From The Faculty Chair
The Year Ahead: Accelerating the Pace of Innovation
As I begin the second year as your Faculty Chair, I’d like both to reflect on some lessons learned in my first year and invite you to join me in making this a year of innovation and strategic action. By doing so we can demonstrate that our unique faculty governance system is a model for getting things done.
Two impressions stand out. First, a wide range of problems and issues are brought to the attention of the Faculty Chair, some of which are clearly within the defined responsibilities of this role, but many that can only be addressed by serving as a bridge between faculty and administration leaders. The malleability and imprecise boundary of this role is a strength of MIT’s unique governance system that allows us to invent ways to solve problems without being slaves to some rigid rules or traditions. This flexible and permeable boundary is a true advantage, one we need to preserve.
Second, this role also provides opportunities to bring the faculty’s voice into the processes that end up, de facto or by design, shaping our future. I see a number of such opportunities that I believe warrant faculty consideration and action this year.
One of the biggest strategic issues on the minds of many faculty is our international strategy. A number of faculty have asked: “What is MIT’s international strategy?” “Indeed does it have one, and, if so, are we following it?”
Last year two important international reports (“Mens et Manus: New Directions for Global Education and Research at MIT,” a report of the MIT Global Council, and “Guiding Strategies for MIT’s International Activities,” a report of the International Advisory Committee) were produced that together help sketch the principles their authors believe should guide MIT’s international strategies. The International Advisory Committee, co-chaired by Associate Provost Philip Khoury and Vice President for Research and Associate Provost Claude Canizares, has continuing responsibilities for reviewing new and existing international programs. This year we are likely to have opportunities to apply the principles laid out in these reports as proposals for new alliances are considered with countries as diverse as Russia, Haiti, and Brazil.
These come on top of major new initiatives signed in recent years with Singapore, Portugal, Abu Dhabi, and others. The requests for MIT to partner with countries and universities around the world are bound to escalate in the years ahead. We need to be proactive and purposeful in developing our international footprint or it will be defined for us as we respond to individual requests and opportunities proposed by others.
Our role in helping Haiti recover from the devastating earthquake illustrates both the strengths and weaknesses of how we respond to requests for engagement. Clearly, the magnitude of the devastation and the close proximity of this neighbor moved all of us to respond in our individual ways. Many at MIT made financial contributions. Previous issues of the Faculty Newsletter also highlighted various projects students and faculty groups initiated. This is MIT at its best – grass roots initiatives bubbling up in response to a clear need or opportunity. Now we are in a second phase in which MIT is being asked to help rebuild the university system in Haiti by drawing on some of our unique capabilities and resources such as OpenCourseWare and experience with faculty mentoring programs such as the Sloan School’s International Faculty Fellows initiative. A group of interested faculty is exploring ways to do this in partnership with Haitian education leaders.
But unlike most of our other international partnerships that come financed by the partner country, our work with Haitian partners needs to be funded by outside donors and/or with in-kind MIT resources and time commitments. How should MIT respond to requests such as this? Should some of the funds generated in well-funded partnerships such as those with Singapore and the Middle East be used to support worthy projects and partnerships in less well-endowed regions of the world?
A second long-term challenge facing MIT is how to adapt our governance system to an increasingly interdisciplinary world. Power and authority are concentrated within MIT’s departments and Schools. Appointments, promotion and tenure decisions, course and degree requirements, teaching allocations, and budgets, all flow through departmental and School structures. Yet increasingly the world’s big problems do not reflect departmental boundaries. MIT has historically been quite innovative in building cross-disciplinary laboratories in response to emerging problems. The MIT Energy Initiative and the Energy Minor are two recent examples of this type of response. Hopefully, this coming year equivalent cross-disciplinary research and educational programs in the Environment and Sustainability area will be launched.
The Koch Cancer Research Center will be another highly visible interdisciplinary effort to attack a major national priority and need. Each of these required invention of new governance arrangements. My sense is there will be many more initiatives like these coming in the years ahead. I suggest now would be an excellent time to review the positive and negative lessons learned in putting prior and existing cross-disciplinary initiatives in place and to use these lessons to ask how our governance processes might better reflect the changing boundaries of knowledge, research, and education.
The future of undergraduate education is another strategic topic and locus of innovation that continues to be discussed in a variety of forums and modified at the edges. Is the standard two-semester, fall-spring, classroom-focused model still the best way to organize student learning?
That model may have been optimal when students were needed back on the farm to help with the summer harvest, but this is hardly a current constraint. How can we take full advantage of project based learning, team projects, UROP, the multitude of internship and related off-campus field experiences, OpenCourseWare, and other e-learning technologies? None of these are substitutes for intensive classroom teaching and learning.
The question we need to keep exploring is how these and other learning tools might best complement and reinforce what we do when we have students in our classrooms. In the best MIT tradition, I expect this to be an arena of considerable local experimentation and innovation this year and beyond. We might do well to capture the changes occurring in our undergraduate programs as we go along so we can consolidate and build on lessons learned.
A critical part of the innovation process involves implementing ideas to get things done. Last year’s report on Faculty Race and Diversity identified a number of ways to strengthen recruitment and retention of minorities. Each School Council has now reviewed and discussed the report and its recommendations and a number of Schools and departments have already taken steps to strengthen their processes. One area highlighted in the report is the need to strengthen faculty mentoring. The Associate Provosts for Faculty Equity and I are planning to bring together some of our best and most experienced mentors to explore how we can spread the skills and practices that have demonstrated their value across the Institute. Keep an eye open for more communication on this issue as the year moves on.
The Institute-wide Planning Task Force is likewise now well into its implementation phase. My hope is that we continue to demonstrate our ability to follow through and implement many of the ideas proposed by this creative process. Some ideas are already in place – Digital MIT took big steps by implementing electronic payroll and travel reimbursement processes and project teams are hard at work developing implementation plans on the host of other ideas that were generated. More decisions lie ahead as the groups exploring revenue generation options complete their work. Stay tuned as these reports are circulated for further input, discussion, and decisions.
These are some of the more proactive, strategic questions on my mind at the beginning of the term. I invite you to join me in exploring them and demonstrating the value added of our faculty governance system.