From The Faculty Chair
Is the Unity of the Faculty Still Relevant?
One of the most important notions in MIT’s system of governance is the concept of the “unity of the faculty.” This idea is the foundation for why we expect each faculty member to teach, do research, and provide service to the Institute and the larger community.
We all understand that the amount of time any of us spend on each of these activities in any one year will vary widely, and that some of us will do some things better than others. However, the unity of the faculty is the philosophical foundation for many of the decisions we make, including why we don’t have faculty appointments that are purely for teaching or research, and why in tenure and promotion we value contributions to each of the three major areas of faculty work. It is also why decisions such as the determination of what should be in the undergraduate educational commons and individual departmental degree requirements require a vote of the entire faculty, not just approval of separate departments and schools.
The spirit of the unity of the faculty also encompasses the idea that faculty have a shared sense of mission for the entire university.
Some have argued that we have become so specialized in our work that the idea of faculty unity has become antiquated and honored in words rather than in deeds. These skeptics see little evidence that the philosophy of the unity of the faculty is manifested in how MIT actually works, and they are sometimes cynical about the processes of faculty governance, in which the notion of a unified faculty should be most evident. I believe, however, that there are compelling counterexamples that make a convincing case that the idea of our working as a single faculty towards important goals remains alive and well.
We all accept that, day-to-day, most of our efforts will be directed toward teaching, research, and service in our individual departments, labs, and centers. This is where MIT’s core strengths (and those of our peer universities) lie. The idea of the unity of the faculty doesn’t mean that large numbers of us will spend all of our time working towards centrally-decided goals. However, to be useful, the notion of unity does involve some level of engagement by many of us in activities that transcend department, lab, and center boundaries. I offer two examples where the concept of faculty unity has manifested itself.
The Undergraduate Educational Commons
The first and most current example is the way in which many of us have become actively involved in the discussions about the recommendations of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons. It is clear that faculty feel strongly about what goes into the undergraduate commons. Discussions about what every student should know before graduating are happening all over campus. The intensity of these discussions reflects just how important the common experience is to us. Some see this intensity as worrisome and are concerned that it may lead to divisions among us.
In perhaps a naïve way, I hold a completely contrarian view. For me, the intensity with which we are debating changes in degree requirements and other aspects of the Task Force’s recommendations is heartening. Whether we acknowledge it or not, at least when we’re considering the MIT undergraduate program, the spirit of faculty unity is alive and well. The passionate debate over the issues that the Task Force has raised is a credit to MIT and a healthy repudiation to the commonly held idea that professors in research universities don’t care about undergraduate education anymore. The fact that each of us feels empowered to be involved in the discussions about the entire undergraduate experience, rather than just our own department’s degree programs, reflects a sense of unity that, in my view, is healthy.
My second example is how we as a faculty responded to the OpenCourseWare (OCW) initiative. The idea of MIT electronically publishing the materials we use in teaching virtually all of our courses represents the idea of the unity of the faculty at its best. It sometimes astonishes me that over 80% of the faculty, representing 1550 of the approximately 1800 courses with materials that might be openly published, have already participated in OpenCourseWare. Moreover, the goal of publishing the materials for the remainder of our courses should be achieved sometime in the next academic year.
The faculty’s participation in OCW has been entirely voluntary. The vast majority of us have taken time from our crowded schedules to organize the materials in our courses and we have agreed to make them available to anyone, anywhere, for non-commercial uses. No other university has come even close to this achievement.
I would argue that the tradition of faculty unity is what made it possible for MIT to undertake OCW in the first place, and to succeed in getting the huge level of participation by the faculty once we committed ourselves to OCW’s shared goals.
The success of OpenCourseWare also provides us with some important lessons about how to undertake MIT-wide initiatives that leverage the unity of the faculty. First, the idea of publishing all of the materials used to teach at MIT originated at the grass roots from a group of faculty who started with an important idea and worked tirelessly to engage their colleagues around MIT in moving that idea forward. We seem to be at our best when ideas come from the “bottom up.”
Second, the goals of the initiative were widely shared, at the very beginning of the process. Before OCW was launched, a group of faculty went to every department to discuss the idea and find out whether the underlying values associated with open publication of course content were broadly shared. Without this consensus around the overall mission, there was little prospect of broad participation.
Third, the leadership of OCW understood the pressures on faculty time. No matter how important an initiative is, it still must compete with all the contending demands on a busy faculty. For OCW to be successful, it had to work effectively with each contributing professor in a way that minimized the amount of time he or she needed to spend. Creating a support organization that is truly flexible and service oriented has been central to why faculty members have agreed to contribute their course materials. Most of the actual work of reformatting materials, obtaining rights clearances, and moving the materials through a complicated publication process, is done by the OCW staff, not by the individual faculty members. As a result, most of us report that getting our course’s materials on OCW has required about five hours or fewer of our own time.
The passionate interest in the definition of the undergraduate educational commons and the extraordinary level of participation in OCW suggest to me that the idea of the unity of the faculty is alive and well. We will continue to discuss, debate, disagree, and make decisions about many things that affect all of us. We will continue to commit our collective time and energy to things that go well beyond our departments’ boundaries. These processes will often appear chaotic as we try to reach consensus about things we care about deeply. However, I vastly prefer this type of chaos to the placidity of indifference or the narrow focus on our own small spheres of direct interest.