Altering the Culture of MIT
At this time, all U.S. social institutions, colleges, and universities are feeling the pressure of the economic downturn. The convergence of critical trends – such as declining endowment value; budget cuts for state-supported institutions due to lower tax collection; and parental unemployment reducing student budgets – has created a crisis in higher education of unprecedented proportions. To some extent, research universities remain somewhat buffered by the distribution of ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009) funds through the NIH, NSF, and other R&D agencies. But this buffer is limited and does not compensate for this critical financial shortfall. Most of the nation’s universities are currently engaged in efforts to cut operating budgets as a response to unambiguous financial signals.
MIT is no exception to the general trend. The Institute’s efforts to steer through these difficult times are summarized in the August 16 Preliminary Report of the Institute Wide Planning Task Force. This is an important document. We appreciate and commend the time and effort that the 90 staff, 85 faculty, and 20 student members devoted to this difficult task. The Report covers a wide range of options in a balanced and thoughtful way. All of us will find proposals that make us hopeful, skeptical, or nervous – as the case may be. The proposals harbor powerful potentials for altering the fundamental “culture” of MIT. It is therefore important, indeed necessary, for MIT faculty to read the proposals carefully and stay apprised of changes under consideration – not only for their own departments or units, but also for other parts of the Institute.
To the extent that we can engage in a self-examination process, we will all contribute to help steer MIT through this highly difficult period. This process is necessary, but of course difficult, and needs the full intelligence and experience of Institute personnel to ensure a valid assessment. We believe that surgery such as that proposed in the Report is delicate and must be considered in all of its multidimensional perspectives. Most important of all, it is imperative that we explore the unintended consequences so that we are not caught unaware when the results are not what we have intended. It is all too easy for the rationale of cost savings to create trajectories that will harm, not help, an already tenuous situation. We recognize that no one can foresee all of the consequences – intended or otherwise – but a careful reading of the Report points to some powerful self-defeating impacts.
One of the most contentious suggestions pertains to changes in teaching load. This proposal could have a dramatic impact on MIT’s culture as well as its financial sustainability.
It is common knowledge that MIT is a research-driven institute. Faculty, students, and staff all engage in exploring the frontiers of knowledge in their respective fields. It is also well known that faculty and students do not consider their work at MIT subject to an arbitrary allocation of their time to a variety of activities. Indeed, many surveys have shown that both students and faculty dedicate a disproportionate amount of their time to their MIT activities. Perhaps unintentionally, but most certainly inadvertently, the Task Force Report seems to suggest a new administrative involvement in the faculty’s own allocation of its time among activities such as teaching, research, advising, etc. This, in itself, is worthy of careful scrutiny.
A related, and seemingly arbitrary, proposal is to increase the teaching load of faculty accompanied by a concomitant reduction of the number of graduate students. At first glance, this proposal appears economically valid in the short run. But it will have severe negative consequences that we must not overlook. If the teaching load is increased, then by definition the research activities and the productivity of the faculty will be reduced.
We base this expected result on the evidence provided by several surveys pointing to the absence of any slack in faculty and students’ time. Indeed, anyone familiar with the Institute would find the notion of “slack” to be at variance with both dominant values and observable behavior.
Increasing the teaching load of the faculty is a worthy proposal, as long as we all understand its consequences and are willing to reduce time allocated to other activities, most notably research.
To begin with, this is a very serious and fundamental change in the operation of the Institute. It should not be ignored nor accepted without significant discussion on its unintended consequences. More teaching means less research. Less research means lower research volume. Lower research volume means reduced research contracts, grants, or other forms of financial resources for the Institute. All of this is simple arithmetic. There is nothing interpretive or “ideological” here. Is this a direction that we wish to travel? Can we put the research volume at risk and expect no impact on the Institute’s overall mission? What about the unintended financial consequences?
We encourage debate and discussion, and invite your views on this most important issue. Please e-mail your submission to firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact any member of the Newsletter Editorial Board.