MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXI No. 4
March / April / May 2009
Should One Size Fit All?
Rethinking the Math Core
Tom Kochan New Faculty Chair
Distrust of Educational Innovations
Engineering Excellence in Challenging Times
Leadership Skills for Engineering and
Science Faculty
Interview with Director of MIT Medical
Dr. William Kettyle
Update on the Faculty Renewal Program
Newsletter Adds Two Board Members
The Moral Moment: Departing Words from
the Outgoing Faculty Chair
MIT Faculty Vote to Make Their Articles Openly Available
TA Training Bootcamp Reinforces Curriculum Innovations and Improves Recitation Experience in Freshman Chemistry Course
MIT Faculty Work/Life Website Created
MISTI Launches Call for Second Round of Global Seed Fund Proposals
Laughing Together
West Garage
Bernard M. Gordon-MIT Leadership Program: Developing Engineering Leaders of Tomorrow
The Need for Interdisciplinary Education
MIT 150 Exhibit to Celebrate Institute's
150th Birthday
The Federal Research Dollar
on the MIT Campus
The Future of Medical Care?
Printable Version

From The Faculty Chair

Distrust of Educational Innovations

Bish Sanyal

By a vote of 81-69, faculty in attendance at the February 4 special faculty meeting supported the motion to restructure the General Institute Requirements (GIRs). Breathing a momentary sigh of relief at the support for the motion, the extent of the opposition to the motion tempered my sense of joy at a new educational innovation. Why did so many faculty oppose the motion?

The situation quickly then took a different turn as I was reminded, rather gently, by Professor Tom Greytak that, since the motion called for changes in the Rules and Regulations of the Faculty, its passage required a three-fifths vote of the faculty in attendance, not a simple majority.

Gradually the reality sank in that the motion prepared after seven years of work by a large number faculty from all five Schools had, in fact, been defeated.

I left room 10-250 in a state that I did not clearly understand; to be sure I was disappointed, having voted in favor of the motion, but still I was appreciative of the need to ensure a broad base of support for any such significant change. Apparently the GIR motion had not been successful in creating that support.

“What could I have done differently?” I asked myself. But after a few days of conversations with faculty on both sides of the issue, I realized that the outcome could not be explained adequately by focusing only on a few individuals who had nurtured the initiative; that there seems to be a general sense of discomfort – even of distrust – of any new educational initiative requiring some reconfiguration of the status quo.

A few examples of what I consider distrust may be useful to ground the discussion about this unpleasant topic. Take, for example, the issue of the “core plus flavor” course option recommended by the Subcommittee on the Educational Commons. Did I perceive a sense of distrust of the motive underlying this recommendation that was intended to simply broaden the offerings and reduce the rigidity of the current curriculum? Likewise, did I sense distrust that courses taught by faculty other than those from the home department of the topic area could not be of high quality? At a time when interdisciplinarity of knowledge is widely acknowledged as necessary for innovation, why this hesitation and distrust – as if some faculty could not be trusted to meet MIT’s high standard of rigorous course offerings?

I could provide more examples, but let me mention only two, one of which actually shook my faith in MIT’s faculty governance system.

As evidenced by recent votes at faculty meetings, there seems to be some distrust that quality control of educational offerings cannot be enforced by faculty committees, such as CUP (Committee on the Undergraduate Program) or CoC (Committee on Curricula); that every proposal for curriculum change must be debated on the floor of the faculty meeting even though these meetings are not attended by a large number of faculty. What is the basis of this distrust?

Are there examples when the standing committees failed to uphold high standards? Can we not staff these committees with responsible, thoughtful, and experienced faculty members, or do such faculty not want to participate in the faculty governance system? As a second example, let me mention that I have sensed skepticism regarding whether or not educational innovations, such as the “design option,” have been thought through sufficiently. True, it is not easy to create rigorous courses that would cultivate sophisticated design sensibilities using multidisciplinary methodologies, but why distrust that it cannot be done? Where is the spirit of joyful experimentation and trust in our own ability to learn from mistakes? Why does distrust of others seem to be gaining ground at a time when what we need is exactly the opposite sentiment – that of mutual trust and collegiality – feelings which are essential for multidisciplinary approaches to problem solving?

I am not naïve enough to think that trust can be restored by simply a change of heart. We need to identify organizational and other material factors that create distrust, and certainly there could be multiple reasons for it. The most obvious one is the fear of change; as if all changes must have hidden agendas to disrupt the way we – the faculty – enforce professional standards. Then, there is the “communication hypothesis”: that somehow the level of communication among the faculty has weakened over time (for reasons not clear to me) and that this is creating distrust. Others have pointed out that the centralization of administration and/or corporatization of governance has fueled distrust. The logic of this assertion is not clear to me, either. I am not talking about trust between the faculty and the administration, but among the faculty. Perhaps the process by which the GIR recommendations were crafted was not trustworthy? This question is painful for me to even ponder, because I know how much time and effort Bob Silbey as head of the Undergraduate Task Force, and Charles Stewart and Bob Redwine, as heads of the Educational Commons Subcommittee, spent on talking to various departments and Schools. Moreover, all three made a series of presentations at faculty meetings over the past two years, incorporating many modifications proposed by the faculty.

Some faculty have complained that the recommendations were too radical; others that the recommendations were neither strong nor innovative enough. So further amendments were proposed at the February 4 faculty meeting prior to the vote, and these amendments were incorporated into the motion to create a broad base of faculty support. But, still, the motion ultimately failed to muster the three-fifths majority necessary, and we are now back to where we were in 2002 when then-President Charles Vest first charged a special task force composed of 26 faculty from all five Schools to help improve MIT’s undergraduate education.

As we struggle to put together the pieces, I am trying to think of MIT not as the proverbial Humpty Dumpty, but as an educational entity with a common purpose and a unified faculty who not only appreciate technological innovations, but educational innovations as well.

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