Deliberations Without Resolutions:
Is it Time for a New Format for Faculty Meetings?
Is it possible to have serious, engaging discussions on important issues at MIT faculty meetings without the need to vote on resolutions? The answer is not clear to me because I have been surprised at how even well laid out presentations on important issues, such as the one made by Provost Reif recently on MIT’s effort to increase minority faculty, did not generate any questions or comments from the faculty. Also, I have noticed that the relatively recent practice of informal question and answer sessions at the faculty meeting with the President, Provost, and the Chancellor, rarely generate good discussions. In contrast, we witnessed one of the most engaging, albeit somewhat uncivil, discussions regarding a resolution at the December faculty meeting. What lessons can we draw from these experiences regarding how to generate good discussions at MIT faculty meetings, the types of discussions which would help faculty and administration reflect deeply on any issue from multiple perspectives without the stress and hostility we witnessed at the last faculty meeting?
Some of you have already pointed out to me that if the presentations at the faculty meetings are meant to convey decisions already taken by the administration then such presentations are unlikely to generate much discussion.
Others have remarked that if the presentations resemble infomercials, that too is not conducive to discussions. Still others have noted that too much data presented too quickly can have an intimidating affect. These are all useful insights I considered as I pondered how to turn MIT’s faculty meetings into a positive and learning experience, with a free exchange of ideas.
One suggestion is to have at each faculty meeting a panel comprising faculty members of divergent views to speak on a topic of interest to a wide section of faculty across the Institute. This could work if we assemble an interesting and experienced group of faculty who would be thoughtful and civil in their disagreements. It would also require that we select engaging topics with multiple facets that lend themselves to good discussions without any obvious answer. I have discussed this option with some of you. Based on your suggestions, I have assembled a tentative list of topics for your feedback. Will you, please, review the suggested list to spur your own imagination and propose a topic or two that I would put in the hopper before making a final decision?
For the moment, here is my list of topics, again, based on casual conversations with some of you:
i. Is it true, or are we being nostalgic in thinking that in the past (pre 1970s) MIT was the setting for great experiments, innovations, and discoveries, even though the facilities provided were modest, the administrative costs were much lower, and, in general, MIT was less “corporatized”? Conversely, how could better facilities, more administrative support, and a more businesslike environment hurt the innovative capacity of the faculty? Are we living in significantly different times, financially, legally, and, most importantly, with regards to different research priorities, which must be acknowledged rather than lamenting for the good old days?
ii. Should MIT faculty worry at all about the national and now even international ranking of universities, schools, and programs? It is true that there are serious reservations about the efficacy of rankings, and yet rankings are being used for attracting students and faculty, and to raise funds for endowments. What should be MIT’s approach to rankings? Should we totally ignore them?; acknowledge their limited usefulness (how?); or use rankings as a disciplinary tool to encourage better performance?
iii. What are the long-term consequences of no mandatory retirement age for faculty renewal and advancement of knowledge? And, as a corollary to that question: What would it take to respect the intention of the tenuring process, to acknowledge that advancement in medical knowledge has increased longevity and productivity of the faculty, and yet create a learning environment where new ideas and younger minds are provided the opportunity to flourish and excel?
iv. Is the promotion and tenure process working reasonably well, or are there needs for some revisions, particularly regarding the transparency of the review process? Are there ways to enhance transparency without sacrificing confidentiality necessary for frank assessment of faculty performance? A related question particularly of interest to junior faculty is: Do they understand the process by which promotion and tenure is granted at MIT? What will it take to reduce the anxiety associated with performance assessment? And do we need to think more creatively about how to address the particular anxieties/stress of minority and women faculty regarding promotion and tenure?
v. MIT’s Ombuds office recently drew my attention to the increasing number of complaints from faculty as well as students and post-docs regarding uncivil and unprofessional behavior. Steve Lerman, my predecessor, who is now the Dean of Graduate Students, also warned of this trend in an article he had written for the Newsletter just prior to the end of his term last June (2007). In that article, Steve had proposed that MIT faculty voluntarily adopt a new code of conduct appropriate for our times. Is this an issue worthy of a serious discussion? Do you notice a deterioration in civility and professionally appropriate behavior? If so, what kind of self-regulation should the faculty be thinking about without sensationalizing the issue and diverting our attention from research/teaching and advising?
vi. What should be the guiding principles for MIT’s international engagements? Even though the question is being probed, thoroughly, by an Institute committee headed by Associate Provosts Philip Khoury and Claude Canizares, some of you have expressed concern over whether the formation of such a committee is yet another example of MIT’s centralizing tendency? Others remain skeptical that MIT could resist the temptation of a large pool of revenue from international sources when every university, big and small, seems to be eager to globalize their operations? And, the old but still relevant question: What is the likely impact of MIT’s increasing international engagements on MA, 02139?
There are other issues I could mention, but I do not think it is necessary at this stage to provide a long list of questions. What would be helpful, instead, is to receive your feedback on whether we should experiment with a new format for the faculty meeting, in which faculty panels would serve as the centerpiece, and what kinds of topics should such panels discuss so as to enhance institutional learning, while not creating institutional divisions. To achieve that goal we need to return to a level of civility and collegiality that was partially eroded at the last faculty meeting. We must restore a sense of civility and mutual respect if your faculty meetings are to remain a setting for learning, and not degenerate into a ritual of retaliation.
Best wishes for a collegial 2008.