular: in its first four month offering, it received requests for over $40,000. Through this grant, students who excel in sports, music, dance and various other talents were able to travel and compete around the nation.
In addition to securing a dental treatment plan available to all students, the GSC laid the groundwork for a fund to support those students who sometimes require very extensive treatment beyond the capability of any coverage plan. The GSC, along with Dr. Ed Seldin of MIT Medical and Dean Steve Lerman, created a Catastrophic Dental Fund. This fund is a long term project: the next step is a concentrated fundraising drive in the years ahead to generate sufficient endowed principal to begin helping students.
One type of event the Council wished to encourage this year were those organized collaboratively between two or more existing student groups, to promote a mixing of social circles within the student body. The Collaboration Reward specifically set aside funding for this purpose. Eleven events were funded, ranging from the very social, such as movie screenings, to the more academic, such as joint research talks. More extensive publicity, particularly promoting the easy process with which these funds were awarded, would broaden its impact in the future.
To support grad student professional development, the GSC again this year offered a Travel Grant program. Travel grant funds were intended to enable students to present their work at research-related conferences, primarily when the research supervisor was unable to support the travel. Fourteen students were supported during the fall, IAP and spring, and the Councils practices for awarding this money were improved by another year of experience doing so.
The GSC Funding Board represents the primary funding source for more than 100 grad student groups. The Funding Board was given $132,000 to distribute, allowing an average allocation of between $350 and $500 per group in each of the four funding cycles. New policies included: (i) the funding of one event per group at a location off campus to encourage exploration of the greater Boston area, (ii) the funding of speaker honoraria to assist events that offered more than just food, and (iii) a focus on smaller student groups that lacked other sources of income for their operations. A number of financial training sessions were also held throughout the year, to make the Board more accessible and to educate groups about all the funding options available.
Two special allocations were made from discretionary funds to enable worthwhile projects that benefit all of MIT. Support was given to the student-organized Global Poverty Initiative conference, which was held in April and attracted more than 1000 student participants from across the country. Money was also given to aid the 2008 Congressional Visit Days, which allowed a number of MIT students to communicate directly to their congressional representatives the benefits of funding scientific research.
In addition to enabling others to build community, the GSC endeavors to do so itself, using its size and broad reach to host both social and resource events that are open and appeal to the entire student body.
The most prominent addition to the GSCs events stable was the Two Dollar Tuesdays (later named Two Dollar Dinners, after difficulty in finding space on Tuesdays). Held once a month, these dinners were created to be a low-cost dining option for grad students. More that just providing cheap food though, the intent was to foster interaction across social circles and to demonstrate sufficient interest for a more comprehensive graduate dining program. Six dinners were organized, with attendance ranging from 125 at first to over 200 for the final dinner, and every event selling out. Several dinners had a theme, featuring guest appearances by faculty, administrators, and graduate alumni from around the area respectively.
The 2007 Career Fair, organized jointly with the Class of 2008 and the Society of Women Engineers, was the most successful yet. With over 300 companies and more than 2500 students attending, the Fair was the largest student-run event on campus. Financially, the Fair again exceeded revenue expectations for the three partners, though whether this trend continues and how the partners manage such excess revenues are open questions for the year ahead. Lengthy discussions were had after the Fair about aligning it with an Institute Holiday to make student participation easier. After much debate, a Monday Career Fair was found impractical and moving the existing Student Holiday was opposed by several key members of the MIT Administration, keeping the Fair on its traditional date for the coming year.
Following last years difficult debate on how the GSC should promote diversity at MIT, a two day event was held this year to keep the topic on students and the GSCs collective mind. Featuring speakers Stephen Young and Vijay Prashad, the Diversity Colloquium challenged participants to think about microinequities in communication and what a multicultural campus should look like in the future. Both speakers generated compelling discussion and positive reviews. Building on this event to revitalize the Councils Diversity sub-committee and determining how to partner with other Institute-wide diversity initiatives should be immediate goals for the Council.
With last years inaugural edition a success by all measures, the 2nd Grad Gala was held in early May, with an outdoor reception at Edgerton House and a dinner and dance at the Park Plaza Hotel. The events 700 tickets sold out more than a week earlier than last year and some $6,000 in external sponsorship was also secured this year to help defray the total cost. The Gala is the sort of event the Council is uniquely positioned to host, and it will hopefully remain a fixture on the communitys calendar for years to come.
Another event the GSC is well suited to hosting is the official Institute Orientation for all incoming grad students. More than 1500 new students were welcomed to MIT, with a special focus on international students, who comprise almost 40% of the grad body, and international culture. This focus featured new events such as an International Festival and several cultural nights, as well as services such as the Airport Shuttle and a GSN issue to specifically welcome foreign students. Old favorites such as Dance Fusion, a Harbor Cruise and a White Mountains Hiking Trip were complemented by new additions, such as a Photo Scavenger Hunt and Orientation Olympics. Academic and resources events, such as Grad School 101 and the Info Booth rounded out the schedule.
Other GSC activities that made the year more enjoyable included excursions to local cultural and sporting events, the ever-popular Acoustic BBQ, beach and amusement park trips over the summer in collaboration with several of the on-campus grad dorms, and two Harvard-MIT parties. The annual GSC Ski Trip was the largest ever, and saw some 550 students enjoy an IAP weekend in the snow at Sunday River. On the resource side, workshops on Handling Difficult Conversations and Income Tax Preparation, and an International Student Mixer were held as part of the Professional Development Series. In partnership with the MIT Careers Office, the popular Academic Career Series was presented last summer, for those students considering careers in the academy.
Continuing the practice of the past couple years, the GSC targeted a number of events at those students who reside Off-Campus. Activities such as a dedicated brunch series, mixers at local restaurants and joint social events with on-campus groups, and resources such as a weekly email digest, were organized by and for off-campus students. While these gains are encouraging, the Council still needs to consistently do more to reach out to this largest segment of the grad student body.
The Muddy Charles Pub is a focal point and meeting place for many grad students. The Pub continued its cultural Muddy Mondays series, offering food and drink from around the world in partnership with student groups from the featured country, and popular Weekly Wednesday series. New this year, the Muddy began hosting Inter-Departmental Socials, where two or more departments come together to socialize and exchange ideas in a relaxed and informal setting. Plans are also underway for the writing of a Muddy Charles Pub History Book, chronicling the personalities and stories that have made the Muddy memorable since its opening in 1968.
The GSC has now developed a sustainable template for an active and successful student government. A number of the practices developed last year to improve transparency and participation were continued and improved upon, and several problem areas were directly addressed.
The Councils total Budget for the year proposed revenues and expenditures of almost $400,000. Considerable effort was made early in the year to revamp the procedures for tracking individual line item expenditures, resulting in consistently more accurate management of the GSCs finances that will hopefully endure into the years ahead. The GSC is still heavily dependent upon Career Fair revenues to support its operations. A request last spring to buffer the Council with a portion of the increased Student Life Fee was, however, denied. The search for additional funds to provide this buffer, whether from sponsorship, the Institute or some other source, should be a top priority.
Following last years practice, Council Meetings were again used primarily to debate resolutions modifying and updating the GSC Budget. The advantages of this approach include increased transparency to the representatives and a regular exercising of parliamentary debate muscles so that the Council is ready to respond when called upon to debate any weighty external matters. Some 19 resolutions were presented, comprised of 13 budgetary motions and 6 position statements; 17 resolutions passed, 6 following amendment, while one did not and one was tabled indefinitely. Guests, ranging from the new Dean for Graduate Education to representatives of the Alumni Association to various Student Life staff, attended General Council Meeting to promote their activities and offices. Soliciting further interesting guests and diversifying the body of motions presented would empower the representatives further and aid in recruiting beyond the current 67% participation rate (56 of 84 representative slots filled).
For its 2007-08 edition, the Graduate Student News adopted a new and positively-received style, while still retaining the magazine feel it had adopted over the past couple years. For the first time, the GSN hired a student worker to assist with the layout of the magazine, providing the editors more time to focus on the substance of the publication. Content features included issues affecting grad student life as raised by GSC members, regular updates from the Council, and profiles of restaurants and other destinations in the surrounding city and region.
The Association of Student Activities this year undertook a major review of its physical infrastructure, reallocating a large percentage of its office space, bolstering security and expanding storage capacity for student groups. New information technology infrastructure was also purchased to improve the reliability and flexibility of the ASA Database and to allow for more paper applications to the ASA to be moved online. Thirty-five new students groups were recognized this year, and a review of the recognition and classification process was initiated and will be completed in 2008-09. As well, some $200,000 was distributed through the Large Event and ARCADE Funds in support of almost 100 campus-wide events.
Finally, a redesign of the Grad Rat, the official class ring for MITs grad students, was undertaken this year by the GSC and will be unveiled early in the 2008-09 academic year.
Another ongoing goal of the GSC is the development of leadership in the student body, as a useful component of graduate education and also to perpetuate the Council. The Grad Student Leadership BBQ was held in the early fall, shortly after Orientation. The event brought together about 125 graduate students who were leaders or potential future leaders in either the GSC, departmental student groups, or the grad dorms along with some prominent administrators and alumni. The BBQ served as a way to thank current leaders for their contributions to graduate life and to encourage others to take on more active roles. Another goal was to foster interaction between disparate groups to encourage collaborative events and a mixing of social circles. A second such BBQ was held in the spring, and future versions are intended for the year ahead. While this event series is a great start, a thorough investigation of other ways that the Council can encourage leadership development should be undertaken in the year ahead.
This past year saw transitions in one of the key offices the GSC interacts with and within the Councils own support staff.
Last summer, Prof. Steve Lerman assumed the role of Dean in the Graduate Students Office (later renamed Office of the Dean for Graduate Education). The Dean for Graduate Education is the Councils primary contact and champion in the MIT Administration; building a relationship with Dean Lerman and introducing him to the work of the GSC was made a top priority, and should yield a very productive working relationship in the years ahead. The GSC was also afforded a first-hand look at some of the Deans proposals for improving graduate education at MIT and looks forward to the changes he will implement.
The Council bade farewell this past year to both of its longtime administrative assistants, Emmi Snyder and Nancy Kelly, as they moved on to other positions at the Institute. For many students, the GSC administrators are the face of the Council they are most familiar with, given their time spent in the office in support of GSC meetings and activities, processing reimbursements and answering all manner of students questions. Very capable new staff in Imani Ivery and Laura Thomas have joined the Council, and will hopefully provide the same high level and long duration of service as their predecessors.
The National Association of Graduate and Professional Students last fall recognized the GSC with a Program Award for the Graduate Student News. The award commemorated both current and past members of the GSN for consistently producing a high-level publication, and particularly acknowledged the 2006-07 staff for their efforts.
A number of Council members were recently recognized by MIT for their contributions to the Institute, in part for their efforts with the GSC, at the 2008 Student Leader Awards and the 2008 Awards Convocation. The 2007 Career Fair Directors, including Sarah Barkow, Romain Lévy and David Opolon from the GSC, were presented the Common Ground Award for successfully organizing last falls Career Fair. The Legacy Award was given to Housing and Community Affairs Co-Chairs Tanguy Chau and Robert Wang for their accomplishments leading the Councils advocacy efforts. GSC Treasurer Mireille Akilian was presented a Distinguished Dedication Award for her service to the Council and several other campus activities. Kevin McComber, Co-Chair of the Activities Committee, and Shan Wu, past GSC Vice-President and current Biological Engineering representative, were each recognized with a William L. Stewart, Jr. Award for their many efforts to improve student life at MIT.
Following the successes of the past few years in advocacy and reorganizing how the Council manages its internal affairs, the GSC is now poised to take on some larger and more visionary projects. Some groundwork has been laid for investigating how the GSC should interact with the graduate alumni body and on future graduate housing expansion for MIT, but much of the work on these subjects lies ahead and more such projects to improve grad student life certainly exist. The Councils track record is now well established and its future will only be brighter.