From The Faculty Chair
MIT Values and Culture
The search for MIT’s seventeenth President provided an unusual opportunity to poll the MIT community on the challenges and opportunities facing the Institute, and to engage in discussions about what candidate qualities the Search Committee should be seeking. I participated in the majority of the Search Committee’s meetings with community groups. Summaries of the major discussion points were prepared and distributed to the entire Committee. The Search Committee will be meeting with our President-Elect, Professor L. Rafael Reif, during the last week of May to share many of the things we learned. There were many recurring themes in our discussions, ranging from the need for renovation of many of the campus’ buildings to the expectation that the share of MIT research that will be supported by the federal government will diminish significantly in the near future. But there were also quite a few discussions centered on MIT’s values.
The topic of MIT’s organizational culture has interested me since I took a class called “Cross-Cultural Conflict” two years ago at UMass Boston. One of the papers we read for the class was “Organizational Culture,” written by our colleague MIT Sloan School of Management Professor Emeritus Edgar Schein (American Psychologist 45 (2) pp. 109–119 (1990)). Schein defines culture:
Schein makes the point that an organization’s cultural assumptions are not easy to pin down and that they are best investigated by an outsider through extensive observation, interviews, and analysis. I proposed writing a paper about MIT’s culture for one of my classes at UMass and my professor, David Matz, discouraged it because he’d “have no way of judging if [my] analysis was correct.” My interest in the topic has not waned, and in light of all the input to the Presidential Search Committee it seemed like a good opportunity to revisit the idea. While my perceptions of MIT’s culture are based on more than 30 years on the faculty, they are those of an engineer, not a psychologist or ethnographer, and may overlook important issues. Nonetheless I do hope this column will spur discussion of the topic, and I look forward to learning more from future discussions.
An organization’s values are distinct from its culture, but they provide a tangible window into its culture. A number of values were expressed repeatedly as the Search Committee surveyed different groups:
Integrity was mentioned as a top priority in screening candidates for President, and it certainly is a foundational aspect of MIT’s culture. The swift dismissal a few years ago of a highly-visible member of the community who falsified a résumé and the extensive publicity about the disciplinary action exemplify the depth of MIT’s commitment to this aspect of organizational culture.
Meritocracy is also a fundamental value of the MIT community that was mentioned frequently as something held dear by the community. The Institute’s rigorous processes for undergraduate and graduate admissions and processes for faculty promotion and tenure certainly reflect our focus on academic excellence.
A commitment to diversity was another consistent theme. While achieving the Institute’s diversity goals is a work in progress, the recent past has seen significant steps forward, such as: founding MIT’s Presidential Committee on Race and Diversity (1994), The Report of the Status of Women in Science (2002), the Diversity Leadership Congress (2008), the Report of the Initiative on Faculty Race and Diversity (2010), the Inventing our Future Website (2011) and the recent highly successful Diversity Summit (2012).
Individual viewpoints on meritocracy and diversity vary on campus, and have been expressed prominently in recent articles for the Faculty Newsletter and The Tech. Schein’s article claims that disagreements over values are common in organizations and can provide insight to organizational culture.
Creativity is celebrated at MIT. The Institute has a wonderful reputation for fostering innovation and entrepreneurship, and we excel in the arts.
MIT also excels at collaboration. The relatively porous boundaries between departments, and increasingly between Schools, play a huge role in our success. Collaboration pervades research, educational programs, and community activities. It requires flexibility of organizational structures as well as governance systems and we do this very well.
We place a very high value on educational opportunity at MIT. This is exemplified by curricular breadth, the incorporation of cutting-edge research into classroom experience, extensive engagement of students at all levels in research, adaptation of new technologies to enhance learning, and needs-blind undergraduate admissions.
Several groups expressed appreciation of “one MIT” – the collective educational breadth of MIT’s five Schools, and the value that students get by exposure to the variety of perspectives and methods of thought of different disciplines.
Each of these values is embodied in MIT’s Mission Statement (see web.mit.edu/facts/mission.html).
Considering Schein’s definition of organizational culture, and the values expressed to the Search Committee, I suggest the following as a set of components of MIT’s culture:
Cultural assumptions are deeply held and slow to evolve, especially in large organizations like MIT. But though deeply held, the assumptions may not serve the organization’s long-term interests as the world outside MIT evolves. Understanding the assumptions is critical for an organization’s leaders. What tensions currently exist because of these assumptions? Do these tensions indicate the assumptions are outmoded? If they are outmoded, what steps can the Institute’s leaders take to promote change? Schein’s article discusses a number of “embedding mechanisms” that leaders can adopt to effect change, such as setting criteria for awards, deciding what annual data to collect, and changing organizational structures.
We are embarking on a new phase in MIT’s history, with a new President and a community that has recently been engaged in serious reflection about MIT. Understanding assumptions about MIT culture and assessing their appropriateness in 2012 should serve to inform MIT’s new leadership team and help chart a course forward.