May / June 2007
The March/April issue of the Faculty Newsletter published a piece written by Prof. Michel DeGraff, titled “Faith vs. Facts in the Pursuit of Fairness at MIT.” The article addressed some issues related to the Institute’s decision to deny tenure to Prof. James Sherley. The very public debate on this case has already demonstrated that there are many strong and divergent opinions on the process that led to the decision. There have been several direct mailings to the faculty, both before and after the March/April issue of the FNL, by different parties to the Sherley case, including administrative officers of the Institute, groups of faculty from the Biological Engineering Department, and various others. Many of these items are posted on the FNL website, web.mit.edu/fnl/volume/sherley/sherley.htm .
In this context, it is not surprising that the Newsletter Editorial Board received some comments, questions, and complaints from colleagues on its publication of Prof. DeGraff’s article. While some felt that the article, whether or not one agreed with it, was quite appropriate for the FNL, others questioned the propriety, fairness, or motivations of the Editorial Board in publishing this piece.
The Faculty Newsletter was founded 19 years ago with the objective of serving as an independent forum for free discussion by and for MIT faculty, on issues of importance and interest to the faculty. The pages of the FNL have been open to contributions of all kinds from the entire faculty (and from non-faculty, as and when appropriate). The Editorial Board has guided selection of contributed material and has solicited original material. It has on occasion asked for clarifications or rewording, but the aim has always been to let the faculty speak directly.
As a result, there have been contributions over the years that have been contentious. Inevitably these contributions challenge the Editorial Board to re-examine how to balance the goal of providing an open forum with that of maintaining collegiality and fairness.
The Board’s processes for finding the right balance are well-intended but not perfect, and it doesn’t necessarily always get it right. As one recourse, the FNL provides an opportunity for clarifications, rejoinders, or rebuttals in succeeding issues of the Newsletter. However, given the infrequency of publication of the FNL, some question the fairness of this option and argue that the Board needs to be more proactive in soliciting alternative viewpoints whenever it decides to publish a potentially contentious article. The Board is working to improve and clarify its operating standards for such cases, keeping in mind the balance that is called for.
As a final point, the Board operates under the assumption that authors are responsible for the substance of their articles. For the Editorial Board to take on the task of independently investigating the specifics of each piece would be beyond its mandate or ability. Published articles express the opinions of their authors, not of the Editorial Board.
Ernst G. Frankel
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