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FNL: How do you measure a good job?
DM: One is just showing up and participating. For example, when the Visiting Committee meets with tenured faculty and only three people show up in a department, that doesn't show much interest in what the Corporation's trying to do for that department or the Institute. It may even be a broader reflection upon the faculty's willingness to share its ideas, concerns and vision for that department. This is now an isolated example, but it makes the point.
FNL: [Special Assistant to the Chancellor] Jay Keyser runs a very interesting series called random faculty dinners. You should attend some time. Often one finds very disgruntled faculty members willing to speak up in this environment. Among the items mentioned are what the faculty have lost over the years: the $800 per year travel allowance; much better support of graduate students via tuition remission; the loss of health benefits following retirement (which have been diminished substantially); and these decisions seem to be made by a small group of administrators. It's true there is some faculty input, but faculty members never really hear about many of these “smoke-filled room” decisions until it's a done deal.
DM: I don't think much of this is done in the proverbial smoke-filled room. President Hockfield has worked to air out and broaden the decision-making process. We have talked a lot more publicly about the Institute's finances and the finance process. But you asked earlier about what's facing us. Short term I think we've got to get this team on board and functioning smoothly. I think the second thing is to assure that, going forward, we're continuing to be financially stable and growing.
FNL: There doesn't seem to be a good connect between the financial management structure and the true expenditures down the line. The department heads come into the position completely untrained to deal with the financial aspects of the job, so basically they have to rely on their administrative officers, because they have the institutional memory.
DM: I've often said that we should consider having a "boot camp" for new department heads to provide them with better background for managing their departments.
FNL: Can you be more specific?
DM: Well, for Visiting Committee chairmen who are all Corporation members, I started what we call boot camp, actually a briefing set that deals with issues common to nearly all VCs; I have it once a year. We have it after the Corporation meeting in October. This initially was put together for new Visiting Committee chairmen, so they could put into context what they heard from the departments during the VC visits. We cover financing; we talk about space, recruiting, and we outline the approach the Visiting Committee should take as an oversight body rather than a management body, which is something I have to keep in mind too. My mission is to observe, to comment, and I can help initiate programs that will assist the president, the faculty, and the people who run the place in doing their jobs better. But I don't have a direct lever into the management, and I'm not supposed to have it.
FNL: Here’s a question that might engender a sound bite or two in terms of this interview. When Susan was just coming in she made a comment that she didn’t see why a place like MIT, which was widely viewed as the national science university, shouldn’t be pulling in significant support from sources in the private sector very different from those that normally support our programs. Should we not be competing for the same individuals who are supporting Yale, Princeton, Harvard, Stanford, and other institutions, people trained in business schools and non-science departments? What do you think of that? Do you think that’s a realistic goal? Is the Corporation or our fundraising people making any efforts in that direction?
DM: I think Susan is exactly right. I happen to agree with the sentiment. We know generally why this has occurred, and that a huge amount of MIT's effort goes to basic research and basic discovery. Corporations over the last two decades have moved away from that to “How does this apply to the next round of engine development?” or “How does this apply to the next round of avionics that are going to go into those warplanes?” and so forth.
And the boards in corporate America have been very tough on management investing in research if they can't explain how it contributes to the bottom line that year or the next year.
FNL: That's the point. They want a three-year timeline for what is really a 10-year timeline.
DM: Right. And so getting by that is a very long-term effort. I don't think it's impossible. I sit on the Pfizer board and the company spends nearly $8 billion per year on research and development. I think that because the costs are so high in corporate America to do this kind of research that one can begin to make a strong case that there should be more support of university research, particularly on the discovery end. And we're beginning to see it: Novartis is here and Pfizer now has this unit nearby, as well as others. On the harder side are automotives, aircraft, and so forth. But I think we need a full-court press on this challenge, and frankly when we look at the Corporation membership this is something we consider. We want people who understand the value of MIT to the business world and to businesses at large so they can support our research and educational efforts.
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FNL: What's the foreign composition of the Corporation?
DM: It's very small.
FNL: And should it be higher?
DM: Yes, it should be.
FNL: Are there Asian members?
DM: Yes, but that's the only meaningful foreign membership. We don't have any European representation on the board right now. We do have members from Taiwan and Hong Kong.
FNL: Anybody from mainland China?
DM: No. That will be next. And as an example of how important these members can be, we have a prominent Taiwanese Corporation member who runs the largest chip maker in the world. He's great for MIT out there. We expect to put a prominent Singaporean on the Corporation in the near future. And as for Japan – I've already mentioned the value of the faculty in establishing relationships and raising money there. The Industrial Liaison Program in Japan has also been incredible. And these relationships make recruiting for the Corporation in Japan easier. But in Europe we're weak. I have spent a lot of time with the French recently because they want to create their own "MIT.” You've probably heard this dream they have, and I've been trying to convince them that it took us from 1861 to this point to get where we are. Still we do need more international representation.
FNL: What about all the international alliances and programs that we are forming? There’s the SMART Center in Singapore and these other relationships. It seems we need to assess the benefits, costs, risks, the amount of influence that governments of different nations might have on our research – issues similar to the ones we discussed earlier when dealing with corporations.
DM: I really can only speak for myself there because we haven't really discussed this particular issue at the Corporation meetings. But I think the general view, and it certainly is mine also, is that it's wise for us to take a more active role in these international areas, but with a few caveats: that they do not become a burden to our faculty, that the resources are there, that they meet MIT's high academic and research standards, and that we understand where it's all going to end up. In other words, an end game, if necessary.
FNL: There is some concern among the faculty that the intellectual integrity of the program does not live up to the intellectual integrity of our own internal programs. And to some extent some of these programs have been brought on at a relatively high level administrative/faculty structure – provost, department heads, etc., and not necessarily reflective of what the faculty would support.
DM: What leads to this concern?
FNL: The nature of the applicants, participants, whether they would be admissible under our normal criteria of excellence.
DM: Are you talking about the Research Center or are you talking about the educational side?
FNL: The educational piece of it.
DM: As far as the Research Center, someone asked me how could Singapore support a research center of the quality that MIT is going to expect, and demand. I said, well a place with four million people isn't going to be able to do that by itself, no matter how hard they try. But that isn't their idea. As I understand it, their idea is that they'll attract much of the top intellectual talent in South Asia, China, and Southeast Asia, to this center by virtue of MIT's involvement there. Researchers from those areas will want to come and work with the really outstanding people that we envision are going to go there from MIT.
FNL: And what's in it for us?
DM: Well, we get 10 chairs basically, over an extended period, and we get an important presence in Southeast Asia, I mean a big one, which we don't have. The educational part there now is nice; but that's not putting the core capability of MIT into Asia. The other part of our core is research, collaborative research, on the very highest level of excellence.
FNL: For example, there were significant issues with the Cambridge/MIT initiative.
DM: I heard there were. What are you thinking of?
FNL: Well, many faculty taught the Cambridge students when this first came about. The whole thing was put into place with insufficient consultation with the departments, and the same was true of our colleagues over in England.
DM: They weren't consulted?
FNL: Some weren’t, and they wrote and said, well, let’s get things going. The students they sent were first-rate, but the programmatic aspect was lacking. So the big question is, to what extent do we want top-down programmatic situations being run on the research side and the educational side driving the way we do business, as opposed to bottom-up? That’s the question.
DM: I think you know the answer to that question, but the execution is where the problem lies. When these ideas get introduced, frequently they are from the top level. A lot of them could come out of the bottom but they probably don't. But once they start being developed then that's when the consultation ought to be done with the people that actually execute the program, and basically that's the faculty. So I don't have a quarrel with your basic concept, because collaboration at all levels in development of the program is the best way to be sure we get the execution right.
FNL: What does the Corporation think of the faculty age profile? Do they worry about it? There was a faculty retirement initiative several years ago.
DM: Yes, an early retirement program. Each Visiting Committee looks at the faculty profile. As you know it varies a lot by department; some have profiles older than others. The Corporation reviews this in reports from the Visiting Committees. In many cases the discussion reflects what the department head thinks about the age distribution and the various ways of addressing it, if necessary. It certainly is something we need to follow.
FNL: Perhaps we’re due for another early retirement program. The argument against it is that faculty wouldn’t retire but just wait in anticipation of another program. But it would be quite important to the Corporation, wouldn’t it?
DM: Absolutely. In my experience in corporate life and not-for-profits, I find these things are cyclical. You go through this cycle: first you build up a chronological “bow wave” that results in a special early retirement program which relieves the problem, and then over time you create a new "bow wave" and so on. I don't see that we're there yet, but I could be wrong. So between you and me I haven't heard any rumblings in the administration about it. But we do hear about it in the Visiting Committee reports, and as I say some departments talk about it more than others.
FNL: Anything you'd like to say that we haven't brought up?
DM: I liked the article about the Corporation that was in last May’s Newsletter. Each year when we bring in new members of the Corporation we have an orientation for them. The required reading is the Faculty Newsletter on how the Corporation works.
FNL: Thank you very much for your time.
DM: It was my pleasure.
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