A Brief History of the MIT Faculty Newsletter
as it Marks 30th Anniversary
This coming year will mark the 30th anniversary of the “zeroth” issue of the MIT Faculty Newsletter (FNL). The FNL was founded in response to the decision of then Provost John Deutch to close the Department of Applied Biological Sciences (ABS), without following the Rules and Regulations of the Faculty. Absent a faculty senate or equivalent deliberative body, there was no mechanism at the time for faculty to discuss key issues freely with each other. Indeed the Editorial Board of the FNL, elected only by faculty, is still the only committee at MIT where faculty discussions can occur without administrative intervention.
During the ensuing years, the Newsletter has provided a forum for expression of faculty concerns and views, a major channel of communication among the faculty, and a means for candid debate on difficult issues. The primary guiding principles have been to provide open access for faculty and emeritus faculty to express views on issues of concern through control of editorial policy by the faculty Editorial Board, independent of influence by the MIT administration. Areas where the independence of the Newsletter have been important include the first public release, on our Website, of the report on the “Status of Women Faculty at MIT”; the publication of the Special Edition Newsletter devoted to responses to the Report of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons, to which more than 40 faculty contributed; exploration of health insurance, pension, and retirement issues; compacts with foreign governments; minority recruitment and promotion; and provision of affordable graduate student housing.
We believe it is still instructive to reflect on the ABS case. On January 6, 1988, faculty members of the 43-year-old Department of Applied Biological Sciences, then Course 20, were informed by the MIT administration that the department would be phased out over the course of the coming 18 months. The department at that time consisted of about 200 members, including 24 faculty, 86 graduate students, plus undergraduate majors and support personnel. In a subsequent article in The Boston Globe of February 2, 1988, MIT officials were quoted as saying that the plans to phase out the department arose “. . . because it is not meeting the intellectual standards expected of a department at MIT. . . .”
The following paragraph is from the same article:
“While no jobs will be immediately lost, MIT officials said some tenured and non-tenured faculty may end up leaving the Institute. They said “every effort” would be made to place tenured faculty in other departments, but no guarantees have been extended to faculty, or to secretaries and other support staff. Four non-tenured assistant professors may lose their jobs when the current contracts expire. Graduate students in the department will be allowed to finish their degrees.”
The response to this disbanding of the department was immediate and overwhelmingly negative. Graduate students in the department circulated a petition with over 110 signatures, maintaining that statements by the administration in the Globe as well as those “. . . appearing in Science and in other scientific journals seemed to publicly label the faculty and students as second rate. The question is not only whether MIT will award degrees to current students, but whether those degrees have been discredited, said a research associate who had gotten a graduate degree from the department…” [The Tech, February 19, 1988]. At the regularly scheduled Institute faculty meeting in February, every faculty member who spoke deplored the decision-making process used in disbanding the department. “Professor Gerald Wogan, the head of the department, read a letter from the department faculty which expressed ‘disagreement with the decision’ and ‘disappointment with the surprising process’ by which the department was disbanded. The letter said the process lacked ‘due process and adequate review’ and noted that the faculties were not given ‘the opportunity to respond professionally and effectively to criticism.’” [The Tech, February 19, 1988].
As a result of the March faculty meeting, an Ad Hoc Committee on Reorganization and Closing of Academic Units was formed whose members were Glen Berchtold, John Essigmann, Morris Halle, Henry Jacoby, Phillip Sharp, Arthur Smith, and Sheila Widnall (Chair). The complete report of this committee was distributed to the faculty prior to the May 18, 1988 faculty meeting. The conclusions of that report are online at web.mit.edu/jbelcher/www/ABS/, and we quote two of the paragraphs from those conclusions.
“It is the view of this committee, and we believe of the faculty at large, that a key to the success of the Institute his been the maintenance of a system of shared governance. Few of the MIT faculty see themselves in an employee-employer relationship with the Administration. Rather, most feel that the Administration and faculty share a joint responsibility for sustaining the excellence of the Institute. They expect that, when important choices arise about mission or internal organization, they will naturally be involved in the process leading up to decisions and in the planning of implementation.
. . .
“Aside from the issue of shared responsibility, a source of concern in this case arises from the collective regard of the faculty for one another. It is the perception of the faculty that members of ABS were poorly treated in the process: the unfavorable publicity that impacted their careers, the lack of understanding and communication by the Administration as to the nature of the Institute's commitment to their careers, the lack of consultation prior to the decision, and the announcement of the decision without a detailed plan for assuring the continuity of the careers of the faculty. This is not acceptable treatment of faculty members at MIT by its administration. The incident raised apprehension in the minds of many about the meaning of tenure and the obligations to junior faculty, other MIT personnel and students. We believe the faculty needs a clear statement on these issues and below we make recommendations to this effect.”
One of the lasting results of the ABS closing was the fact that the changes in Policies and Procedures recommended by the Widnall Committee were subsequently adopted. In the merger of the Mechanical Engineering and Ocean Engineering Departments, these procedures were carefully followed, but few current faculty members know the history that led to the adoption of those procedures.
The second lasting change (at least so far) resulting from the ABS closing was the founding of the MIT Faculty Newsletter. At the time of the dissolution of the ABS department, MIT faculty members preparing a petition calling for a reversal of the administration’s actions had difficulty in circulating the draft broadly due to the unwillingness of the administration to make faculty mailing lists available. In addition, with the faculty meeting agenda set and the faculty meeting chaired by the President, fully open discussion was not easy. The FNL emerged as an effort to establish open lines of communication among faculty. In the zeroth issue of the Newsletter, Vera Kistiakowsky wrote:
“A group of faculty members which has been discussing the recent events concerning the Department of Applied Biological Sciences has concluded that difficulty in communication prevents faculty consideration of the problems except in crisis situations. There exists no channel for the exchange of information between faculty members for the discussion of problems at MIT, since neither Tech Talk nor the faculty meetings serve these purposes. Therefore, we decided to explore the desirability of a newsletter, and one purpose of this zeroth edition is to see whether there is support for such a publication.”
There was significant support for such a publication, and the subsequent 29+ years of issues of the Newsletter after the “zeroth” issue can be found in the Newsletter archives. Initially the Newsletter was supported by contributions, but given that the faculty brings into MIT a large amount in research income, it seemed reasonable to the first FNL Editorial Board that a tiny fraction of that be returned directly to the faculty to finance the Newsletter. It was a full nine years after these origins that President Vest formally agreed to support the publication costs and a salary for the managing editor of the Newsletter. This battle has had to be fought continually in the years following.
For the first 20 years since its inception, the Newsletter was maintained by a volunteer Editorial Board, over time involving more than 30 members of the faculty from all Schools of the Institute. Subsequenlty, we moved to a more formal nomination process, and direct election of Board members by the full faculty. (See a call for Editorial Board nominations in this issue's editorial.)
During this period there have been some efforts by some administrations to end or limit the publication of the FNL. One case is described in “The Saga of the Struggle for Survival of the Faculty Newsletter” in the March/April 2007 issue.
The Newsletter has come to be widely read, not just at MIT but outside as well, through the online edition at web.mit.edu/fnl. The FNL Website also can potentially serve as a forum for discussion of national and international issues. With the support and involvement of MIT’s faculty, the Newsletter will continue to play an important role at MIT and beyond.