Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Task Force 2021 and Beyond submits final “blueprints for building a better MIT”

A task force charged with reimagining the future of MIT has released its final report, 18 months after it began work in the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic. The report, from Task Force 2021 and Beyond, offers 17 recommendations to strengthen and streamline MIT, and make the Institute more successful across its teaching, research, and innovation endeavors.

President L. Rafael Reif, who charged the task force in May 2020, shared its final report today with a letter to the MIT community.

“The report captures a remarkable range of practical ideas, presented along with detailed plans for implementation,” Reif wrote. “After so many months of uncertainty and exceptional effort, perseverance and a roller coaster of hope, I am tremendously grateful to everyone who contributed to the task force ­report — and I am excited about drawing on this work to build a better MIT.”

Led by co-chairs Rick Danheiser and Sanjay Sarma, over 200 MIT faculty, staff, and students have participated in the task force’s 18 months of work. In establishing the group, President Reif called upon its members 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.”

He also articulated the power of harnessing wisdom from across the Institute: “In short — by drawing on expertise and experience from across the community — Task Force 2021 is charged with developing the blueprints for building a better MIT.”

Impacts across the MIT community

The ideas contained in the task force’s wide-ranging final report touch upon the MIT experience of all members of the community. The report makes a variety of proposals, including:

For undergraduates, an education tuned to the times: The report calls for a systematic reconsideration of aspects of what MIT teaches, and how; added focus on social equity and civic responsibility in MIT’s curriculum and experiential learning; extended educational experiences off-campus; and professional academic advisors, in addition to faculty.
For graduate students, improvements in advising and mentoring, and opportunities for professional development and better preparation for their careers.
For all staff, including postdocs, research scientists, and instructional staff, improved career prospects and job satisfaction through strengthened career development programs and pathways, with emphasis on upward mobility.
For faculty, removal of significant sources of frustration and pressure by dealing with the problems of research funding “underrecovery” and the high cost of supporting their graduate students.
The task force’s report offers recommendations to extend the benefits of higher education to learners of all ages around the world by exploring the creation of new credentials; it also considers the Institute’s changing needs for space, including campus meeting spaces, flex spaces, shared research space, and future expansion of lab space.

“Many of the recommendations are aimed at adapting the Institute to thrive in the landscape of the ‘new normal’ developing in the wake of the Covid-19 global pandemic,” the report notes. “However, other recommendations address longstanding issues, in some cases issues that have been recognized for many years. [Each component of the task force] was simply charged with making recommendations for ‘building a better MIT,’ so it is natural that they focused on issues beyond those that emerged only due to Covid.”

The path of Task Force 2021

President Reif established the task force in May 2020, with a charge to “explore how MIT might invent a thriving new future.” At the time — shortly after most faculty, staff, and students had left campus due to the pandemic — the task force’s work was intended primarily to help position MIT for a “new normal,” in a world radically changed by Covid-19.

However, the news several weeks ago of the unexpectedly strong recent performance of MIT’s endowment — which saw a 55.5 percent return in the year that ended on June 30 — presents opportunities to advance a range of clear community priorities, including those outlined by Task Force 2021.

In addition to a providing a substantive list of recommendations, the task force’s report suggests routes to implementation, and assigns one or more senior leaders or faculty governance committees with oversight, for every idea presented. Those who have been assigned these responsibilities are named in the report’s appendix.

“The recommendations operate on a variety of timelines: Some are already well on their way to implementation; others may take years to realize,” the report notes. “The different proposals of the task force require varying resources: Some are relatively inexpensive while others will require a more substantial financial investment.”

Highlights in five critical areas

The report’s top-level recommendations span five key areas. They aim to:

1. Rethink how and where we work, leveraging what we have learned about remote working and revamping our employee development and spaces. Specific recommendations include:

Developing detailed guidance, tools, and policies to support new ways of working at the Institute, helping teams plan and implement flexible work arrangements;
Strengthening career development programs for staff, creating a more comprehensive and integrated approach for enhancing skills, upward mobility, learning resources, and opportunities; and
Considering our changing needs for space, including campus meeting spaces, flex spaces, shared research space, and future expansion of lab space.
2. Broaden the scope and intensity of MIT’s holistic learning and support, developing in each member of the MIT community the ability and passion to work wisely, creatively, and effectively. Specific recommendations include:

Implementing a stronger undergraduate advising structure, where students are supported by professional advisors;
Developing a set of professional and personal development requirements that all graduate students must fulfill beyond their technical training and discipline degree requirements;
Developing a strategic plan to improve graduate advising and mentoring; and
Expanding opportunities for postdocs, research scientists, and instructional staff, including more structured review and feedback and more granular career progression for research scientists, and a review of career advancement for instructional staff.
3. Review our academic programs in light of changes in the backgrounds and interests of our students, the evolution of new educational technology, and the increasing importance of lifelong learning. Specific recommendations include:

Launching a review of the undergraduate academic program to consider improvements in the General Institute Requirements, with a focus on both curriculum and pedagogy;
Considering changes to undergraduate and graduate living and learning by leveraging technology, promoting interactive classrooms, and extending off-campus educational experiences for MIT undergraduates; investing in community-building events and spaces; and creating education sabbaticals to support new initiatives;
Exploring new credentials to address challenges such as access and affordability for learners of all ages, and examining potential MIT offerings in online and on-site continuing education; and
Promoting collaborations internally and with industrial sponsors, and enhancing training for researchers engaging in international activities.
4. Articulate and fulfill our public responsibilities and imbue our values and ideals more fully in our community and culture and in the education of our students. Specific recommendations include:

Supporting MIT’s five-year Strategic Action Plan for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion;
Strengthening our network of underrepresented and minority researchers by reviewing broadly our admissions and hiring decisions, building community and mentorship, and enhancing supporting infrastructure; and
Imbuing social equity and civic responsibility into our curriculum and experiential learning, creating an ad hoc committee to stimulate and evaluate experiments, developing a fundraising plan to meet rising student demand for learning and internships in these areas, and developing a Community and Nonprofit Liaison Program.
5. Modernize our data, systems, processes, and financial models, and address research “deferred maintenance,” in order to serve future economic realities, our evolving needs, and new opportunities in the 21st century. Specific recommendations include:

Addressing issues with regard to graduate student funding, to make MIT competitive with our peers in terms of research costs and to ensure that graduate students receive adequate support;
Developing a robust and transparent approach for future funding of underrecovery, via an Underrecovery Solutions Commission, a no-hassle pilot, and a five-year plan to regularize underrecovery funding; and
Creating a cross-campus “One Agile Team” unit to shepherd strategic improvements to existing business practices and systems, as well as to provide support to new strategic initiatives.

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