MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XVI No. 4
February / March 2004
The New President
The New President
Improving Our System
of Faculty Governance
Update on Women Faculty in the
School of Engineering
Recommendations for Improving
Faculty Quality of Life
FRADS Supports Faculty Fundraising
Reminiscences: Fifty Years on the Engineering Faculty
A Formal Recommendation
to the MIT Corporation
The Center for International Studies
The Clinical Research Center
The Operations Research Center
Beyond Fuzzy Definitions of Community:
A Report and an Invitation
Cambridge and MIT:
Exchanging Students, Exchanging Ideas
Information Services & Technololgy (IS&T):
The Focus is on Service
Campus Growth (1985 – Present)
Printable Version

Recommendations for Improving Faculty Quality of Life

Charles Stewart III and Gareth McKinley

"It is not enough to be busy, so are the ants. The question is: what are we busy about?"

- Henry David Thoreau

Like the weather, we often talk about the quality of MIT faculty life, but rarely do anything about it. The Provost's Ad Hoc Committee on the Faculty Quality of Life is trying to reverse this tendency, by exploring a range of policies and programs that might ease some of the most vexing problems facing faculty members, all of whom are trying to lead successful professional and personal lives.

Several committees have studied faculty quality of life at MIT, most recently the Task Force on Family and Work. (For further details see the MIT report at faculty/reports/qol.html.) Numerous committees have also studied the topic at universities we would consider our peers. Most recently studies were done at Stanford and Berkeley.

These efforts have tended to identify a consistent set of themes that help characterize the pressures that buffet the connection between faculty professional and private lives.

It is because past findings, at MIT and elsewhere, have been so consistent that the current Ad Hoc Committee has chosen primarily to re-articulate those themes, expending most of its effort on identifying and refining a proposed set of solutions.

Back to top

The common themes from past studies on this subject include the following observations:

•  MIT faculty members experience a great deal of stress - a level that exceeds that of senior managers in the private sector, though it remains to be seen if it exceeds that in other elite universities.

•  Faculty members who consistently report the greatest stress include the following groups: women, those younger than 45 who have children at home, and those who are untenured. (These categories, of course, combine in interesting and important ways.)

•  The nature of family-related stress is changing among the rising generation of tenured and tenure-track faculty, owing to larger societal changes. That means that as these faculty members age and their children move from home, family pressures will not abate as they did with prior generations.

•  It is very difficult for MIT faculty members to afford a house that is close enough to the MIT campus so that they can be active in extra-curricular campus activities, or where they can take full advantage of the Boston/Cambridge cultural life and be satisfied with the schooling of their children.

•  MIT faculty members usually feel obliged to take on more responsibilities than they should; MIT as an institution does this, too. There is no effective way to budget the use of time at the Institute, whether by individual faculty or by the Institute as a whole.

We all recognize that MIT is a high-pressure environment. Indeed, most of us chose to teach at MIT because of that environment.

Yet as the famous quote by Thoreau about the ants suggests, the question is not whether we are pressured, but whether we feel pressure about the right things, and whether that pressure is conducive to our success, as colleagues, friends, and family members.

Back to top

Thinking hard about the pressures facing MIT faculty, and adjusting policies and programs to accommodate those pressures, isn't just solipsistic, or at least needn't be. Evaluating the quality of life of MIT faculty is critical for the continued success of MIT as one of the elite institutions of higher education in the world. MIT's pressures don't exist in a vacuum [pun intended]. Other institutions and organizations that employ people who come from the same background as our faculty face them, too. The institutions that address the new challenges facing highly educated and driven professionals will continue to recruit and retain the best - whether they work in medicine, law, research institutions, or universities.

What is to be done? A place to start is to understand why a wide variety of MIT faculty members believe their personal and professional lives are out of balance. This has to do, of course, with MIT's well-known culture of intensity and hard work. To change that would require uncovering the assumptions on which the culture rests, critically challenging the institutional practices that emanate from them, and then experimenting with ways to retain MIT's excellence while easing people's lives.

This may well be important, but cultural change takes time. In the meantime, MIT needs to change some of its policies and procedures in order to ameliorate the culture in which we find ourselves. And the hope is that a new set of policies and procedures could help shore up a new set of cultural practices.

Whatever the mix between long- and medium-ranged goals, the Ad Hoc Committee on Faculty Quality of Life has identified five broad categories of areas where MIT needs to consider changing its policies, initiating new programs, or some combination of the two.

These categories are (1) housing, (2) professional support for traditional on-campus roles, (3) extended personal and family support beyond MIT, (4) the common faculty environment, and (5) the career path. Below we list some proposals in each of these categories that the Committee has been discussing, based on ideas adapted from colleagues at MIT and elsewhere. We have only recently begun examining many of these in any depth, but they all deserve attention, if for no other reason than they start the conversation among faculty and with the administration about what sort of work environment we want to evolve to at MIT over the next decade.

Back to top

Here are some ideas:


•  Begin a mortgage program that will allow senior faculty to buy a home close enough to MIT that the commute isn't onerous, that they can partake more actively in Boston/Cambridge cultural settings, and can meet family school needs more flexibly.

•  Enhance existing options available to junior faculty to create a mixed program, of mortgage assistance and rental subsidies, that will allow junior faculty also to live closer to campus, in better circumstances.

•  Institute a housing relocation program that gives special assistance to junior and senior faculty when they are hired.

•  Construct MIT-owned housing units in Cambridge and Boston, within walking distance of campus.

•  Incorporate faculty housing in new residential construction, especially construction of graduate housing.

•  Build mixed-use buildings close to campus that would incorporate academic and housing functions.

•  Construct affordable short-term housing for faculty and research visitors.

Professional support

•  Establish an allowance to faculty members, independent of departmental allocations, which would allow them to hire office support staff.

•  Provide more lab managers and senior lab technicians to assist faculty in managing their laboratories and raising funds.

•  Provide on-call information technology support for faculty home offices.

•  Create more active support to help manage the deluge of junk e-mail inundating faculty.

•  Expand departmental support for the creation of lecture demonstrations and presentations.

Back to top

Extended personal and family support

•  More actively assist spouses in finding employment - primarily for relocation but also to allow more spouses to work on campus or nearby.

•  Sponsor after-school programs and summer camps for children of MIT faculty and staff that take advantage of MIT's strengths in science and technology.

•  Provide subsidized childcare services for MIT faculty members for after-hours meetings and professional travel.

•  Provide a clearinghouse and/or an allowance to assist in handling household duties.

•  Enhance the retail establishments close to offices that provide household services, like dry cleaning.

•  Enlarge the mandate, publicity, and budget of the MIT Work/Family Center.

Common faculty environment

•  Establish a real Faculty Club as a common and central gathering place for faculty.

•  Continue/renew support for on-campus medical services (MIT Medical).

•  Sponsor housing so that retired faculty can live nearby and continue participating in campus life.

•  Establish quality, dedicated office space, with support, to allow emeritus faculty to be regularly engaged in Institute life.

Career path

•  Establish a part-time tenure track, for faculty who wish to devote considerable time to care for family members.

•  Establish "re-entry post docs," to allow former faculty members or research staff to re-enter academic life after extended time off for family considerations.

•  Require that funds retained by departments for faculty leaves be used to cover teaching responsibilities.

•  Adapt the existing sabbatical system to provide one-semester sabbaticals after every six semesters of teaching.

•  Allow sabbatical leaves to be "banked," up to some reasonable limit.

•  Reduce the number of promotion steps, eliminating (pick one) the untenured associate professor promotion or the separate promotion to full professor.

Obviously these changes are far-reaching and span the gamut from relatively simple and cheap to implement to very complex and expensive. However, it is important to develop a spectrum of options focused on improving faculty quality of life that might be implemented long after the current (and hopefully short-term) budget difficulties abate.

The goal of the Committee is to develop a lasting document that contains a series of well-developed ideas that can be prioritized by the faculty, to provide guidance to future administrations.

Have we identified the key issues that affect you? Have we missed anything? Later this spring we will be surveying the faculty in two ways: using a mass survey instrument to gain feedback from all faculty members, and conducting focus groups to discuss the ideas outlined above in greater detail. Finally, we also welcome your comments and suggestions by e-mail or in person. The Committee has established a Website with a feedback forum to solicit input: .

While just as busy and teaming with activity, MIT differs from the anthill in one important way: unlike the ants, we can view our work with perspective, and potentially alter our environment if we believe the work is out of balance. We can even challenge the fundamental parameters that define our work. If we can attend to improving our work environment so that our personal and professional lives mesh more harmoniously, not only will current residents of our anthill benefit, but we will also be a more enticing place for future generations.

Back to top
Send your comments