Suzy Nelson started as MIT’s vice president and dean for student life on July 1, 2016. She came to the Institute after a national search and brings broad experience from managing student affairs and residential life at Colgate University, Harvard University, and Cornell University to the role. During her first semester at the Institute, Nelson worked with students, faculty, and staff to invigorate the Division of Student Life’s mission and goals, and is leading major projects related to residence hall development and renovation, student support, and diversity and inclusion.
Q1. What were your first impressions of MIT students?
A: I liked MIT students’ straightforward approach right away. Visiting the residential communities during Residential Exploration and seeing how each is made up of smaller communities was a quick education in just how different MIT’s approach to housing is from other colleges. Soon after meeting them, several students gave me their honest opinions of how DSL could do better, and they made excellent points. Students here say it like it is, and I’ve come to appreciate that. Students see the world through a critical lens, and want to make it better. That’s the core of MIT’s mission too, and it’s great to see them apply the same lens to their own experience and environment.
Also, I’m consistently impressed by how engaged and involved MIT students are. Students here may not know this, but their level of involvement in Institute governance at MIT is pretty extraordinary. And more importantly, their voice is making a difference in the student experience.
Now that I’ve been at MIT a whole semester, I’ve found more to like, and more opportunities to improve students’ experience.
Q2. What are your goals for the Division of Student Life?
A: To start, I want to ensure that students know that we are here for them. After all, the word “student” is right in our name, so our work needs to make the student experience better.
We just published an updated mission statement and new goals, which are ambitious. They’re on our website so I won’t go into detail about each one, but I see them as falling into four general categories: renewing our residence halls and other student spaces, making MIT a welcoming campus for everyone, promoting student wellbeing, and fostering leadership and social responsibility.
We’ve already done a lot of work related to capital renewal. Students, faculty, and staff came together to create a document that lays out architectural principles for future MIT undergraduate housing. Their work is now informing two major residence hall projects, namely the renovation of New House and development of a new undergraduate residence hall. In fact we recently announced the preferred location for the new dorm on Vassar Street, which is really exciting. These projects were led by teams of students and staff, and the students in particular offered really valuable insight into their expectations for an ideal MIT living experience.
And we got some good news in January when Campus Planning and Campus Construction updated the timeline for completing renovations to New House in time for the 2018 fall semester. Hopefully that news helps set New House residents’ minds at ease, and takes some of the pressure off communities that generously made space available to displaced students. We’re looking at ways to thank communities who help with the New House relocation plan, like renovations to underutilized spaces or adding some new furniture. We will update individual communities as plans come together.
Additionally we heard from a number of students who said that the wireless networks in their residence halls are not meeting their academic needs. This is really concerning, so DSL is working on a plan with Facilities and IS&T to make network improvements in residence halls. We’ve been making piecemeal enhancements dorm-by-dorm when conditions get really challenging, but we all realize that’s not a sustainable approach. We’re in the early stages of planning, but I want students who live on campus to know this is a priority.
In terms of making the campus more welcoming to all students, we are planning to move some critical support services to more prominent, accessible sites closer to the heart of campus. Details are still being worked out, so there’s more information to come on that.
Among the most important of our priorities is helping staff to confront hidden biases that may unintentionally affect how they deal with students. Issues of social justice and equity are important to me personally, and they are part of the reason I wanted to work in higher education. So as a first step, DSL formed a committee to look at diversity and inclusion in our division, and between staff and students. This group is drafting a DSL diversity and inclusion statement, and getting input from a range of people. We expect we will have a final draft by the end of this term. As important as the result of this work is, the process itself helps us examine our values and expectations about engaging others in a respectful and caring way. In the community, DSL and the Institute Community and Equity Office hosted an event with Dr. Mahzarin Banaji from Harvard, who studies hidden bias and co-authored the book, Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. More than 300 people registered, and the main room in Walker Memorial was filled, so that was encouraging.
There were some great new student diversity and inclusion programs introduced this fall. For example, we implemented a diversity program for students during MIT orientation, which I hope will be an annual event. But, real change comes from sustained education, so we are exploring a series of learning opportunities that will help DSL staff develop the knowledge, skills, and awareness for cultivating a respectful and welcoming campus community for all.
Over the summer we made some changes that promote holistic student wellbeing. On my first day, Chancellor Barnhart announced a realignment of student support organizations into DSL. By combining Student Support Services, Student Disabilities Services, Violence Prevention and Response, and Community Development and Substance Abuse into one group, the goal was to provide seamless services within DSL and coordinate with partners across MIT. A more recent development in this area is creation of the Coordination Assistance and Response—or CARE—Team. When a student is injured or becomes seriously ill, for example, the CARE Team works closely with the student’s academic programs, house team or living community, medical practitioners, and loved ones to make a difficult situation a little easier.
Top on our list is a review of our dining program that we kicked off a few weeks ago. We’re working with an independent dining consultant to gather information from students, faculty, and staff. Our guidance to them has been to look at everything: house dining, cook-for-yourself communities, grad students, retail dining, TechCash usage, where and how students eat off campus, FSILGs, and catering. Ultimately, the consultant will recommend a plan shaped by the community’s guidance, and that plan will be turned into an RFP (request for proposal) for a provider to deliver on our vision for dining.
Graduate students and their families are important to campus life, so I asked my DSL colleague Naomi Carton to take on some new responsibilities for supporting on-campus grad student communities. Naomi is very familiar with what’s happening among grad students and their families—she lives in Eastgate with her daughters—and can help the division stay better connected to them and address their unique needs.
And a few initiatives are underway that offer opportunities to learn about leadership and social responsibility. Students are helping us review a number of issues that have been raised, from the Good Samaritan Amnesty Policy, to Saferide shuttle service, to the student life fee. The Committee on Student Life, the Undergraduate Association, and the Graduate Student Council have all been instrumental in this work. My hope is that the Saferide and fee reviews result in tangible recommendations that, when implemented, enhance student life.
I also want to recognize the work that the FSILG community is doing to combat sexual violence. The workshops and certification process developed by FSILG leaders in cooperation with Violence Prevention and Response is a model that has value beyond its current, vital application.
Lastly, our approach to our work matters. I’ve asked leaders in DSL to think through how we can make student interactions as positive and productive as possible. I want to instill a student-centered mindset throughout DSL.
Q3. What motivated you to take this position at MIT?
A: A few reasons, some personal and some professional. MIT is a remarkable school, and I was drawn to this job because of the people – especially the students. I’m excited to serve as dean, and hope that during my tenure, students will come to know that we are here for them and that we care about their wellbeing. On the personal side, I have four adult children, and one lives around Boston. So this presented a perfect opportunity for me to be closer to my daughter. Also I worked at Harvard not too long ago, and I love the area.
Another reason is that I wanted to work with Chancellor Barnhart. Her compassion and care for others make her a special leader, and she is the kind of person that I want to work with. We accomplished a lot in the fall, and we very much agree that we should always be looking for ways to improve the MIT student experience.
Most importantly, I’ve had the good fortune to work at some wonderful institutions: Syracuse, Cornell, Harvard, and Colgate. This role presents a number of opportunities and challenges that allow me to grow professionally, and to help MIT strengthen those aspects of student life that matter, like capital renewal, living-learning communities, student wellbeing, and social responsibility.
In all, the best part of this job is working directly with students. It is the reason I enjoy my work most. Their energy, sense of humor, creativity, and intellect give me hope for the future. I can’t imagine a better place to be than in the Division of Student Life at MIT.