From The Faculty Chair
Disagreements and Community Building
When I became the Chair of the Faculty in June 2007, I was aware that MIT needed to forge a new consensus – a new “social contract” among the faculty, administration, staff, and students – regarding what we could expect of one another, and what each of us are willing to contribute towards strengthening the MIT community. It is not that MIT is the only academic institution struggling to manage internal disputes. The intensity of the disputes be they regarding the fairness of the tenuring process, hiring of underrepresented faculty, or restructuring of the academic administration – is apparent at universities across the board, as should be evident to anyone familiar with the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Nevertheless, at MIT these general trends have taken a particular trajectory, creating a level of disagreement and distrust which I had not witnessed since I joined the MIT community in 1984. This posed a clear but difficult challenge for the incoming faculty officers: that we had to help reestablish a sense of trust and collegiality that is essential for academic institutions, particularly for a research university such as MIT, which serves as a model for other universities both at home and abroad.
How is trust and collegiality to be reconstructed? Would open deliberations backed up by accurate information help or further deteriorate the institutional environment? The answer is not as clear as it may seem at first glance.
Why so? First, if deliberative settings are used not to forge consensus but to nail one another and score points in a continuing battle, then distrusts can deepen, further delegitimizing the role of deliberative settings. Second, accurate information is necessary but not sufficient for open deliberations. Accurate information conveyed without a sense of mutual respect and an appreciation of what holds us together, despite our differences, can shed light on issues, but may not evoke the kind of sentiment necessary for the reconstruction of trust. That is why deliberations are best conducted face to face, and not via information-heavy and somewhat impersonal e-mails. And, finally, deliberations among individuals who are unwilling to ever change their point of view can be engaging, as in a Harold Pinter play, but may not contribute to the strengthening of a learning environment, which is the central purpose of educational institutions.
As your faculty officers, we want to make our small contribution to the repair of the learning environment we know as MIT. We, in consultation with the Faculty Policy Committee (FPC), have decided to focus on one particular issue that generated much disagreement last year namely, the transparency and fairness of the tenure process, including the way grievances should be dealt with. This is not a straight forward and one dimensional issue, as you well know; there are multiple and interconnected concerns, ranging from how standards are set, to the role of mentoring, to ways of respecting the confidentiality of reviewers – just to highlight three aspects of a very complicated process. We hope our effort is not yet another search for the “Holy Grail.”
Our first task is to better understand the processes in place in different Schools and departments. We are starting with an assumption long known among organizational theorists [my late colleague Donald Schon first introduced me to this conceptualization]: That most organizational actions can be best explained by two types of “theories:” “Espoused Theories” of how organizations claim they operate; and “Theories In Use,” which is what organizations actually do in the face of organizational constraints. This difference between “Espoused Theories” and “Theories in Use” cannot be dismissed as hypocrisy; both serve vital roles in inspiring organizational performance, but their differences must be appreciated if the goal is organizational learning that is necessary for enhancing organizational performance.
Towards that end, the FPC had a first informational meeting with the Deans of the five Schools, and we intend to start a campus-wide process in which, we hope, you will participate in a learning mode. We want to hear from a wide section of the faculty, not just the ones with grievances, and not the ones who are already tenured, though both these groups can provide good insights about how the process works in practice. We are particularly interested to hear from junior faculty and faculty who recently received tenure.
Initially, we have to maintain a level of confidentiality as we gather information, but our ultimate goal is to facilitate open deliberations for organizational learning and, if necessary, changes in organizational practices. But, as I mentioned earlier, such deliberations require curiosity, not predetermined and unalterable views; they require patience and not finger pointing. As your faculty officers we can initiate the process, but ultimately it is you who will shape the quality of the deliberations by your willingness to engage sincerely in such a process.