MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXI No. 2
November / December 2008
The State of the Institute?
A Call for Articles for Special Edition
Faculty Newsletter
The Renovation of 10-250: A Case Study
Worrying About Others: Notes on the Unfolding Financial Crisis
Please Vote!
A Perspective on the Future Energy Supply of the United States: The Urgent Need for Increased Nuclear Power
Can We Fix American Education During the Current Economic Crisis?
Open Access Publishing: The Future of Scholarly Journal Publishing
MIT Takes a Lead Role in Washington
Excerpts from Bosston
Requests for Proposals for Teaching and Education Enhancement
from the 2008 Classroom Survey
Printable Version


The State of the Institute?


The recent State of the Institute presentation by the President, Provost, and Executive Vice President and Treasurer presented a uniformly rosy outlook on all aspects of Institute life. We have not polled our colleagues, but are aware of junior and senior faculty, undergraduates, graduate students, and staff who either face – or perceive they face – difficult times ahead.

We reprint here parts of one response from an undergraduate, which though perhaps anecdotal, gives a sense of the malaise probably felt by many individuals in our community. The following excerpts are from an opinion piece published in The Tech Jennifer Nelson ’09. [The Tech, October 3, 2008, Vol. 128 No. 44.]

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The Institute of Perfection
How the State of the Institute Ignored
All of the Things MIT Is Doing Wrong

“I sat down on the end of a row just before the State of the Institute speech began, and quietly introduced myself to the woman next to me. She wanted to know what I was expecting President Hockfield to talk about. I guess I was expecting a mention of the supposed drop in student integrity, or the demise of the moral hacker, both of which were highlighted in that recent e-mail that caused such uproar among students. As I explained this, the woman next to me seemed surprised, and told me she was wondering about the status of the Stata leakage lawsuit.

So President Hockfield’s cheerful speech was not exactly what we thought it would be. These are unsettling times, Hockfield began, referring to the latest problems on Wall Street. But that was about as dreary as her message ever got.

Hockfield launched into a huge list of what MIT is doing right … and completely ignored what we’re potentially doing wrong. Among the strengths that Hockfield mentioned were our balanced budget for FY2009, […..] Professor Drennan of the Chemistry Department became the first professor in history to become both an HHMI Professor and an HHMI Investigator, five professors were accorded high honors in one week alone … need I go on?

Most of Hockfield’s speech focused on the Institute’s professors, building, and finances. So where were the students? MIT students were the focus of only one short video clip.

The clip showed various students talking about how they want to help people around the world with everything from energy concerns to eradicating poverty and disease. An admirable cause, to be sure. But slightly unsatisfying if you were looking for the true state of the Institute.

After hearing that inspiring clip and those incredible statistics, I thought to myself, “Is this really the same school I go to?” I mean, sure, we’re amazing students, among the best and the brightest from around the world, but it’s a bit hard to believe that our institution is this amazing despite the Wall Street fiasco, the lack of funding from the NIH, and the stressful pressure to find new energy sources. Aren’t we noticing the pinch at all? Even a tiny bit?

Hockfield is confident that MIT will pull through and solve the world’s problems. I have my doubts. Although, I suppose that it’s true that if there’s anything an MIT student is good at, it’s coming up with creative solutions to a problem when you have no idea what the heck is going on.

But what about that scathing integrity email that hit MIT students so hard? Hockfield never mentioned it once. In fact, Hockfield never mentioned anything at all critical about anybody.

That’s a little bit of a disconnect. Am I missing something here?

Jennifer E. Nelson is a marginally dissatisfied member of the Class of 2009.”

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We have begun our editorial with Jennifer Nelson’s opinion piece for several reasons. First, what students think is important, especially MIT students, who hold us to high standards, the same high standards we try to instill in them. Second, rather than an unhelpful “flame,” the style of the article is serious and thoughtful. Even the signature is measured – Nelson characterizes herself as “marginally dissatisfied.” Third, and most important, is the letter’s message.

We understand the rationale for going with a positive “State of the Institute” address. For one thing, pointing out the Institute’s strengths might make an alumnus more inclined to donate generously.

But we also know there’s more to be said about where the Institute is right now, and presenting only an upbeat view is not very satisfying to faculty, staff, or students.

The MIT faculty should be seriously discussing many problems currently facing us. Examples include: 1) the proposal to increase the size of the undergraduate student body with no increases in size of faculty or support staff, despite an evolving teaching philosophy at MIT that puts more and more emphasis on faculty/student interactions, especially in the freshman year; 2) the impact of almost certain sharp cutbacks in NIH/NSF budgets on the ability of graduate students and postdoctoral staff to secure good research opportunities and challenging, well-paying jobs; 3) continuing problems in formulating and implementing diversity policies and articulating specific goals, including directly addressing the blow to MIT’s reputation following the James Sherley case; 4) student unhappiness over MIT’s handling of the Star Simpson ’10 case; 5) the Institute’s plans for financial constraint as highlighted in the November 17 e-mailed “Letter to the Community on MIT Finances” by President Hockfield and Provost Reif.

We applaud President Hockfield’s recent appearance at the MIT Undergraduate Association’s Senate meeting on November 4, 2008 (The Tech 11/4/2008, V128, N53), which concluded with a discussion of the administration’s handling of the Star Simpson ’10 case. This is the sort of frank exchange that gives credibility to the administration, and we wish for that sort of forthrightness in all of the administrations’ communications with the broader MIT community.

With the current historic global financial crisis expected to last a year or more usual sources of Institute funding will certainly be affected; industrial research support, government funding, financial contributions and other gifts, student tuition payments, and more will likely suffer. Serious and honest discussions between faculty and administrators regarding MIT’s budget and potential areas for savings need to occur, with particular emphasis on how this can be achieved without affecting MIT’s role and mission while maintaining our commitment to student support.

Perhaps the “State of the Institute” forum is inevitably going to be a public relations production, perhaps not, but in any case there should be some forum where the faculty and administration can discuss the many difficult issues facing the Institute – frankly and candidly.

Editorial Sub-Committee
John Belcher
Ernst Frankel
Jean Jackson

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