Prepared by Oaz Nir, GSC President, 2008-2009
The activities and initiatives of the MIT Graduate Student Council over the past year were ambitious, varied, and by all accounts, successful. Two broad goals from the GSC’s mission statement guided the officers’ and Executive Committee’s efforts: to make the MIT graduate student experience a more satisfying one and leave the GSC a stronger organization. To that end, this year’s Council deployed a number of exciting new programs, and worked collaboratively with offices across the MIT campus on several multi-year advocacy priorities. As well, the traditional activities of the GSC were performed with distinction, and several of the new initiatives started in 2007-08, particularly on graduate housing as well as alumni relations, were expanded upon and improved. Overall, the GSC represents a successful and respected student government that consistently delivers a core set of programs and services with success. Building on this solid foundation, future Executive Committees will be able to explore some larger and more visionary initiatives to better serve the graduate community.
A high level summary of the GSC’s 2008-09 activities are presented under the following categories:
• Funding for Students & Groups
• GSC Operations
• Leadership Development
• Looking Ahead
Advocating on behalf of MIT’s entire graduate student body is the central role of the Council. This year’s advocacy efforts were very successful, yielding resolution to several long standing GSC priorities and demonstrating the value students can bring to MIT’s decision-making processes.
The GSC’s annual stipend recommendation to the MIT Administration has been a consistently strong example of the Council and the Administration working collaboratively. Each year’s 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 the 2007-08 academic year. That survey was designed to measure both income and expenses, and was administered with the help of the Office of Institutional Research. In combination with this survey data, our analysis this year showed that the average grad student faces 4.85% inflation during 2008-2009 and that many grad students still rely on savings, credit card debt and gifts from relatives to meet all their expenses. These findings were presented to the Dean’s Group, resulting in a central stipend increase of 3.4%.
Because individual departments set their stipend levels within a band defined by the central recommendation, the GSC additionally organized discussions between departmental student groups and/or GSC representatives, on the one hand, with their respective department heads, on the other, to discuss the impact of budget cuts on stipend levels and funding for graduate student life and learning, more generally. In addition, the GSC interviewed and selected graduate student representatives to serve on the Institute-wide Planning Task Force, which advised the MIT administration on budget cuts in the next several fiscal years.
One of the most important tasks of the GSC this year was the implementation of the first graduate student dental plan. The GSC worked closely with the Office of the Dean for Graduate Education (ODGE) on the implementation of the Preferred Provider Option (PPO) provided by Delta Dental of Massachusetts. The dental plan provides access to a network of dentists, and offers diagnostic and preventative services with no-copayment and restorative services at a pre-negotiated discounted rate. For this first year, there were 873 subscribers, 61 of which were for the family plan, representing a significant success. The GSC will work with the ODGE to continue to promote the plan and monitor its usage in the coming year. Ultimately, the GSC will utilize data on student usage of the plan to propose to the MIT administration an expanded dental plan.
Over the past several years, there have been several cases of MIT making decisions with a large impact on students and student life with very limited input from those affected. Last year, the GSC and Undergraduate Association (UA) Senate jointly passed a resolution highlighting this trend and calling for corrective action in such future decisions. MIT’s 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. This year, GSC leaders actively participated in this Task Force, which focused on issues including hacking, dining, student safety, and student relations with MIT police.
The GSC expanded on last year’s initiatives focusing on enhancing and embracing diversity at the Institute. This year the GSC provided funding and support for the Minority Summer Research Program which provides research opportunities for high school students of underrepresented minority groups and encourages them to apply and attend MIT. In addition the GSC continued the International Student Mentorship Program, matching new international students with current student mentors, and organized a Diversity Social Hour during the Graduate Orientation. Graduate students participated in the Diversity Congress organized in the fall of 2008 and in the Institute-wide efforts on diversity and inclusion, including the design of a new diversity website. As well, the GSC started the Rethinking Interactions seminars, a bi-weekly series of conversations on diversity with faculty and staff members.
The GSC created a Task Force on Alumni Relations, the major aim of which was to design and implement a Grad Gift in conjunction with the Alumni Association. In addition, the Task Force organized a number of events linking current graduate students with graduate student alumni. The goal of the Graduate Gift campaign, which was rolled out this spring with initial success, is to foster a habit of philanthropy, even if the amount donated by each individual graduate student is modest. The campaign achieved a 10% percent participation.
The potential for graduate student interaction was greatly expanded this year with the opening of New Ashdown House, building upon the Institute’s vision for graduate community in the Northwest Corridor. The GSC sponsored numerous events, for example a Flu Shot Clinic, in conjunction with Ashdown and nearby dorms. The potential for expanded community involvement was particularly aided by the new Ashdown Dining program, which along with the new and improved Thirsty Ear Pub, provides a centerpiece for graduate student interaction in the expanded Northwest Corridor.
In anticipation of the next major graduate student housing project, the GSC created a Task Force on Housing and Graduate Residential Life, tasked with forming a representative vision for this next project. This year, the Task Force conducted extensive interviews of administrators, students, and faculty. The key preliminary findings of the Task Force were the significant need for expanded family housing and the need to keep a low-cost rent option for graduate students on campus. The work of the Task Force will continue into the next academic year.
The GSC put forth several initiatives related to Sustainability. Since there is already a large number of sustainability-related groups on campus, the GSC focused on initiatives that it is uniquely positioned to carry out. Thus, the GSC partnered with the Dorm Electricity Competition in order to expand the competition to include graduate dorms. In addition, the GSC began work with Sustainability@MIT and MIT Facilities to conduct a campus temperature survey, in order to determine specific locations that are over-heated or over-cooled. The GSC also passed a resolution in support of minimizing the printing of the MIT Bulletin. Closer to home, we reduced the print run of our Graduate Student News magazine with plans to further reduce printing next year while expanding the electronic reach of the magazine.
Funding for Students & Groups
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 the GSC’s varied channels.
The GSC Funding Board represents the primary funding source for more than 100 grad student groups. The Funding Board was given $120 000 to distribute, allowing an average allocation of between $350 and $500 per group in each of the four funding cycles. A number of financial training sessions were held throughout the year, to make the Board more accessible and to educate groups about all the funding options available.
The GSC provided funding to students and student groups through several additional avenues beyond the Funding Board. Recognizing that grad students participate in a broad array of artistic and sporting activities, sometimes at a very high level, the Council continued its Athletic and Performance Activities Grant to help students pursue these types of hobbies at competitive levels. Through this grant, students who excel in sports, music, dance and various other talents were able to travel and compete around the nation. The Collaboration Reward specifically set aside funding for events organized collaboratively between two or more existing student groups, to promote a mixing of social circles within the student body. 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.
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.
Last year, the GSC added the highly successful series of Two Dollar 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. This year, the Two Dollar Tuesdays drew 175-225 attendees per event. Some dinners had themes, such as entrepreneurship, alumni interaction, and the Grad Gift campaign kickoff.
The 2008 Career Fair, organized jointly with the Class of 2009 and the Society of Women Engineers, was a tremendous success by all measures. With over 300 companies and more than 4000 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. For the student directors of the Career Fair, the complex work of organizing the fair constitutes an extremely important leadership opportunity. Discussions from the previous year were continued about aligning the Fair with a Student Holiday to make student participation easier and reduce class absenteeism. With the collaboration of the UA, SWE, and the Class Council, students worked with administrators and faculty to propose a resolution at the May Faculty Meeting for moving the September Student Holiday from a Monday to a Wednesday “Career Day.” This resolution will be voted on by the faculty in the fall.
The 3rd Grad Gala was held in mid-April, continuing a growing tradition for the GSC. A reception, three-course dinner, live music, and dancing were included in the program for a very reasonable ticket price.. The event’s 700 tickets sold out well in advance of the event. The Gala is the sort of event the Council is uniquely positioned to host, and it will hopefully remain a fixture on the community’s calendar for years to come.
Another event the GSC is well suited to host is the official Institute Orientation for all incoming grad students. More than 1500 new students were welcomed to MIT this year, 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 MIT Photo Safari in the format of a treasury hunt, the Lab Open House as an introduction to a variety of research resources, and the Wine Tasting Mixer in an effort to mix with the Sloan students, 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 organized as well. Academic and resources events, such as Grad School 101 and the Info Booth rounded out the schedule. New connections were also established with the MIT Alumni Association, the MIT Ombuds Office, the MIT Recreational Sports, and various student associations. In addition, the Orientation committee embraced diversity to align itself with the vision of the Institute. Along this line, the committee not only initiated the Female Student Welcome and the Diversity Social Hour, but also expanded and enriched the iFest or International Festival, with a ten-fold increase in attendance as compared to the previous year.
The focus of the academics and research branch of the GSC for the past year was on taking advantage of the current interest in interdisciplinary collaboration in science, as well as assessing the perceived quality of advisors-advisee relationships and advocating for improvements. Consistent with the first goal, we started, in collaboration with TechLink, a very well received Lab Open House during Graduate Orientation in which students received tours of various research laboratories on campus to highlight the myriad opportunities for collaboration within MIT. In addition, we sponsored an email parsing competition with the objective of developing an Interdisciplinary Lecture Calendar (ILC), a centralized interface to all research seminars, talks, and workshops on campus. The Committee on Student Life has selected the ILC as one of the primary features of the Interact@MIT website to start in the fall of 2009. Furthermore, as part of a broader Advising Initiative, we developed a new graduate student survey on mentoring issues and advisor-advisee relationship and started analyzing the results from a similar survey conducted in 2004 and the doctoral exit surveys; this work will continue in the following year. The last new initiative in academics was the creation of a Dissertation Boot Camp, a four-day-long program providing a quiet venue, refreshments, and writing and research resources for graduate students working on their dissertations.
This year we made a concerted effort to expand resources for professional development to enhance the career prospects of graduate students. Our new efforts in this area resulted in a new collaboration with the 100K Initiative at the Sloan School of Management, and the development of a new series of professional development panels in entrepreneurship, careers in non-profits, and PhDs/postdocs in management. These initiatives will continue and strengthen in the upcoming year. In addition, we continued our traditional set of Academic Career Series workshops in partnership with the MIT Careers Office.
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 a Harvard-MIT party. The annual GSC Ski Trip was the largest ever, and saw some 550 students enjoy an IAP weekend in the snow at Sunday River.
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. New this year was Spring Serve, a Graduate Student Volunteer Day, which also included graduate student alumni. While these gains are encouraging, the Council must do more to reach out to off-campus students, which represent the 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 Monday Mondays series, offering food and drink from around the world in partnership with student groups from the featured country, and popular Weekly Wednesday series. The Muddy also continued to host Inter-Departmental Socials, where two or more departments come together to socialize and exchange ideas in a relaxed and informal setting.
The GSC has a sustainable template for an active and successful student government. A number of the practices developed over the past several years to improve transparency and participation were continued and improved upon.
The Council’s total Budget for the year proposed revenues and expenditures of almost $400 000. Considerable effort was continued this year to revamp the procedures for tracking individual line item expenditures, resulting in consistently more accurate management of the GSC’s finances. The GSC is still heavily dependent upon Career Fair revenues to support its operations. The search for additional funds to provide a buffer for this relatively unpredictable funding source, whether from sponsorship, the Institute or some other source, should continue to be a top priority for the GSC.
As a sort of stopgap measure, the GSC passed a bylaw amendment in the fall to create a Stabilization Fund. The amendment stipulates that if a given year’s Career Fair revenues exceed a three-year running average (properly inflation-adjusted), then a portion of the excess must be deposited into the Fund. Conversely, if revenues fall short of the three-year average, money may be withdrawn from the Fund. Some flexibility is provided in the amendment for the Council to withdraw additional money from the Fund using legislation that must be supported by a supermajority of council members.
Following last year’s practice, Council Meetings were again used primarily to debate resolutions modifying and updating the GSC Budget and operations. The advantages of this approach include increased transparency to the representatives, MIT administration, and beyond. Some 12 resolutions were presented, comprised of 4 budgetary motions, 6 motions affecting GSC operations, and 2 position statements; 10 resolutions passed, while one did not and one was withdrawn.
The GSC continued its publication of the Graduate Student News magazine with a total of seven issues for the 2008-09 year. In order to foster greenness and to reduce printing and mailing costs, circulation was reduced from approximately 6000 to approximately 4500 per issue with plans for further reductions in future years. This first reduction was accomplished by sending only one issue per address or office (offices with more than ten people receive two or more copies). We have also taken steps to improve the online delivery of the GSN in order to adapt to the changing landscape of news media.
The Association of Student Activities this year continued a review of its physical infrastructure, reallocating a large percentage of its office space, bolstering security and expanding storage capacity for student groups. The ASA also completed a major review of the recognition and classification process for students groups, particularly related to funding privileges 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 MIT’s grad students, was unveiled by the GSC early in the 2008-09 academic year with a positive reception by the graduate student body.
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. Two Grad Student Leadership BBQs were hosted by the GSC in the fall and spring. These events brought together 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. These BBQs 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 University Collaboration initiative was created in the spring to provide a formal structure and dedicated funding for the GSC to interact with other universities. In the past, the GSC has consistently partnered with Harvard for events, but interaction with other Boston-area universities has been lacking. To fill this need, the MIT GSC helped create an association, termed the Boston Graduate Leadership Organization (BGLO), which consists of some eight Boston-area universities. A kick-off event was held in April, providing the foundation for continued events in the coming year.
Moving outward from Boston, the GSC this year participated in the Ivy Summit of graduate student councils, held at Harvard in the fall. The event provided a means of information- and resource-sharing among student councils. The MIT GSC plans to attend next year’s Ivy Summit as well. And moving still outward from the Ivy League, MIT continued its participation in the National Association of Graduate and Professional Students (NAGPS), both at the Legislative Action Days in September and at the NAGPS National Conference later in the fall. Perceiving the need to strengthen leadership within NAGPS, MIT GSC members spearheaded efforts to re-charter the Northeast Region of NAGPS, with plans to serve in leadership roles at the national level in subsequent years.
Returning to MIT, the GSC collaborated with the DSL to organize a series of leadership development workshops during IAP, called Leadership Evolution for Graduate Students (LEGS). These well-attended events focused on practical skills for current graduate students as well as for graduate students who were not yet involved in student groups or other leadership positions at MIT.
As in previous years, the GSC conducted interviews and selection for graduate students to serve on the various Institute and Faculty Committees that are central to decision-making at MIT, and which provide important leadership development opportunities for the students serving on them.
Following the successes of the past few years in advocacy and reorganizing how the Council manages its internal affairs, the GSC is poised to take on 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 and, importantly, what role the GSC should play in promoting recruitment and retention of a diverse graduate student body. Much of the work on these subjects lies ahead and more such projects to improve grad student life certainly exist. The Council’s track record is well established and its future will be bright.