Random Faculty Dinners Approach 30th Anniversary
I became Associate Provost at MIT in 1985. That was why I happened to be present at a Faculty Policy Committee meeting when Joel Moses – he wasn’t to become Provost for another 10 years – complained to the committee about the low ebb of collegiality at the Institute. There was, he said, a crying need for the faculty to get together socially. He followed his observation with a suggestion: Why not have weekly dinners at which faculty were randomly invited?
As a newly minted associate provost I was looking for things to do. I was also primed by a comment that a member of EECS had made to me just a few weeks earlier. He said that he had an office just two doors away from another colleague in his department. He told me that if he saw that colleague once a year he’d be surprised.
I asked close friends at the Institute what they thought of the idea. Most of them thought it would never work. People were too busy to take time out for collegiality. I decided to give it a try. My first dinner suggested the doubters were right. An inauspicious 13 people showed up.
To ramp up the attendees I tried ramping up the number of invitees. That did the trick. The magic number was 20%. If I sent out 200 invitations, I could expect 40 acceptances. (That percentage, by the way, is roughly the percentage of faculty who belong to committees outside their departments.)
The dinners have truly been random. At the start of each year, Allar Toomre provides my assistant, Charlotte Gibbs, with a list of numbers from 1 to 1000 randomly generated. Charlotte matches the numbers on the list to an alphabetically sorted list of faculty and voila, the invitees for each monthly dinner. Of course, people decline. When they ask to be kept on the list, we do. So the randomness leaches out as the year goes on. Even so, there has not been a single dinner that I have hosted where someone has failed to meet a colleague he or she did not know before the dinner.
The dinners were first held in the Greer Conference Room in Building 36 thanks to the generosity of Joel and then Paul Penfield. I had them catered from outside. They invariably involved chicken and some outlandishly rich dessert. The monthly ritual was the same. Come at 5:15 pm for wine and cheese. Sit down to dinner at 6:15 pm. Leave at 7:30 pm.
The dinners coasted along in this pleasant fashion for a decade. I was pleased that faculty were pleased to come. I enjoyed hosting them because it gave me an opportunity to meet faculty that I would otherwise not have met.
Over the course of the Random Faculty Dinners, as they came to be called, I made two important changes. The first was to move the venue from the Greer Conference Room to the Emma Rogers Room. This room is among the Institute’s most elegant with an incomparable view of Killian Court, the Charles River, and the Boston skyline beyond. I thought the faculty deserved a little class. It also made it possible for me to use the services of Tim Healey, the chef in charge of the room and his assistant, Simoney Cantieri. They added several more stars to the rating. I should have done that years earlier, but Tim and Simoney weren’t around then.
The second important change came about as a result of a comment made at a dinner about 20 years ago. One of the guests, Robert Fogelson of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, said, “You have a unique opportunity. This collection of people belongs to no particular unit. At these dinners they aren’t constrained by departmental politics. Also, they will never meet again. Why not set some time aside at the end of the dinner and ask them what’s on their minds?”
From that point on I relegated 45 minutes at the end of dinner to ask the faculty what was on their minds. I took careful notes and prepared a summary of that evening’s discussion, always anonymous. If a faculty member did not want to be anonymous, I would ask him or her to send me an e-mail that I would append to the end of my summary, again only with the faculty member’s approval. I sent the summary to the President, the Chancellor, the Provost and to all the faculty officers. I have been doing that for the last 20 years.
Perhaps that is why these dinner discussions have become something of an event in themselves. First and foremost, they have provided the faculty with an opportunity to vent, pure and simple. That’s not a small thing.
More importantly, these summaries constitute a record of the faculty pulse. Going back over them I find certain recurring topics. The one that most often occurs is the character of an MIT education and the character of its students. It is remarkable the extent to which faculty care deeply about these issues. You might expect faculty to be primarily concerned about their own situations: tenure, salary, space, research support. It is true that these topics often arise. But never with the regularity of undergraduate teaching. The most recent take on undergraduate education was a complaint that students seem more interested in meeting course requirements than mastering course fundamentals. In the dinner I am referencing, this complaint came from faculty across all the Schools except for SHASS.
In recent years a recurring topic concerns what has been called “corporatization” of the Institute. This word has been used to cover a multitude of sins, from excessive form filling, to complicated rules and regulations, to a change in the sense of MIT as a community of faculty, staff, and students.
What I think it amounts to is the failure of the old rules to apply with respect to the faculty and the administration. The old rules were about an administration that the faculty saw as themselves in suits. The new administration has brought in a multitude of new faces, many not from academia. This novel situation requires a new protocol. “Corporatization” is a way of saying the protocols aren’t yet clear.
Here, in random order (pun intended) is a short list of the issues that have come up over the past two years:
One of the things I’ve noticed over the years is that the tone of the discussion is often set by the tone of the first issue. If the opening salvo is critical, then the evening follows suit. If it is positive, then the evening is a love-in. I haven’t fretted too much about that because whether critical or adoring, the comments of the faculty are invariably interesting. I wish there were some way to bottle these discussions and sell them.
The dinners have been solidly supported all these years by the administration. That said, they have not been immune to cutbacks. We no longer have fresh flowers on the tables. Not to worry. Charlotte made up a sign with a picture of a bouquet and the legend “Ceci n’est pas une composition florale” with thanks to Rene Magritte’s painting Ceci n’est pas une pipe. These signs are displayed on each table. So far no one has been disposed to take one home. Pace the flowers, the food continues as good and as elegantly presented as the conversation.
As for the future of the dinners, well, I hope they outlive me. I turned 75 in July!
Ed. Note: Jay's new book, I Married a Travel Junkie, is reviewed here: alum.mit.edu/pages/sliceofmit/2010/08/23/traveling-reluctantly/.