Back to top

January/February 2021

Task Force 2021 and Beyond – Toward “Building a Better MIT”

Rick L. Danheiser

In May last year, in a letter to the MIT community President Rafael Reif announced the creation of “Task Force 2021 and Beyond”, a major initiative aimed at re-envisioning MIT for the post-Covid world. In the opening charge, Rafael called on the new Task Force to

“distill and apply the knowledge we have gained together to help us imagine an MIT that is better, safer, more flexible, more effective, more efficient, more sustainable, more inclusive, more equitable, more affordable, and more financially resilient in the long term, while sustaining the Institute’s distinctive values and culture and its dynamic approach to education, research, and innovation. In short, by drawing on expertise and experience from across the community, Task Force 2021 and Beyond is charged with developing the blueprints for building a better MIT.

To lead this collaborative, cross-Institute effort, Rafael recruited me and Professor Sanjay Sarma, the Vice President for Open Learning. Providing us with invaluable support in these efforts has been Glen Comiso, Senior Director for Institute Affairs, and Lisa Schwallie, the Executive Director for Business and Operations in Open Learning. The four of us have comprised an “Executive Committee” steering the work of the Task Force over the past nine months.

Our first task last May was to define an organizational structure for the Task Force and to recruit its members. As depicted in the accompanying chart, we ultimately settled on an organization comprising four “Workstreams,” each then divided into two to five “Working Groups.” To fill the ranks of the Task Force, we recruited 108 MIT administration and staff members, 53 members of the faculty, and 17 students. The full membership of the Task Force can be found on the Task Force website. Listed in each box are the names of the co-chairs of the Workstreams and the co-leads for each of the Working Groups.

To co-chair the Academic Workstream, Sanjay and I recruited the Dean of SHASS Melissa Nobles and Dean of Engineering Anantha Chandrakasan. Our charge to this workstream was to develop recommendations for MIT’s academic programs in the “new normal” of the world post-Covid, with attention devoted primarily to the educational and research activities of faculty and students. Associate Provost Krystyn Van Vliet and Vice President Joe Higgins agreed to chair the Administrative Workstream, which was asked to focus its work on administrative functions of the Institute, including information technology infrastructure, non-academic space, and administrative systems, processes and policies, including finance, procurement, facilities, security, planning, and human resources. Supporting the work of the groups in these two main workstreams was the Finance and Data Workstream (chaired by Professor Glenn Ellison and MIT Controller Danielle Khoury) as well as a Legal and Ethics resource team chaired by General Counsel Mark DiVincenzo. Finally, we also convened a Community and Culture Workstream chaired by ICEO John Dozier and Associate Provost Tim Jamison to ensure that values of culture, diversity, equity, and inclusion were incorporated in the deliberations of all of the working groups of the Task Force.

A series of “kickoff meetings” launched the Task Force in mid-June. Input from the MIT community was collected via an online Idea Bank and a virtual Community Forum held on July 23. Multiple meetings with an Alumni Advisory Group and a Student Advisory Group provided further input during the summer and fall, and eight plenary sessions featuring guest speakers were held during the fall for the benefit of Task Force members.

As shown in the accompanying timeline, Phase 1 of the Task Force called on the working groups to generate their ideas and proposals before the end of the calendar year. These ideas were then reviewed in an interim phase prior to “Phase 2,” at which time a new set of groups would be appointed to refine and plan the implementation of the “raw” ideas from Phase 1. In the event, over 50 ideas were developed by the working groups in Phase 1, and these were announced and posted for community comment in mid-December.

Sanjay and I have spent the past two months reviewing these 50+ ideas with the assistance of numerous groups and stakeholders including Academic Council, the Faculty Policy Committee, and the leadership of the workstreams and working groups of Phase 1 of the Task Force. For Phase 2 of the Task Force, we have assigned the ideas developed in the fall to 16 Refinement and Implementation Committees (“RICs”). The task of these 16 committees in Phase 2 will be to further refine the “raw” ideas from Phase 1, in some cases reconciling and merging related ideas that were proposed by more than one separate working group. Importantly, the RICs are also charged with proposing implementation action plans for the resulting “refined” ideas that emerge from Phase 2. In some instances, implementation will involve assignment to a unit of the MIT administration, while for other ideas assignment may be to a Standing Committee of Faculty Governance such as the Committee on the Undergraduate Program (CUP) or the Committee on the Graduate Program (CGP). In the case of some complex ideas with far-reaching impact, a RIC may call for the appointment of an ad hoc committee reporting to Faculty Governance and/or the MIT administration. In such cases it is expected that the RIC will propose the charge and membership of the ad hoc committee in order to expedite it beginning its work and will also suggest a timetable and checkpoints for completion of the work.

The Refinement and Implementation Committees

In the remainder of this column I have summarized the ideas assigned to each of the 16 RICs, the membership of which are in the final stages of determination at the time of this writing. Due to space constraints I can only provide an outline of the ideas involved in each area, and the reader is referred to the 93 pages of descriptions of the ideas on the Task Force website for further details on any of the ideas that they have particular interest in.

It should be noted that some of the ideas emerged from Phase 1 in well-developed form, and in these cases only one or two meetings of the relevant RIC may be necessary. Other RICs are expected to meet throughout the spring semester and in these cases meetings with students and colleagues via forums will likely be appropriate.

Undergraduate Program

This committee stands out as not being associated with any specific ideas from Phase 1. The Undergraduate Program RIC, which I will chair together with Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz, will resume the discussion begun by the two of us prior to the pandemic on the possibility of standing up a task force to review the undergraduate academic program, including in particular the General Institute Requirements.

Social Responsibility

A major thrust of the recommendations from no less than three of the Academic Workstream groups focus on providing our students with experience and education in the area of social responsibility, broadly defined. The charge of this RIC will be to consider these related, and in some cases overlapping, ideas, and to propose one or more directions for implementation. It is possible that this RIC may propose that an ad hoc committee be convened to follow its work with the charge of proposing specific new options or even new academic requirements in this area.

Two of the five ideas described by the Education Group are aimed at achieving the overarching goal of “educating the whole student.” The Education Group proposes “that every MIT undergraduate student, as well as students in many, or potentially all, graduate programs should learn to recognize and engage critically with the Structural, Systemic and Institutional Hierarchies (SSIH) that shape our professional, civic and personal lives; and, further, that every Department and Section should contribute to this education in appropriately discipline-specific ways.” The Education Group notes that SSIH encompasses both DEI and ethics, and they discuss several modes for implementation of their proposal. In a second idea, the Education Group proposes “a concerted and substantial expansion of public interest-focused experiential learning opportunities for MIT students that immerse them in contexts that feel far from MIT.”

Similar themes are involved in the proposal of the Student Journey Group to “embed ethics education within the curriculum and popular co-curricular programs in a fully integrated and holistic manner.” They suggest that this be achieved by cultivating and funding “a critical mass of immersive nonprofit, public sector, and for-profit social responsibility internship opportunities.”

Finally, the Beyond MIT Group argues that “we need to give our students more opportunities to do substantive, sustained, and meaningful work in communities that are different from their own so that they can understand different points of view and different ways of defining problems.” To support this aim, they propose the creation of a “Community and Nonprofit Liaison Program” (CLP), analogous to the Industrial Liaison Program (ILP), overseen by a Social Equity Committee. Readers are referred to the description of this proposal on the Task Force website for details on how the CLP might support the aims of all three of the Academic Workstream groups in the area of social responsibility.

Graduate Student Professional Development

Several groups in the Academic Workstream have proposed ideas aimed at implementing “holistic graduate education,” a goal that also has been under discussion in CGP during the past year. On the agenda for consideration by this RIC are the introduction of professional development opportunities for graduate students, including perhaps even a “professional perspective requirement,” which might be satisfied by internships (both corporate and social-good), by research exchanges and research collaborations with companies, and via the exploration of non-research careers through teaching experiences and other activities.

Graduate Student Advising and Mentoring

The Student Journey Group recommended that MIT enhance the scope and effectiveness of graduate advising and faculty mentoring. Coincidentally, Ian Waitz, Tim Jamison, and I had been discussing this important need since September, and joined by Martha Gray, Chair of CGP, we constitute the RIC in this area. The result of our discussions was the decision to convene an “Ad Hoc Committee on a Strategic Plan for Graduate Advising and Mentoring” and Paula Hammond has agreed to chair this group. At this writing we are finalizing the charge and membership of this new ad hoc committee which will be charged with implementing this idea based on the work of both the Task Force and the Committee on the Graduate Program.

Undergraduate Experience: Advising, Mentoring, and Development

The Student Journey Group declared in their report that “Advising is broken and is in need of a radical re-imagining.“ The charge to this RIC will be to propose an implementation plan to address the recommendations of the Student Journey Group for enhancing undergraduate advising, including strengthening the UROP program, teaching the MIT “hidden curriculum”, and expanding advising networks.

Under-recovery Commission

Both the Research and Financial Modeling Groups highlighted under-recovery as an area requiring urgent attention. The Research Group pointed out that “Under-recovery is a persistent concern for both researchers and administrators at MIT, especially as it relates to funding from foundations that do not pay the federally negotiated F&A rate.” This RIC will be charged with studying current under-recovery funding levels and processes, and making concrete proposals to the Provost to enhance the transparency and efficiency of identifying sources of under-recovery funds.

Career Support for Postdocs, Research Scientists, and Instructional Staff

Career support for postdocs and research scientists emerged as a major concern in the deliberations of the Research Group. This working group noted that while “research scientists are critical to managing research activities at MIT”, “their career advancement opportunities are often limited.“ The Research Group offered several recommendations for career support of postdocs and research scientists, including providing multiple paths for advancement and providing training options to facilitate career transitions. Also suggested were systems to foster DEI and prevent mistreatment. The Career Support RIC will be charged with developing concrete proposals to realize the recommendations of the Research Group in this area.

Campus Working Spaces

This RIC will further develop the recommendations of the Campus Operations Group on spatial needs and decentralization, considering how new technology and changing work practices have affected our requirements for space. The work of this RIC will be coupled to the discussions of the New Ways of Working committee described below.

New Ways of Working

Recognizing that “flexible work at and for MIT is a key part of MIT’s future, and is not default work from home,” the Administrative Workstream proposed several “New Ways of Working”. Specifically, the workstream recommends that “MIT should immediately advance planning and piloting of flexible work practices and places. This should include options for hybrid working schedules (remote and on-campus) for diverse MIT teams, and include implementation pilots to evaluate physical spaces and best practices for more flexible work of research, education, and administration teams. Internal and external experts should be consulted to plan such pilots”. Readers are directed to the detailed writeup of these recommendations by the Administrative Workstream in the report of the Task Force Phase 1 ideas for further information on the proposals that this RIC will be considering during Phase 2.

Employee Development, Strategy, and Career Pathways

In their report, the Administrative Workstream noted that “For the past several years, exit interviews and survey data of MIT employees . . . consistently show that the leading reasons employees leave MIT are that they don’t feel MIT is committed to their professional development, and that there are not enough opportunities for career advancement.“ The Administrative Workstream recommends that MIT “establish integrated opportunities and expectations to develop skills for mentorship, management of teams, and career advancement through tools, training and support of career pathways and networks at MIT – as a natural part of working at, contributing to, and being part of One MIT.” The Employee Development RIC will develop concrete action plans to realize these recommendations of the Administrative Workstream.

Lifelong Learning / Post-graduate Education

“Lifelong learning” and other aspects of postgraduate education are central to the ideas posed by several groups of the Academic and Administrative Workstreams. The Education Group argued in their report that “Digital technology radically alters the economics of education delivery and it is high time that we revisit both the frequency and dosage of our offerings.“ The Education Group then discussed several approaches to lifelong learning before concluding that “Our core recommendation is that MIT charge a new committee with tackling this question in depth and proposing a set of experiments in lifelong learning.”

In their report, the Beyond MIT Group noted that at the Institute “we currently lack a coherent vision and plan for an MIT ‘Postgraduate Education of the Future’ that makes MIT a pioneer in preparing people to work at ‘good jobs’ of the future.” The Beyond Group then went on to propose “an MIT Postgraduate Education of the Future Initiative.” This initiative “would establish a new college or university-wide unit at MIT dedicated to online postgraduate education with a range of postgraduate subjects and coherent, intentional programs.” They recommend the creation of a “purpose-built committee” to implement a five-year plan to examine this initiative and offer a thoughtful discussion of the pros and cons of this proposal. Their recommendation and that of the Education Group will be the subject of the Lifelong Learning RIC, whose charge will be to evaluate these ideas and propose a plan forward.

Collaborations

The report of the Research Group of the Academic Workstream pointed out that multidisciplinary research is an historical strength at MIT and noted that interdisciplinary research is a key to the solution of some of the most difficult and pressing problems that face society today. This RIC will consider the several recommendations of this working group for fostering collaborations within the Institute, for promoting new engagement models with industry and with the government, and to encourage appropriate international collaborations.

Strengthen Pipeline of Underrepresented and Minority Researchers

The Research Working Group wrote that the “lack of DEI . . . pervades MIT’s research enterprise and adversely affects the experience of researchers who are members of minority groups that include women, non-cisgender men, and especially people of color. Many factors contribute to this, including the prevalence of conscious and unconscious bias, structural barriers to success, structures of power created by tenure, hierarchy and control of resources, funding, and career advancement. Every aspect of MIT, including the research enterprise, must implement significant and urgent reforms to address this . . . . This shortfall in implementation and accountability must be addressed.“ In their report the Research Group went on to urge that “MIT develop mechanisms for responding to recommendations in a proactive and timely fashion, and implement benchmarking strategies that allow for transparent assessment of progress. Furthermore, implementing a system of incentives and accountability will be crucial to ensuring progress.”

In conjunction with other ongoing efforts at the Institute, this RIC will be charged with developing concrete plans to build a stronger pipeline of young researchers from underrepresented groups, considering both hiring and providing a more supportive, attractive environment once at MIT for members of such groups.

One Agile MIT

“One Agile MIT” is a concept developed by the Administrative Workstream that involves the creation of a new, permanently staffed project management team for prioritized projects to modernize MIT’s administrative processes and systems, along with the development and adoption of new practices for the sharing of digitized data across Departments, Labs, and Centers. The Administrative Workstream suggests that this will benefit the work efficiencies of faculty and administrative staff across the Institute, “enabling increased strategic focus and time for mission-critical activities of research, teaching, and mentorship of students and research staff.”

Graduate Student Funding

Both the Research and Financial Modeling Groups highlighted the high cost of graduate students at MIT as an important priority for attention and this RIC will work with Provost Marty Schmidt in developing a plan to address this longstanding issue of “research deferred maintenance.”

Undergraduate and Graduate Student Living and Learning

This RIC will address several ideas posed by the Education and Academic Learning and Residential Spaces Groups, including how best to leverage digital technologies in pedagogy as well as proposals of the Spaces Group on community and outdoor spaces and on the design and planning of classrooms and other academic spaces.

Next Steps

As indicated in the timeline shown earlier, we hope that each of the Refinement and Implementation Committees will complete their work before the end of the semester, setting the stage for implementation to begin during the summer or by the beginning of the fall. Needless to say, Sanjay and I are sincerely grateful to the faculty, staff, and student members of the Task Force for their dedication and enormous efforts over the past eight months aimed at “building a better MIT.”

The ideas of the RICs (Refinement and Implementation Committees) were organized into five themes, shown in the “dome” graphic. At the base, we need to upgrade our systems. The pillars correspond to the overhauling we need to take on in response to the lessons of 2020. The dome describes a key outcome that has become even more important for the years ahead. – Sanjay Sarma

MIT Faculty Newsletter Vol. XXXIII No. 3 January/February 2021