Interview with MIT 2030 Task Force Chair Tom Kochan
The following interview between the Faculty Newsletter (FNL) and Tom Kochan (TK), the Chair of the Task Force on Community Engagement in 2030 Planning, was held on January 17, 2013. [Click here for the complete Task Force Report.]
FNL: Maybe we could start with you giving a brief background on the formation of the Task Force and its role as you see it.
TK: When the new provost took office, he was clearly concerned that the faculty not had a voice in the Kendall Square development process, and particularly that the voice of the experts on the faculty who work on these issues professionally hadn’t been heard. And so our primary role was to provide advice to the provost on whether to move forward with the rezoning process for Kendall Square and to advise more generally how faculty input could be achieved in the MIT 2030 process.
FNL: Do you think that this could have been handled more effectively from the beginning or do you believe that MITIMCo [MIT Investment Management Company] taking the lead was an appropriate way for MIT to approach this type of thing?
TK: I think we all agree it would have been better for the faculty to be working with MITIMCo and other professionals on the staff right from the beginning, but that’s not what happened. And so when we were asked to get involved, our approach was to review where we were and then to go from there. To start all over would have been a waste of resources because we have good professionals in MITIMCo and within the administration who had been working on this very intensively for quite a while, and we didn’t want to throw out the good work that they had done, nor be limited to what they had done.
FNL: Then when moving forward with additional projects or additional planning, would you recommend an Institute-wide Planning Committee or some similar structure?
TK: That’s the issue we’re working on right now. We’re thinking about what the right structure will be for faculty, students, and others in the community important to the planning process. Exactly what structure that will take is something that we’ll report on sometime this term.
FNL: Right now the administration makes all the final planning decisions. Do you think that might change in the future?
TK: On issues like this, all committees are advisory to the provost and the president, and that’s appropriate. This is an MIT administrative strategy on how to use its resources to build the campus, design the campus and invest in properties close or far away from the campus. That should stay as a president, provost, and Corporation responsibility for this. The faculty’s role should be to provide expert advice and to be taken seriously while bringing the community’s voice to the process.
FNL: So to what extent do you think the voices of the faculty and the community were heard in the MITIMCo planning process, and how does the Task Force plan to proceed in the future?
TK: The first and most important thing was to solicit input in the Task Force deliberations, and we heard from many people who really care about these issues and who have expertise on housing, on transportation, on real estate, on the future of the campus. That was priority number one. Priority number two was making sure that our report was disseminated widely to the community and to again solicit comments, suggestions, reactions. OK, that we did. The Provost distributed the report as soon as he got it and had a chance to read and react to it. So that was very positive. We then talked with the Faculty Policy Committee [FPC] about it. It was also summarized at a faculty meeting, and we continue to meet with faculty members as we go along. So I think we’ve got to do many and varied things to get faculty input.
FNL: What about using a faculty meeting in particular to solicit input?
TK: We can use faculty meetings, but I’m acutely aware that it’s very difficult to get a representative sample of faculty to come to faculty meetings, unless there’s a crisis. We don’t see this as a crisis, but we’re going to continue to look for ways to get input – probably more discussion at faculty meetings, maybe some special faculty forums as we’ve done in the past, and other ways that faculty can suggest.
FNL: What about the sequence of events regarding MITIMCo presenting the up-zoning petition to the City of Cambridge?
TK: The sequence was that we issued the report to the Provost in the first week of November. The Provost took about a week to absorb it and talk with his colleagues, and then was immediately back to us to say he agreed with our analysis and our recommendations and in fact wanted us to go beyond what we recommended, and to work with MITIMCo to see if there could be modifications of the draft petition that they had in place. And so then we did work with them pretty intensively for about a three-week time period, and they did make modifications right up until a few days before their submission of the petition. So MITIMCo responded to our report at the instruction or request of the Provost, and then they submitted it.
FNL: But that was the second time MITIMCo presented their petition. Do you think there might have been a better way to handle things from the very beginning?
TK: For me that’s all water under the dam. That wasn’t the deck of cards we were dealt in August when the Provost took office and formed the Task Force. We spent relatively little time looking back and saying what should have happened, because we didn’t think we could change history.
FNL: So from what you’re saying now it seems like the Task Force negotiated with MITIMCo – and I’m using that word “negotiated” carefully – because my real question is does MIT work for MITIMCo or does MITIMCo work for MIT?
TK: MITIMCo works for MIT. It reports to the upper administration through the Executive Vice President and Treasurer [Israel Ruiz]. And I really expect that to continue. MITIMCo doesn’t operate independently. It may have had a different mandate in the past than it does now. Clearly, MITIMCo has a fiduciary responsibility to get the best rate of return they can on real estate investments. And it should be held accountable for that, but it also should be held accountable to meet the kind of criteria that we laid out in the Task Force report regarding academic space. I think everyone now understands that, and that’s the way I think we’re going forward, and I would say MITIMCo accepts that view of its role. I think the negotiations revolved around under what conditions would it make sense for MIT to put a petition before the City of Cambridge and we worked to find a solution that allowed us to go forward given the timeliness of the petition and the fact that the City of Cambridge really wanted MIT to come forward now with the petition for its own reasons, and we respected that. That was part of our consideration as well.
FNL: One question that faculty are asking is why the seeming “rush to judgement?” What was the need to present the petition right now?
TK: I think there are three reasons why now. The first is that the City of Cambridge really wanted MIT to come forward now. There’s a deep interest in the Kendall Square redevelopment project and the City wants to work with MIT. So first it was demand driven by the City. Second, a lot of hard work had gone into this process already. We had an opportunity to modify both the substance of the proposal and the criteria by which it would be evaluated. And so we were satisfied with the response of the administration to the recommendations in our report and therefore we said under those conditions we should go forward. And then the third and maybe equally influential factor was that we have assurance that the faculty will play a key role in the critical design process that will occur once the petition has been approved. And we were reassured by people in the City and by the professionals who understand this process that it’s that design process where the real specific planning decisions are made. And in fact we are right now working on how to design the specific part of the plan that relates to what we call the gateway area of the Kendall Square development.
FNL: A key question in this development process is the issue of graduate student housing. For many years there have been concerns expressed by faculty and students about the need for additional housing on and/or off the campus. During the MITIMCo presentation at the Cambridge Planning Board last Tuesday, Israel Ruiz said that a 12-18 month committee process will be needed to assess the needs of graduate student housing at MIT. Given that the Task Force did its work in roughly three months, and that the MIT Graduate Student Council has done a thorough statistical analysis that we’ve published in the Newsletter, why would so much time be needed?
TK: I don’t know exactly how much time it will take. The key is to do it carefully and whatever time it takes should be allocated. Housing needs to be looked at in the larger context of what are the overall needs of our graduate students and where does housing on or off campus fit? We have every assurance from the Provost that this is going to be a serious study and will be taken seriously.
FNL: So accepting that we don’t know how long such a study will take, does that mean that the design and construction of the proposed large commercial buildings in the MITIMCo proposal will be delayed until this study is completed?
TK: I think they will go on in parallel. How they play themselves out in terms of actual timing is yet to be determined. Housing is a campus-wide issue. It’s not just a Kendall Square issue, and so if there’s a report that comes out that says we need X more units for student housing, then the question is where? And that should be part of the overall 2030 process. Kendall Square is a part of that.
FNL: My understanding is that the up-zoning petition is specific in certain areas such as location and height for future construction, but that it’s fairly open in terms of exactly what’s going to go to be built where. Isn’t it going to be difficult to be actually constructing things while the housing study is going on? What if the study finds that some of the land where commercial real estate is being built is needed for housing, for example?
FNL: The impression I got from the Planning Board meeting and from others as well is that the approval process might still take a while (it needs to be passed by the Cambridge City Council) and that there is still quite a bit of flexibility involved before construction decisions are finalized. What’s your sense of that?
TK: My sense is this is an evolving process and the Planning Board will weigh in and suggest some things that might be modified or they would like to see modified. And then the City Council can propose changes and then they can put in modifications as well. So I think all the way through the process, it’s subject to change. How that plays out is anybody’s guess.
FNL: Several Cambridge residents spoke at the Planning Board meeting, and much of the concern expressed was related to building heights, location, signage, and the like. How aware do you think the faculty is of some of these more specific concerns?
TK: We haven’t gotten any specific input or critiques of the height of the buildings or the placement of the buildings because I don’t think the faculty has engaged at that specific level. My sense is that once we start the design process and we illustrate with visual, physical mockups and invite people to look at them, then we will have lots of points of views expressed. There’s a pretty standard set of protocols in the architecture field, as I’m learning, and there are likely to be computer-generated and physically built models. And we will have an opportunity to look at what this might look like, and maybe move this building around over here and move that over there, and what would that do to the gateway. Right now what the re-zoning petition does is it to set a maximum on height and square footage and all of those broad parameters, and the way to think about this is what would be the upper limits literally of what could be done? And then once we have those, then we can think about what’s the right configuration.
FNL: What about the discussions concerning a physical gateway to the Institute?
TK: My hope is that whatever we do we have a gateway that says you are now at MIT; that they’re at a really innovative and important place and that it’s a welcoming feeling. Those to me are critical features of the East Campus and of the gateway. That it’s a portal to MIT that’s really a learning portal, that people can understand the history of Kendall Square and how it was a vibrant manufacturing center a long time, and then evolved to a sort of abandoned set of warehouses and then how it’s changed, has become an innovation center and a commercial center and an academic hub. That it shows that as we continue to co-evolve in creative ways, we always honor the history and the past.
FNL: Finally, there’s been some concern expressed by the administration about graduate students, or faculty members, or other MIT community members appearing at these public hearings. Any comment on that?
TK: Well, first any faculty member or any member of the community should feel free to exercise his or her right to speak at a community event, because there is no single voice for MIT. Second, when doing so, I think there’s a responsibility that when they’re going to speak out that they first are well informed on exactly what is going on here at MIT so that they’re not speaking in a way that is uninformed. So I think there’s a responsibility to be well informed, to talk with those of us who have been involved in the process because sometimes there’s lots of informal and off-the-record conversations that have gone on and a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes that doesn’t show up in the formal presentation but is really important. And we can share that information with people who really do want to get involved
FNL: Is there anything else you’d like to add before we finish?
TK: I think this has been a really helpful experience both for the faculty and for the administration. This was the first major effort of the new administration to reach out to the faculty and ask can you provide us advice, can you do it on a timely basis, can you give us your honest and open views to be well informed by both experts and the faculty and a broad cross section of faculty in general? And I think it’s worked, and I think it gives the President, the Provost, the Chancellor confidence in reaching out to faculty for this kind of thing in the future. I think it gives the Task Force and the faculty the sense that this is an administration that really wants this kind of input and that you can trust them to take it and then make good decisions. And so I hope that this was an example of faculty input, faculty governance, the respect for the administration to have to make decisions and do their job, and that we can go on from there.
FNL: Thanks so much for doing this interview, Tom.
TK: Thank you.