Fighting Unfair Rules

Aligning MIT’s actions with its mission
NOV 2018
Chemical Engineering

When I got an offer to be a Graduate Resident Tutor (GRT),  a graduate student mentor who lives in an undergraduate dorm, I leapt across the hallway to exclaim to my friends that I didn’t just get a GRT position:  I got assigned to Random Hall - the quirkiest, nerdiest dorm filled with murals in every hallway and with students who care deeply for each other.

This euphoria was dampened the next week when the previous GRT explained how, unlike many other GRTs, I needed to put forth more effort to interact with students because I would not receive a meal plan (which is valued at a few thousand USD per year). Instead of strolling downstairs to eat and chat with students, I would need to cook food for them, and then if they just brought it back into their rooms, I wouldn’t get to interact with them. And if students ate all the food I cooked, I would not be able to stop by a dining hall to make sure I am also fed. In my head, I constantly asked why I couldn’t just have a larger budget so I could order all the food I needed.

Anger and frustration mixed in with my excitement to mentor these undergrads. The knowledge that MIT’s policies and procedures were inherently unfair to my dorm and others like it make me want to do something.  When I asked the previous GRT what I could do about this rule, he argued that it might be futile, but I could talk with the new Dean for Student Life.

When faced with inequality or annoying administrative tasks, we often brush reason aside, accept our fate as agents working in a broken system, and optimize our life around these pointless policies. And we do this for good reason. If we refused to cooperate with arguably pointless tasks (like taking the GRE), we would not be where we are today.

Contrary to popular belief, policies are malleable. Graduate students across the institute are succeeding at shaping the rules that govern our life. Last year graduate students successfully worked to obtain a commitment for more graduate housing, all gendered bathroom on MIT’s main corridor,  gender neutral parental leave, and a 3% stipend increase. And last month, after two years of discussions, MIT finally fixed the rule that frustrated me when I first became a GRT. How the policy was shifted might give you ideas about how to eliminate, rather than just maneuver around, your next bureaucratic barricade.

On the first day of GRT training, I approached the GRT supervisor asking why I was receiving less for the same work. She informed me that I wasn't receiving less: the meal plan was not compensation, since it was necessary to interact with students in dining dorms. This rebuttal didn’t sit well with me. I still had to buy my groceries and cook my food. It still wasn’t equal.

After months of hitting a brick wall with my seemingly valid argument, I discovered new information that infuriated me more. According to statistics released by the Chancellor, freshmen who lived in dorms without meal plans (which also lacked the more organic GRT interaction over meals) often had lower graduation rates. Of course, this wasn't a well controlled experiment, as many racial and sexual minorities tended to live in dorms without meal plans. Regardless, this meant that MIT was giving more resources to the students who already had an advantage, counter to its own mission of encouraging diversity. This knowledge transformed my frustration at the policy into outrage.

Channeling this outrage, I decided to ask MIT to pay for me to take my students to dining halls, using knowledge about meal plan finances to justify it economically. I visited the Dean for Student Life during her office hours and described this issue and the proposed solution to her. She listened, understood, got on board with this idea, and set up a committee with me and two administrators to create a pilot program.

During the trial period of bringing students to dining halls, I was able to connect with struggling students and help them work through their problems. And I wasn’t the only one who had positive results; the whole pilot program received great feedback, and we started a larger pilot program the next year. During this year-long process, I attended monthly meetings with administrators and helped them design surveys and analyze their results. The process of helping manage the pilot program was less time consuming and allowed for much more student interaction than I originally thought. However, the persistence needed to sustain momentum was a bit draining, and I don’t think the program would have gone through without significant help from MIT administrators.

Just last month (and after almost 2 years of discussion), MIT declared that all GRT's would be receiving meal plans and those without dining halls would have the ability to take students to eat with them. Through this process, my original complaint of unequal employment found deeper meaning in promoting students’ development, and the final outcome not only fixed this issue of inequality but also helped me to be more effective at helping students.

Based on this experience, the conditions necessary to shape MIT’s protocols involve personal initiative, a convincing argument that a change in policy will better align MIT with its mission, the means to discuss this with the people in power, and a perseverance to see it through fruition.

Graduate students across the institute are utilizing their valuable time to improve how MIT operates. They often start by joining institute committees, discussing strategies with confidential Ombuds, or just meeting with decision makers to share concerns. If a myopic rule boils your blood, channel that energy to etch your change-story into the policies at MIT.