From The Faculty Chair
Faculty Governance @ MIT:
Strengths and Future Challenges
Over the past two years I have come to appreciate the unique nature of the MIT governance structure and process. I would like to use my last column as Faculty Chair to comment on some of its strengths we should celebrate and carry forward, and some challenges that will test its ability to adapt and facilitate changes that lie ahead.
MIT is rather unique in not having either a faculty association or a faculty senate. Instead the heart of the governance structure is built around 11 standing faculty committees plus several focused awards committees. Approximately 100 (10 percent) of the faculty participate in any given year on one or more of these committees, and in doing so oversee a broad spectrum of educational programs, student life, and community affairs.
A key to the success of these “faculty committees” is that the faculty members are joined by students, administration representatives, and professional staff.
Students not only bring their fresh eyes and perspectives to bear on agenda items, but their presence signals the inclusive nature of our governance system – with all its shared responsibilities. Each committee is also supported by an able and experienced staff person who knows how to get things done at MIT and provides continuity and institutional memory for rotating chairs and members.
The Faculty Policy Committee (FPC) coordinates the work of the separate committees and is the gatekeeper for bringing resolutions and changes in rules to the faculty meetings. These are its routine functions. But the FPC is also the closest thing we have to a “strategic” committee. It can take up any agenda item of concern or interest. This year FPC started something I hope will be replicated in the future: Individual members visited departments to get first hand impressions of faculty concerns and priorities. By getting peer-to-peer input and then comparing across departments, new data and new themes emerged, which we summarize in a separate article in this newsletter.
The faculty officers (Chair, Associate Chair, Secretary, and Chair-elect) constitute a team that meets monthly with the President, Provost, and Chancellor to plan agendas for faculty meetings. The regularity and informality of these meetings provide opportunities to discuss issues on anyone’s mind and serve as another channel for informal input and dialogue.
The Faculty Chair serves as both the representative of the faculty and as a voting member of the Academic Council, and has access to confidential personnel (voting on all promotion and tenure decisions), financial, and other information. Like all such high level deliberative bodies, influence is the joint product of the trust and unique information one carries into these discussions.
These features produce a climate that supports collaboration and problem solving. This governance process will continue to work well as long as the faculty trusts and respects the administration’s need to make decisions, and administration leaders respect the faculty’s role in setting or reaffirming the Institute’s basic values and principles. Faculty officers need to maintain their independence and to “tell truth to power” when necessary, and to advocate for changes in practices or decisions that the faculty deem important enough to question or challenge. Losing touch with the faculty, or being marginalized by administration leaders, will set in motion processes that will lead to more formal, arms-length, and second-best governance arrangements. So it is important that we stay the course with this unique MIT experiment in shared governance.
MIT is a diverse place and getting more diverse by the day. In contrast, most of the faculty rules and regulations were written in an era when department boundaries were well defined and teaching was carried out on campus in conventional lecture halls and laboratories at uniform times of the day in fall and spring semesters of uniform length. Much of this has already changed and more change is on the way. One of the greatest challenges (and opportunities) facing the governance system in the years ahead will involve managing – indeed facilitating – these changes.
We have seen a glimpse of the future and associated challenges these past two years.
- New discoveries and emerging global problems have led to new majors and minors. The Energy Minor required invention of a new (experimental) governance system that will soon be extended to oversee a sister Minor on Environment and Sustainability that is under development. These new programs are forcing our committees to rethink the basic purposes of a Minor and the rules governing them. For example, do we expect students to take mostly additional coursework outside of their major to be certified as having mastered the Minor’s domain or should prior coursework be counted?
- New flexible and cross-departmental degrees are emerging in Engineering, Science, and Management in response to breakthroughs in science and technology that require new analytical or computational skills (think Computer Science and Biology), recognition that innovation requires integration of organization, technical, and human skills (think Leaders for Global Operations), and awareness that big complex problems require effectively designed and managed complex systems (think Engineering Systems Division and System Design and Management).
- As our teaching mixes more on- and off-campus experiences and/or incorporates new student populations, the traditional calendar and associated rules no longer fit the schedules of these programs (think Executive MBAs, and our growing number of international alliances in Singapore, China, the Middle East, etc.).
- As teaching moves more toward project- and action-based learning (think D-Lab, S-Lab, G-Lab, and forthcoming experiments in modular courses sponsored by the Provost), end-of-term regulations governing when classes end and exams may or may not be given no longer serve their original intent of protecting students from overloads at exam time.
- As on-line and social networking technologies advance, new opportunities for asynchronous teaching, peer-to-peer learning, and global reach of our educational materials proliferate, how, who, when, and where we teach and learn will change dramatically.
All of these changes can be either slowed down or made difficult by holding to rules written for another era, or facilitated and aided by our experimental mindset. The governance system must be agile enough to support and learn from these innovations while holding everyone accountable for maintaining and indeed raising the standards of excellence that are the hallmark of MIT.