Faculty Roles in Administration:
A Critical Part of Institute Governance
I recently completed a term of five-and-a-half years as Dean for Undergraduate Education, and am now in the process of re-invigorating my research program and preparing to return to the classroom. When the editor of the Faculty Newsletter asked me if I would like to write a retrospective of my experience as Dean, I was initially skeptical. Frankly, I think it is very hard to make such retrospectives interesting to a large fraction of the faculty; while experiences such as serving as Dean for Undergraduate Education are very intense and consuming for the individuals who serve, this does not guarantee that others will find a description of the experience of great interest.
I eventually decided that writing an article would be a good idea, but only if I focused on one particular aspect of my experience and perspective. This certainly does not mean that I do not treasure the many experiences I shared with colleagues from the faculty and staff and with many students during my tenure as Dean. The Dean’s job is indeed intense and consuming. Some of the things one can accomplish are important, and certainly the job is always exciting. The best part was the chance to work with so many dedicated, bright people from all parts of the Institute. I will always feel lucky to have had this opportunity.
The aspect of my experience I wish to discuss, has to do with the relationship between faculty members who serve in roles in the senior administration, and their other faculty colleagues.
The most surprising (and most disappointing) aspect of my tenure as Dean was the attitude among many faculty colleagues that I had gone over to “The Dark Side” and was therefore not very useful or trustworthy.
Somehow, from one day to the next, I had turned into someone who could neither understand nor represent a faculty perspective on important issues. Colleagues I had known for years had little interest in keeping in touch, even when it was straightforward to do so. I heard similar experiences reported by my faculty colleagues on Academic Council. This attitude of many members of the faculty certainly seems illogical, and I believe represents an important lost opportunity for effective faculty governance of the Institute.
There are 14 members of the faculty who serve on Academic Council. Most of them have spent their professional careers on the faculty at MIT. It is my impression that most of them also do not expect to take on additional significant administrative roles after they complete their terms as Dean, etc. They are serving the Institute in their current roles because they are dedicated to the educational and research goals of MIT and because they believe it is important that these jobs be done well. In addition to carrying out their individual responsibilities, these colleagues have the opportunity to participate on a regular basis, through Academic Council, in discussions and decisions which shape the Institute in critical ways.
This tradition of senior academic and administrative leaders coming together regularly to compare notes, reach consensus on important issues, and advise the President of MIT, is a major strength of our system of governance. I do not know of any other university which has a more effective way for faculty to participate strongly in the governance of the institution. The system is most effective when faculty who serve in these positions bring with them a perspective which has been formed by their many years teaching and doing research. It is my observation that this is exactly the perspective brought by our faculty colleagues on Academic Council. Most faculty members serving at the Dean level do not view that role as their career goal. Deans at MIT are typically first and foremost faculty members at MIT; the role as Dean is an interesting and exciting one, but temporary.
Clearly, some of our colleagues do end up going on to other administrative leadership positions at MIT or elsewhere, and we are proud that they do. But my experience is that these individuals also bring with them the perspective of having served on the MIT faculty, which informs in important ways their judgment and decisions as they move into other positions.
So we have an enviable system of faculty participation in the governance of the Institute. How can we make it function to its full potential? One way is clearly to continue to recruit wise, dedicated colleagues to serve in important administrative positions. But along with this should come the recognition by the faculty in general that these colleagues are representing our interests and opinions in an important setting.
They need to continue to feel that they have faculty colleagues who view them as members of the faculty and who will keep them in contact with faculty concerns.
It would be highly desirable to reduce the needless barrier between the faculty and those colleagues who serve for a time in administrative roles, a barrier which is felt strongly by many. We will all benefit, and our system of governance will be the stronger.
As I have said on other occasions, it was a great privilege and pleasure for me to have served as Dean for Undergraduate Education. I highly recommend such a role for those who may be interested.
Thanks for reading this far. And don’t forget to keep in touch with your friends on The Dark Side.