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An Interview with Chancellor Phillip L. Clay

The Following interview between the Faculty Newsletter (FNL) and Phil Clay (PC) took place on August 10th.


FNL: Why do you think MIT needs a chancellor?

PC: I think the strongest argument for a chancellor, beyond the large number of tasks needing attention, is the culture of one faculty and one mission. We do not have schools as freestanding separate entities unconcerned with what is happening in the rest of the Institute. We have a culture of one faculty. We take responsibility for the education of all students and ensure that our resource allocation reflects this commitment. We also have a culture that seeks to integrate the line between research and education. Increasingly, we integrate disciplinary lines to pursue important research challenges. Our education must complement this research. The chancellor assists the president in guaranteeing that the advancement of our educational mission and the opportunities for partnerships support our complete mission. The chancellor also leads initiatives to advance community and to enhance the commons.

FNL: And how do you see your role as different from your predecessor, Larry Bacow?

PC: There are some aspects of the position that are exactly the same as Larry’s responsibilities. These involve overseeing graduate and undergraduate education including the implementation of the recommendations of the Task Force on Student Life and Learning and various other reports that deal with aspects of campus life, and the development of community – dining, athletics, etc. These are exactly the same as Larry’s responsibilities. Many of the projects to support these initiatives are in construction. If there is a difference, my role will be to support the programming that will make these capital projects and other initiatives achieve the goals for which they were developed. There are additional areas where we have to look at long-range planning. One of these is student mental health. We are taking a closer look at how we support student development including students who are at risk and who need considerable support while at MIT. The issues that most students need help with are important but not critical. They could be the normal issues expected from late adolescents going through a major transition. The issues include their way of dealing with stress, time management, relationships with other students, etc. Another part of the job is overseeing the crosscutting aspects of education and research. We have set a number of partnerships and initiatives involving dozens of faculty (e.g., Singapore, AGS, CMI, and others) that greatly expand our traditional teaching and research enterprise. They are not limited to just departments or schools but increasingly encompass a large part of our external profile.

FNL: Larry took a lead role in the area of campus construction, and he was quite visible. Do you see your role similarly?

PC: I think that is an area that will be different. All those differences have not been worked out, but I think it is fair to say that when Larry and Bob [Brown, Provost] and John [Curry, Executive Vice President] came into their positions a few years ago, we had a lot of things to sort out and get started. There was enough work in that for all three of them to play very substantial roles. Also, Larry’s background in real estate provided him an opportunity for special leadership in this area. I will focus more on programs than physical construction. Many of the projects that were critical then are now in the construction stage and under construction management. John will take the lead to complete these. My responsibility, and the responsibility of the student deans, is to work on the programming to ensure that when the freshmen arrive on campus next fall there is not only well-designed new housing, but there are residential programs and a residential orientation in place – an approach to the programming that is world-class and matches our world-class academic offering. We have a similar commitment to provide support for graduate student life.

FNL: The chancellorship, at this Institute at least, seems to frequently be a stepping stone to the presidency of, by and large, some other institute. Any thoughts?

PC: Well, I think the record shows that there are many positions at MIT that have been stepping-stones to other things. We have had a number of deans, as well as some department heads, who became presidents. My own expectation is that this job is temporary and that I will return to teaching some time in the future. What I am giving up now is considerable: most of my engagement as a faculty member with students, though not all of it, and my direct involvement in research projects.

FNL: Do you have time to do research?

PC: I am playing the role of advisor or limited partner on some projects. I will not give that up, because there is that phrase, "He’s gone to administration," which is a way of saying that as an academic, "He’s dead." I am adamantly against that happening. So there will be some students every year who will be able to say, "He was my adviser. I took his seminar." That will continue to happen.

FNL: I believe our industrial partnerships and relationships with foreign educational institutes, such as the MIT/Singapore Program, fall under your bailiwick.

PC: That is right. And keep in mind when the outside partners enter these agreements they are engaging with MIT, but they do not necessarily understand or respect the disciplinary boundaries. They are bringing a problem to us and believe we can help. We have to organize ourselves temporarily into projects, initiatives, partnerships, etc., to be responsive to that opportunity, even as we keep our educational enterprises in place. Our flexibility in this way is an asset. And that is bigger than a department. It is bigger than a school.

FNL: Specifically, how do you see your role in this area?

PC: It is important to ensure that these initiatives do not degrade or distort our core mission, rather that they enhance the Institute. We always should emerge from each of these major engagements better at some of the core functions of MIT. We now have several years’ experience with these initiatives and need to begin to reflect on them and assess their impact on us.

FNL: And what about the MIT-industry consortiums? There’s certainly concern on campus that we may be sacrificing fundamental research for industry partnerships that require more immediate output.

PC: I think the output varies, which is appropriate. Some projects do support or recognize more basic research. Others are more applied. The variety is good, and the faculty do have choices. The variety is good for educational purposes as well.

FNL: Are there any new initiatives with other countries or universities specifically on tap?

PC: I am sure there are individual departmental initiatives. Let me outline some of the reasons for these efforts. First, faculty have an opportunity for exposure to colleagues, to engage in joint research, and to develop courses and educational activities with colleagues in other parts of the world. That is good for faculty, and it creates goodwill for MIT. It stimulates interest on the part of students from around the world for our graduate programs. The activities benefit our students. New courses are developed. The collaborations enhance our infrastructure. Our students get some interaction with students from other settings. These initiatives also bring enhancements to MIT, such as endowed chairs. We also gain the satisfaction that we have participated with a country or with a university in building educational infrastructure which will advance those economies and those countries, and expand educational opportunity to young people. Our partners obviously benefit too. The partners get an engagement with MIT that helps them move more rapidly toward achieving their goals. Our educational partners use some of our features - organization, teaching, research mode, entrepreneurship - as models. In some cases we do not discourage this, while in others we emphasize that partners must develop their own models, and we can help them. What we do though may not necessarily be exactly the way they ought to do it. As long as we can identify good partners and interested faculty, whether it is industry or other countries or universities, where we can ensure that there is some combination where those benefits accrue, then I think these initiatives will be a good idea. I see them getting better and stronger. This will bring value for us. I understand that not all faculty members will recognize the benefits of a particular initiative, but I believe that is a communication problem. We have to do a better job of sharing information about these initiatives, both for the purpose of collegiality and for guaranteeing that the lessons learned in one part of the Institute are available to other parts of the Institute. We may also need to find new models that work in the humanities and social sciences, for example.

FNL: The new Vice President for Research Alice Gast reports to you, doesn’t she?

PC: Besides being colleagues on Academic Council, we have shared responsibility for overseeing graduate education.

FNL: Do you think graduate students have been somewhat short-changed to this point?

PC: I believe the expectations of graduate students as well as the demographics of graduate enrollment at MIT are changing. For example, we now have a larger number of traditional Master’s students. We also have many more graduate students who are simply changing their registration from fourth-year undergraduate to fifth-year Master’s students. Their graduate life experiences are rooted partly in their departments, and another part of it will be derived from a graduate student community that we want to enhance and support. This is true for the large fraction that is foreign students and are new to the US and for fifth-year students who make different demands than Ph.D. students, for example.

FNL: Why do you think there are so many more Master’s candidates than there used to be?

PC: The answer is that departments have expanded enrollment. The Sloan School has had a policy of increasing their enrollment. Several engineering departments have created new Master’s programs. These developments add numbers. There are some new degree programs that cross traditional boundaries. Additionally, there has been little overall shrinkage in the number of students in the Ph.D. programs. I do not think we view the number as a source of special concern, but we do want to understand how we should configure community building to incorporate graduate students. We also want to improve financial aid for graduate students and above all, we want to maintain excellence.

FNL: Still, one place where the sheer number of graduate students has an important impact is in the time commitment of faculty. This is a concern expressed by outgoing Faculty Chair Steve Lerman last spring in the Newsletter. The more students we have, the larger the time commitment necessary from faculty.

PC: Well, there are trade-offs. I think there are some departments that will rely more on post-doctoral fellows and reduce the number of graduate students. There are other departments that will take the opposite approach. I am less worried about the number than what the trends mean in local settings and for the quality of the graduate student experience. If we maintain quality programs, then I am not going to worry too much about the number.

FNL: And what about the models of graduate students and graduate student funding? For years, graduate students have been the engines of the Institute; the Institute seemingly could not function without these graduate researchers. Do you think that model is changing?

PC: I think for each department there is probably a different story. There are some sources of funding which have shrunk, others that have grown. Some students are well-funded while many students – in professional programs, the humanities and social sciences, etc. – are less well-funded. We have gotten a substantial increase in industry funding, which has helped to open new fields of study. And, I think on balance that we have weathered the shifts well, but the continuation of our excellence requires increases in endowed graduate support so that graduate education is not distorted by the vagaries of funding.

FNL: Now let’s move on to the subject of faculty quality of life. What are your thoughts in this area?

PC: Before addressing faculty quality of life, let me set some context. Our interest in faculty quality aims both to support our faculty here in better managing their family and personal lives (e.g., day care, housing, etc.) and also to enhance the infrastructure that supports their work. This is important, if faculty are to do their jobs. Success in this area is also important, if we are to recruit the best faculty. We have to be strategic about MIT’s capacity to compete for the very best faculty in all fields and to compete not only for the faculty in the usual sense, but also in ways that will increase and enhance the number of women and minority faculty. We acknowledge that more needs to be done to address such issues as faculty housing, day care, faculty leave, and support for teaching and research. Progress in these areas is a high priority item both because of the needs of our colleagues and because the lesser burden on faculty will make it possible for them to do their scholarly work and to more actively support student.

FNL: You’ve been involved for years with these issues.

PC: Yes. I have worked on the junior faculty leave issue, and I am currently working on day care. We are looking for creative ideas to enhance the quality of faculty life in a variety of ways. This is something that is very important to the Provost and me. I have mentioned specific areas like day care and faculty leaves and enhancing the teaching and research infrastructures. I also want to emphasize collegiality. At the end of the day, marginal differences in compensation, more affordable housing, or newer labs will not be nearly as important to faculty as the satisfaction they get from working with each other, having the best students available, and having a responsive and flexible work environment. We want our colleagues to know that MIT is a partner with them in focusing on these challenges. The concern for quality of life not only extends to faculty, but also includes staff and students as well. That is our mission.

FNL: And now you’re very close to using the word "community." And the word community around here has always been a difficult one to define.

PC: I think community is one of those ambiguous words. I am using it to capture the shared commitment we have to pursue research and learning in a supportive setting. We are part of a cherished institution, which we have inherited, and we have an obligation to enhance and pass it on better than we found it. Its value will need to be enhanced and freshened to keep it both satisfying for us while we are here and attractive to those who come to join us as faculty, students, and staff. We benefit when this community fabric is very strong. We do not benefit when we do not model community, or when people find that they have to go someplace else to get what they ought to be able to obtain from their colleagues and peers. In discussing community, I am trying to emphasize that there are some concrete things we can do that will make it possible for colleagues to like being here, to want to stay here, to want to give back to and strengthen the community.

FNL: How would you solicit faculty input on all these issues?

PC: I think all the members of Academic Council are committed to being accessible in both usual and unusual ways, and we want to encourage faculty to take advantage of the various opportunities for input or to initiate discussions on campus issues. There will be times when we will ask for suggestions. To give you one example, we have just released the draft of the report of the Mental Health Task Force. The task force report emphasizes the fact that we have an obligation to help students manage the stresses and strains and the choices and opportunities. The faculty, in a variety of ways, have communicated some of their concerns and some of their ideas to me and to others. One way of thinking about the issue of community is to talk about it over the next several weeks and come up with some ideas on how we can create a caring and open community that furthers the growth of students both intellectually and spiritually, where they feel a sense of cohesiveness, kinship, and trust. I welcome faculty comments on the report and suggestions to plclay@mit.edu.

FNL: Still, won’t there be some need for educating the faculty in how to deal with these issues?

PC: The answer is yes. We will have to figure out ways to help faculty play the advising and mentoring roles for graduates and undergraduates. We need to find concrete help. That is a high priority item in the fall.

FNL: What about the whole issue of parking on campus?

PC: The limitation on parking is a combination of environmental limitations and the cost of parking facilities, Cambridge’s own view of itself, and many space limitations near the campus.

FNL: It used to be $25 a year.

PC: Well, I remember when it was $7 a year, and I don’t believe that covered the cost of actually producing stickers and paying parking lot attendants. I think paid parking – and unfortunately it is probably going to cost more as time passes and as we enhance the services and security – is here to stay. I also think that part of our goal is to encourage people who can access public transportation to use it.

FNL: If I were to sum up the most overriding concern of students as expressed in the pages of the Newsletter, I’d say it’s questions of faculty-student relationships, mentoring, and the like.

PC: These are critical issues that are important to me. I appreciate that faculty themselves are sometimes overwhelmed because of the many demands we make on them. I appreciate that part of what we have to do is to address the issue of what we are asking of our colleagues. The core responsibilities of every faculty are to teach, do research, and contribute to the commons. If faculty members live 45 minutes to an hour away from campus, because they cannot afford to live closer, and we are asking them to spend evening time with students and then asking them to travel halfway around the world three or four times a year and leave their families, that may be too much. If we are asking them to create new courses that are more communications-intensive and if we are asking them to advise fraternities, work with students on campus activities, advise on theses, work with fellows, this is an enormous request. I think we have to help faculty and departments sort out how to help faculty manage this. No one is good at every task. If we want to encourage a faculty member who is enthusiastic and accepting of opportunities to work with students, we might expect less of her or him in other areas. If faculty members need to spend significant time in other parts of the world, we need to understand that they may not have as much time to advise freshmen. If some faculty members are great at listening and advising students on a wide range of things, we ought to see that they get some credit for this and some relief from other burdens. I firmly believe that if we play on people’s strengths, focus on priorities, we can avoid burning out our faculty. We can make multiple challenges and make them manageable and exciting.

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