The Moral Moment: Departing Words from the
Outgoing Faculty Chair
How different are the times from when I started my term as the Faculty Chair in June 2007 and now, in May 2009, when I am at the end of my term! Unfortunately, the economic landscape now is tattered and in ruins with negative growth rate, rising unemployment, a sharply fluctuating stock market, and shockingly negative endowment returns. Aware that the economic slump may not soon end, Provost Reif has warned that an annual budget reduction of $50 million for each of the next three years may be necessary. Meanwhile, faculty salaries have been frozen for the year even as the faculty watch, anxiously, the steady drop in their 401(k) earnings.
In contrast, the political landscape has changed for the better from when I started my two-year term. President Obama’s election in November 2008, and his new policies with regard to funding for research in science and engineering, have set a new tone of progressive optimism despite the economic gloom. Also, Senators Charles E. Grassley and Max Baucus have been relatively quiet lately in their demand for more spending of endowment funds. Federal financial aid in the form of Pell grants for students from low- to middle-income families is being increased; and the federal government is eager to make low-interest loans more readily available to students to pay for their college education. Also, the U.S. has returned to the community of nations with a new attitude of cooperation and leadership in collective problem solving for a host of interconnected problems, ranging from reduction in carbon emissions to the regulation of speculative financial flows across the world. No longer the target of global criticism, in fact the moral standing our the nation is on the rise, because a majority of the American people have demonstrated that they are able to transcend racial prejudice in the hope of prosperity, peace, and equal access to opportunity.
What should be the role of research universities during this time of economic gloom and political hopefulness?
Echoing the sentiment from America’s corporate boardrooms, some have proposed that the economic crisis could be turned into an opportunity for innovative restructuring of educational practices. The goal, in this line of thinking, is to retain the financial viability of universities by consolidating their operations, reducing costs of all kinds, both for the universities as well as for the students. The stimulus package, proposed by President Obama and approved by Congress, has created some optimism for an eventual rise in research funding, but, on the whole, there seems to be a growing consensus that universities must follow the paths of private firms to remain in business: New products need to be made for old markets while keeping a keen eye on opportunities for new markets, locally as well as globally; the efficiency of production must be enhanced and distribution costs reduced by fully incorporating the advantages offered by new communication technologies; and increasing shares of the costs of research and teaching must be recuperated from private firms, governments, and individuals who have so far managed to reap the benefits of new knowledge while shifting the costs to the universities.
I do not underestimate the current economic strains impacting leading research universities, such as MIT, and I hope that the various task forces created by Provost Reif will generate innovative suggestions as to how MIT can continue to compete with the top ranking research universities in the world. My concern is not regarding MIT’s competitive strength: knowing the sheer intellectual power of the MIT faculty, I am confident that no matter what happens to MIT’s endowment income, the Institute will remain a leader in Science and Engineering; and even the other three Schools – SHASS, Sloan, and SA+P – are likely to retain their outstanding reputations. MIT will continue to be a place for inventions as well as innovations, as long as we do not lower the high standard of scholarly endeavors for which MIT long has been known.
Yet, as MIT faculty, should we ask more of ourselves, at a time when economic gloom and political hopefulness have created a unique moment for reflection?
What is expected of us as faculty, not by the MIT administration, but by people in the U.S. as well as abroad who look up to MIT as a meritocratic learning institution solely engaged in pursuing knowledge, not constrained by either social stratification, religious preferences, or business instincts. Do you remember how the world applauded MIT’s creation of OpenCourseWare (OCW)? It was hailed as a bold statement by MIT, upholding the noble principle that human knowledge should be accessible to all who care to learn.
In the past, until the student protests of the 1960s brought the issue into question, universities in general were respected as institutions that symbolized such moral principles. But, more recently, as many universities have tried to mimic the worst practices of private firms by competing for top rankings in magazines such as U.S. News and World Report, there has been growing doubts about the social role of universities and whether they really deserve the tax-exempt status they enjoy. Perhaps because of MIT’s long established reputation as a meritocratic institution without any fancy frills that has generated path-breaking innovations in science and technology for the benefit of humankind, the Institute has not been tarnished as yet by such criticism in the popular press. MIT’s policies on OCW solidified this reputation, offering people in the U.S. as well as around the world the ability to believe that there could be social institutions they can respect, admire, and cherish for upholding moral principles against market trends and governmental pressure.
The moment has arrived, it seems to me, for MIT faculty to appreciate this expectation and consider what would be the appropriate action the faculty should take as the nation and the world grapple with not only a major economic crisis, but also a crisis of confidence in social institutions, many of which are unable to uphold moral principles in the face of economic pressures. Two thoughts come to mind: One regards the practice of tenure, which was intended to defend academic freedom, a goal which is more important now than ever before; because freedom of thought is essential for social questioning of established knowledge and practices. There is a second element that also influences the vitality of academic life – namely: non-mandatory retirement, whose continuing relevance and moral underpinnings can easily come into question. Is it not appropriate that we reconsider the value of non-mandatory retirement as employment opportunities for young academics shrink, and the need for intellectual renewal becomes steadily more urgent as established paradigms of knowledge begin to stagnate?
I realize that this is not a question with an easy answer, but it is a question that must be asked and should be deliberated upon by our faculty. And, as we deliberate, we must acknowledge that the current economic crisis has seriously affected the retirement incomes of faculty; and that faculty who have been appointed with a set of contractual agreements may not be willing to reconsider such contracts even midway in their career. The MIT administration can, of course, continue to encourage faculty to retire after a significant period of employment – say, 30 to 35 years – and such incentive policies may be sufficient to induce some faculty to retire, as the evidence from this year’s (2009) retirement records indicate. I am not arguing against such incentive policies.
What I am asking is: Can we as the faculty of one of the leading research universities in the world begin to think beyond personal considerations of economic benefits and generate a moral conversation about the social responsibilities for university faculty? Can we not set a national example of what we autonomously consider are the essential elements of a life of the mind, without being pressured either by impending legislation or market fluctuations?
Should we not start the discussion as the nation enters a new phase of contrasting economic gloom and political hopefulness? If as academics we understand the social need for tenure to protect freedom of research, and also agree that intellectual renewal is absolutely essential for intellectual vibrancy and progress of ideas, why can’t we voluntarily decide that 30-35 years of full-time employment as an academic offers us a reasonable amount of time, before that same opportunity and honor is offered to other, younger colleagues?
It is not unusual to hear arguments against policy reform, especially from within a community that would experience the reform firsthand. I am aware of some of the arguments against my suggestions: that universities may not replace all retiring faculty, thereby burdening the young faculty; that initiating mandatory retirement based on fixed years of employment may have a varied impact on scholars from different disciplines; that if only universities could be more generous with retirement incentives, faculty would retire voluntarily; that the current economic crisis makes it impossible for faculty to consider retirement amidst such economic uncertainties; and, finally, that once the faculty agrees to amend the rules regarding retirement, next the tenure system will be under attack.
But the MIT faculty is not just any community, or a mere “stakeholder” who sees nothing but his/her self-interest. It is my hope that the MIT faculty will choose hopefulness over fear, celebrate collective idealism over narrow self-interest, and thereby lead the world in reaffirming that universities as social institutions still uphold moral principles, autonomously, without either the coercive power of government or pressure from market forces.
And, after all, retirement is not the end of our life of the mind: As I read, periodically, Professor Emeritus Robert Solow’s beautifully written pieces in The New York Review of Books on various economic issues, I am awed by the immense potential for social and intellectual contribution one can make long after one’s retirement.