From The Faculty Chair
The Role of Faculty Officers During
MIT's Financial Restructuring
What is the appropriate role of the faculty officers as MIT grapples with unprecedented financial problems?
One option, which some of you have already suggested to me, is for the faculty officers to be directly engaged in any Institute-wide effort, such as the one proposed by Provost Rafael Reif in his e-mail to the MIT Community on December 11, 2008. Provost Reif himself sought active participation by faculty officers as well as other faculty members since he started thinking about how to institutionally address the looming financial challenges. This deserves praise from the faculty because it acknowledges the primary role of the faculty in any restructuring effort at MIT and assumes that any innovative solution would require deep involvement by faculty who are known worldwide for innovative and fresh thinking not tainted by either ideology or political opportunism.
True, there is some concern about who should direct the deliberative process: Whether it should be top-down, meaning responding to priorities articulated by the senior administration, or whether it should be a relatively decentralized process, seeking the collective preferences of rank-and-file faculty members at MIT.
Such faculty may not be knowledgeable about the intricacies of the Institute’s financial investments, but understand at a gut level what it takes to produce top quality research and good teaching. I believe Provost Reif is quite aware of this dual need – some form of central guidance as well as decentralized sources of innovative ideas – and has blended the two sources of institutional intelligence in structuring the task forces. The faculty officers were asked to participate actively in such task forces to ensure that policy outcomes will incorporate their concerns.
There is a second option, however, for the faculty officers – one that rests on the assumption that they should serve as a an advisory group articulating the anxieties of the faculty who may not be invited to join the task forces, while monitoring the process of policy formation without direct involvement. This option does not necessarily advocate a confrontational role for the faculty officers vis-à-vis the senior administration: It assumes that good policy making requires active participation by some faculty as well as careful monitoring by others, who, if needed, could “speak truth to power.” Accordingly, the faculty officers could serve as an institutional mechanism for faculty to voice critical opinions and propose alternative preferences that are less likely to emerge from centrally formulated task forces.
This does not mean, however, that the faculty officers would run a parallel process of policy making undermining the legitimacy of the formally constituted process. It would be quite the contrary: If faculty are provided an opportunity to express their concerns confidentially to the faculty officers who can then convey those concerns to the leaders of the task forces, the legitimacy of the formal policy outcomes will be further strengthened. While it is true that for such a process to work well the faculty officers cannot be totally outside the policy making process, this is not likely to occur because the Chair of the Faculty is a member of Academic Council, which meets weekly to deliberate all policy issues. In addition, the Chair of the Faculty attends meetings of the MIT Corporation. Moreover, as Chair of the Faculty, I meet with the Provost, one-on-one, on a regular basis, and as faculty officers we meet with the President and the senior administration once a month in setting the agenda for the monthly faculty meetings – yet another venue when any faculty member can raise questions pertaining to Institute affairs. Add to that the role of the Faculty Policy Committee (FPC) that meets bi-weekly, providing yet another forum that can be utilized to converse with the task force leaders regarding issues of concern to FPC members.
As your Chair of the Faculty, I have decided that I can serve you best during the last semester of my two-year term by following option two. Needless to say, my effectiveness and that of the other faculty officers depend entirely on the level of communication with you. We hope you will share with us your hopes as well as anxieties, either via e-mail or in face-to-face meetings, and we will retain total confidentiality in conveying your preferences and worries to the task force leaders as well as to the senior administration. Please note that you can also meet with us over lunch on the first Wednesday of each month, and that one of us usually attends the monthly Random Faculty Dinners hosted by Jay Keyser. If none of these options are convenient for you, please e-mail me directly and I will set a time for us to meet.
I look forward to working closely with you in turning our financial difficulties into opportunities for making MIT an even better learning community.