MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XIX No. 1
September / October 2006
Science, Technology, Ethics,
and Public Decision Making
The Need for Increased Faculty Involvement
in Major Institute Initiatives
Neuroscience Hiring Controversy at MIT
Welcome Back
MIT Shines in Latest U.S. News Ranking
House Mastering Recollected in Tranquility
Teaching this fall? You should know . . .
FOGS Report Highlights
Graduate Student Cost Issues
National Research Council to Assess
U.S. Research Doctorate Programs
Supporting MIT's International Graduate Students: Communicating Within
and Across Cultures
Factory Girls
Accolades for Nancy Hopkins
Dental Insurance Plan for Retirees?
Vernon M. Ingram
International Development Fair Showcases Students' Global Development Experiences
U.S. News Ranking for National Universities
Printable Version


The Need for Increased Faculty Involvement
in Major Institute Initiatives

The relationship between universities and external funding agencies, including corporations, foundations, and government, has always required a very careful balance between the need for research funding and the commitment to protect academic integrity. In some cases, such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, the fundamental missions of the agencies and the research universities are intimately intertwined and grew up together. In other cases we have witnessed failures in these relationships. Examples include that between Novartis and the University of California at Berkeley, the ending of the Cambridge University/MIT partnership [Ed. Note] , and the recent dissolution of the relationship between the Government of Singapore and Johns Hopkins Medical School. Others are moving forward, but under considerable criticism and with malaise, such as BMW’s sponsorship of the new engineering program at Clemson University, and Boston University’s construction of a federally-funded bioterroism research facility in downtown Boston.

Particularly problematic are relationships with foreign governments. Although perhaps technically a partnership with a government agency, the emerging Singapore/MIT alliance brings MIT into a close relationship with the Government of Singapore. Such initiatives target the acquisition of substantial resources. 

How faculty are recruited, how funding is distributed, how research directions are prioritized, and, even more importantly, how the administrative structure is put in place require faculty oversight.

We need to be sure that academic activities are not distorted by the interests of Singapore’s government. Even the World Bank recently criticized Singapore’s government for denial of rights to non-governmental organizations.

An MIT Steering Committee has been appointed to address these questions regarding the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) Center to be established in Singapore. Among the troubling issues are the proposed size of the Center, the degree of MIT’s commitment to it, and the 3-month to 1-year MIT faculty commitment which is being encouraged. Certainly an assessment of the problems that undermined the Johns Hopkins Medical School/Singapore Alliance is needed. Such endeavors are matters of great concern. They are central to the intellectual mission of the Institute and the commitment of the faculty to scientific integrity and excellence. These are all significant matters that require consideration and debate among the faculty.

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Is this the beginning of a long series of such relationships with foreign governments? It is critical that the Institute affect a balance between those countries who are able to pay for our services, and those that desperately need our assistance (e.g., some African and Latin American nations) but are financially unable to compete. MIT must avoid the impression of being for sale to the highest bidder. Many countries would benefit from such relationships, as would groups of interested MIT students and faculty. How about Myanmar/MIT; Brazil/MIT; Venezuela/MIT; Jamaica/MIT; Cuba/MIT; Nigeria/MIT; Uzbhekistan/MIT; etc?

We appreciate the need to increase global awareness among students, faculty and staff. The international student exchange programs such as MIT-Japan, MIT-Mexico and MIT-France are positive steps in this direction. But the resources devoted to the Singapore-MIT Center appear to dwarf the very limited resources devoted to other international collaborations. No "Centers" are being staffed by MIT in those countries to our knowledge.

Traditionally, MIT has had an administrative strategy which, for lack of better words, was bottom-up, with nearly 1,000 faculty members providing inspiration and guidance to their appointed leaders. Faculty members provided significant input regarding important administrative decisions prior to action being taken. Today the situation is different, with decisions being made by administrative fiat with little or no faculty consultation.

All too often, faculty are being asked to reflect on decisions already made, rather than being an integral part of the decision-making process.

Not all actions proceed along these lines, to be sure, for committees are convened with the charge to consult widely among faculty prior to actions being taken or policies written. Nonetheless, there is some degree of concern expressed about the outcome of even this procedure, not yet significant, but noticeable.

Ever since the 1949 report of the Lewis Commission (also known as the Committee on Educational Survey) warnings have been raised about the potential pitfalls of MIT receiving financial support tied too closely to government political agendas. When Jerry Wiesner returned to the Institute after his tenure as Science Advisor to Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, he too expressed concern that the large amounts of money received by the Institute from the U.S. Department of Defense might inadvertently distort the type or direction of potential research, emphasizing military versus civilian goals.

Steps were taken to protect the openness and collegiality of MIT, and to safeguard against intrusion of the federal government’s interests and regulations. Separating Lincoln Labs and Draper Labs (formerly the Instrumentation Laboratory) from the Institute was a means of providing this protection. In addition, reinforcing the full understanding of and respect for the openness that drives MIT served to ensure our independence.

Historically, MIT's pursuit and preoccupation with funding resources was also primarily faculty driven, and played a central role in the organization and conduct of research. But over the past few years, as mentioned above, we note certain trends that are disturbing and run counter to this long-established MIT tradition. Many current research projects now require the recruitment of faculty from a variety of disciplines and departments. This multidisciplinary approach, although possibly valuable for achieving research objectives, must not be dictated by the heavy-handed constraints of an administrative order, be it from an external funding source or our own leaders.

It is quite different for a faculty colleague to request support for a collaboration that is key to her or his research program than it is for a dean, laboratory or department head, or provost to mandate such as part of a scheme to dictate such interactions.

The mandate is of special concern where junior faculty or non-tenured faculty are involved, since it runs the risk of stifling their creativity or placing them in a situation where they must defer to senior colleagues to remain funded.

Concerns expressed by Wiesner and others years ago about potential military influence on research are now being replaced by similar concerns regarding Institute support from major corporations and even foreign institutions (Singapore). Again, MIT must be vigilant to ensure that the research interests or programs of such units providing financial support do not distract from MIT’s desired research and educational goals.

There’s a story involving then-MIT President Chuck Vest who was discussing a potential major collaborative program with a company’s CEO. Once they reached an understanding, the CEO stood up and shook hands with Chuck on the agreement. “When should we start?” asked the CEO. “For you, the negotiating is at an end,” replied Vest. “For me it’s a beginning; I now have to convince 1000 faculty members!”

We welcome input of specific examples from faculty, administrators, or even sponsors that reflects or elaborates upon our view on these issues, as well as those that run counter to it.

Editorial Sub-Committee
Nazli Choucri
Jonathan King
Stephen J. Lippard

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