MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXVII No. 2
November / December 2014
Issues in Considering the Future
of MIT Education
Four New Members Elected to
FNL Editorial Board
The Future of MIT Education
Preventing and Addressing Sexual Misconduct at MIT: A Faculty Primer
Reflecting on "All Doors Open"
Are We Moving Toward a Two-Class
Research-Education Society at MIT?
8.02 TEAL+x: Students Say "Yes"
to MITx in 8.02 TEAL
Addressing Student Mental Health Issues
at MIT
Advising Undergraduates or Teaching a
CI-H/HW Subject? New Enrollment Tools Can Help
Transforming Student Information Systems
The A2 Problem Set in
Undergraduate Education
Work-Life Center Announces Senior Planning Benefit and Seminar Series
The Alumni Class Funds Seek Proposals for Teaching and Education Enhancement
Being "Nice" at MIT
from the 2014 survey "Community Attitudes on Sexual Assault"
from the 2014 survey "Community Attitudes on Sexual Assault"
Printable Version

Are We Moving Toward a Two-Class
Research-Education Society at MIT?

Franz-Joseph Ulm

There is much talk about the rising inequality in our societies worldwide; I am wondering aloud whether we, at MIT, are not falling prey to this trend as well. I am not talking about the wage differential between executives, faculty, and researchers, which appears to be still in reasonable proportions compared to the excess we see in the private sector. No, I fear that we are moving into a two-class system where tenured and tenure-track faculty are on one side of the fence, while research scientists, engineers, lecturers, and other non-tenure track members of our community are on the other, even if we all call MIT our home.

Although MIT often frowns upon writing and codifying many of the rules by which it governs itself and prefers instead to follow the common law principle of historical precedence, it is nonetheless still built on the classical Humboldtian model of tenure-track professors engaged in teaching and research which is supplemented by a robust team of what in MIT-speak is designated as the Sponsored Research Staff.

The latter includes individuals with appointments of principal and senior scientists, engineers and associates, and miscellaneous other non-tenured lecturers with advanced degrees.

In an ideal academic world – such as in Sir Francis Bacon’s 1627 utopian novel New Atlantis where he describes a modern research university by the name of Salomon’s House which a few years later inspired the creation of the Royal Society – both the tenure and non-tenure-track teams should be held to the same standards and enjoy comparable, even if not identical, privileges. And to a large extent, this holds true today: The processes for the promotion of professors and research scientists at MIT are almost indistinguishable from one another. Given these high standards, it would be safe to assume that the privilege of academic freedom granted to professors through the tenure system would also apply in some form to research staff. Or at least that is what could be inferred from the tight ratio of scientists to faculty in each department where principal and senior scientists are as precious a resource as the faculty.

As I was to discover first hand after arriving as a junior faculty in my department, the difference between research scientists, professors, and lecturers is mostly an administrative and contractual one, with budget-line distinctions that have no bearing on the intellectual, research, and educational environment that makes MIT unique. Many research scientists-lecturers are pillars of our academic community, and play a significant role in both undergraduate and graduate programs all over the Institute. [An inspirational example for us all is Alan J. Lazarus (1931 – 2014), Senior Research Scientist and Senior Lecturer in MIT’s Department of Physics, whose dedication and devotion to advising and mentoring students is celebrated annually by the Institute through the Alan J. Lazarus (1953) Excellence in Advising Award. (For details, see:] They are among the most talented, skilled, and inventive educators who, at least in my department, have often been the recipients of some of our most prestigious teaching awards, although none of them was ever named to be a MacVicar Faculty Fellow.

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Thus far in my 15 years at MIT, during which time I have witnessed five department heads, four Deans of Engineering, and three Institute Presidents, I have had no reason to believe that this august academic institution could be under any threat. Quite the contrary, in my firm belief in the principle of scholarly equality, I even encouraged senior colleagues in both research and industry to consider research scientist and lecturer positions at MIT, and managed to attract some of them to join our community and to participate in our commitment to MIT’s excellence in research and education.

But as I recently have come to realize, our colleagues in the non-tenure track are highly vulnerable to intrinsic inequities built into our (still imperfect) system.

My wake-up call came with the appointment of a new department head. He believes strongly that only faculty should lead research projects and that only they should teach most subjects. Since the positions of the non-tenure track staff is at the pleasure of the departments, this change in policy immediately overruled the historical balance between tenured and non-tenured personnel, and exposed our non-tenure track colleagues to an unprecedented level of vulnerability. It opened the door for the termination of the excellent careers of many who had devoted years – or even decades – of their lives and talents to our institution. But don’t get me wrong: This article is not about departmental policies, per se, or about department heads and their considerable executive power, given that this is an administrative structure that has worked very well for our Institute. Instead, it is about the vulnerability of our colleagues in research scientist and lecturer positions to changes in the administrative chain and policies.

Over the past year in the new administration, I have seen the careers of some of the most gifted and transformational researchers-lecturers at the Institute come to an end. I witnessed the sudden change in the covenant between the administration and non-tenured research scientists and lecturers concerning the terms and conditions of their employment, with previous agreements with past department heads either voided or ignored. I have learned about the termination of their office and/or lab space allocation, and the cancellation of their administrative services by the department. On account of their eminent status beyond the walls of MIT, many have simply given up and resigned, and have sought more equitable employment elsewhere.

This vulnerability of a subset of our community to changes in the administrative chain exposes a true flaw in our system, which I believe endangers the very research and educational fabric that defines our community. I fear that this flaw makes us de facto a two-class society.

And then I realized that MIT’s non-tenure-track faculty is not alone in this predicament. In an Op-Ed in the Boston Globe of February 2, 2014 entitled “The invisible Professor: On most campuses, adjuncts are an undervalued, invisible population,” Jay Atkinson provides testimony of what some have come to call a “national crisis of academic labor.” It is regrettable that MIT should be part of that crisis, and that the dual peril to non-tenure-track colleagues described by Atkinson should take also place at MIT: unequal pay and absence of job security. [As a data point, the non-tenured teaching staff in my department often carry out their teaching duties at pay levels far below market rates. Pay for a 12-unit subject typically equals 30-40% of the price of a graduate teaching assistant (for the same time period)! In a survey of space allocation in my department, I also found out that office space allocation to faculty exceeds by 100% the office space allocated to full-time scientists and lecturers.]

My own sense is that this is an issue in urgent need of being addressed by the Institute. It is my belief that we faculty need to take a firm stand, irrespective of our tenure-status, and live up to the standards of the “MIT-Family.” Given our demonstrated ability to solve hard problems with bold ideas and inspired solutions, MIT should act now to redress this injustice, and lead the way out of this crisis of academic labor. The 1999 landmark "Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT" is a possible model for inspiration.

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