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

From The Faculty Chair

Welcome Back

Steven Lerman

If you’ve been away from MIT this summer, you might be wondering why this column is being written by me rather than by Lorna Gibson. I am pleased to be able to tell you that Professor Gibson was offered and accepted the position of Associate Provost, effective immediately. Unfortunately, though, accepting this position left her unable to serve the remaining year of her term as Chair of the MIT Faculty.

According to the Rules and Regulations of the Faculty, the Nominations Committee acts with power in appointing a Chair for the remainder of a departing Chair’s term. The prior commitments of the other faculty officers made it difficult for them to be able take on the role of the Chair, and the Nominations Committee asked me to do so. Having already served as Chair of the Faculty from 2000-2002, and having enjoyed it enormously, I accepted and, as a consequence, I find myself unexpectedly writing this column.

We will all benefit from having someone with Lorna’s energy, talent, and experience in the senior administration, but the truth is that we will also miss her leadership as the Faculty Chair. Lorna brought a combination of wisdom and practicality that served all of us extremely well during the ongoing transition of senior leadership at MIT. She worked to restructure the operations of some of the key committees of the faculty, particularly in the area of graduate student policy and disciplinary reviews. She and President Hockfield also added an open question and answer session to the faculty meetings, bringing a sense of openness and spontaneity to the meetings that was badly needed. I have no doubt that her breadth of experience as Chair of the Faculty will make her more effective as an Associate Provost, but we will miss her.

Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons

Looking forward, I think that some of the most substantive work we will do this year will probably result from the report of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons. Under the leadership of Dean Robert Silbey, this committee of faculty, students, and staff has been working for the past two years.

Paraphrasing the Task Force’s charter, the members of the Task Force have been working to review MIT's educational mission statement, define goals from that educational mission, develop common curriculum requirements for all undergraduates, and recommend to the faculty the formal structure of the undergraduate curriculum.

Once the work of the Task Force is completed, the faculty will need to work with the Office of the Dean for Undergraduate Education to consider its recommendations and to make appropriate changes to the Rules and Regulations of the Faculty which establish the requirements for MIT degrees.

The governance of the educational commons is one of the central tasks of those of us who teach at MIT. It is in the Rules and Regulations of the Faculty that we set forth the requirements for MIT degrees, including the General Institute Requirements. Ultimately, any changes in these requirements must be voted on and approved by the faculty. In a very real sense, we define our beliefs about what a technological and science centered education means through our degree requirements. Our decisions about the educational commons will influence not only the lives of all our undergraduates, but will also be seen as a model for other universities around the world.

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Though we as a faculty must approve any changes in degree requirements, any changes in our undergraduate program forward will involve various groups, including the officers of the faculty, the Committee on the Undergraduate Program, the Office of the Dean for Undergraduate Education, department heads and deans, the Chair of the Task Force, student representatives, and much of the senior administration. The translation of the difficult and time-consuming work of the Task Force into concrete actions will occupy many of us in the coming year and beyond.

I hope we will have a vigorous and constructive debate about what changes in undergraduate education are best for our students.

This will require a willingness to question the status quo and a vision that transcends the localized interests of any one department or School. During this process we should be mindful that the report of the Task Force is the result of extensive research, consultations, and deliberations. While each of us may not agree with every one of the changes proposed by the Task Force, we should view their recommendations as reflecting the best judgment of some of our most deeply committed colleagues.

My goal is to move this process forward in a positive and systematic manner so that any changes may be approved by the faculty during this academic year. The complete implementation of whatever changes we agree upon is likely to require several more years that include development of new courses, new governing structures for the various requirements, and a significant commitment of faculty time and funds to whatever new teaching commitments arise from the new requirements.

Other Topics

Of course, our work on the undergraduate commons is not the only thing on the faculty agenda for the coming year. Some of the other topics we will deliberate on include:

  • MIT’s continuing efforts to improve the diversity of our faculty and student body, particularly with respect to gender and racial diversity. In a resolution approved in May 2004, we voted "to taking a leadership position among our peer institutions in the recruiting and success of underrepresented minority faculty and graduate students." This resolution included the goals of doubling the number of underrepresented minority faculty and tripling the number of underrepresented minority graduate students within a decade. We all understood, however, that these goals cannot be met simply by voting. They require ongoing work of the faculty and administration to recruit more effectively and to create an academic environment that is welcoming and supportive of everyone. We will continue to monitor our progress towards our goals and to work with the senior administration to achieve them.
  • Given the global nature of research and education, MIT is likely to expand its international partnerships and to create new ones. We need to do this in a way that is aligned with our core mission and opens up new opportunities for the faculty and students. We will discuss some of these new initiatives, including an expansion of our engagement with Singapore, in various faculty committees and at our meetings.
  • In May 2006, the Energy Research Council reported on its year-long study of the challenges and opportunities for expanding the Institute’s research in the energy field. This report recommended an ambitious initiative that will require new research funding and will involve faculty from all five Schools in basic energy science, technology, economics, and policy. How we organize and generate funding for this exciting work will be an important topic for discussion between the administration and the faculty.
  • MIT has committed to expanding the housing we can make available to our graduate students. Work will start this fall on a new graduate dormitory at the corner of Albany and Pacific Streets with a space for over 500 students. When this dorm is completed in 2008, the housemasters and students in what is now Ashdown House will move to the new building, and the current building will be converted to an undergraduate dormitory. This will create a more centralized locus of graduate student life in the Northwest area of the campus and will give us an opportunity to expand our undergraduate enrollments.

If history provides any guide, the list of issues we as a faculty need to discuss will likely get longer rather than shorter over the year.

For me, the start of the academic year always has a feeling of renewal and continuity. New students and new faculty arrive, and we move again into the annual cycle of teaching and research. Although certainly unexpected, I find myself looking forward to the coming year as Chair of the Faculty with unabashed enthusiasm. As always, I look forward to working with my faculty colleagues on the many things we all care deeply about.

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