Comment on the FPC Suggestions
on Faculty Governance
As previous chairs of the faculty, we have been asked to comment on the Faculty Policy Committee's suggestions to improve faculty governance, which were published in the last issue of the Faculty Newsletter (Vol. XVII No. 1, September/October 2004).
We appreciate very much and applaud the effort by the FPC on this important undertaking. We find the report to be useful in characterizing the MIT faculty governance structure and processes and in codifying the roles of the officers and committees. We agree with the view that strong faculty governance is essential to the well being of MIT, and that effective faculty governance requires substantial faculty involvement and commitment. We agree with the FPC assessment that the current system has served us well, and that we have had a very healthy relationship between faculty and administration for a good period of time. As the report states, "Nobody considers the system broken, but . improvements are possible.."
We provide our reactions to the FPC report in a collegial spirit with the intent to foster more discussion and debate on the issues and ideas raised in the FPC report. We comment on five proposed changes that we have identified in the report.
Increase the stature of the office of the faculty chair with more resources – people, space, and budget. Certainly more resources are always nice, but we are not sure about the rationale or justification for making this expenditure. In our experience, we found that we had adequate support for normal business, and could work with the administration to find extra resources if and when needed. We also worry, in general, that adding space and staff would result in more bureaucracy, with minimal benefits.
Increase the term of the faculty officers from 2 to 3 years. We would prefer to keep these terms at two years. The primary reason is that this permits 50% more people to be involved - and the more people that can be involved, the stronger will be the faculty governance system. We also worry that a longer term will dissuade some from participating, as the time commitment would be too great. Indeed, including the year as an active chair-elect, someone would need to dedicate four years when assuming the role of the faculty chair.
Increase faculty attendance at faculty meetings. The report suggests several tactics to doing so including having the meetings chaired by the faculty chair, designating department representatives to attend, changing the agenda to make it more relevant, changing the time, etc. Though we are not sure that all of these would lead to greater attendance, we would welcome experimentation to improve faculty meetings and increase participation. Certainly we can do a better job at designing the meetings so that they are an efficient use of everyone's time, and so that they are of more interest to faculty.
Nevertheless, we don't regard the status quo as indicative of a major problem in faculty governance. On the contrary, we feel it is more indicative of the overall good relations between the faculty and the administration.
When issues arise in this relationship, faculty meetings become large. Our view is that the meetings are there if we need them, and they are a good forum for awards, for putting information out to the community, and for presenting/discussing findings of ad hoc committees. The faculty meetings tend not to be a good forum for typical business, which is done better by the standing committees (e.g., new degrees, changes to requirements); but they do provide an important check on the work of the committees.
We also regard having the faculty meetings chaired by the president as a good thing and not to be given up lightly. At MIT, the president must show up at faculty meetings; indeed, the third Wednesday of each month during the academic year has been a no-travel-day for President Vest. The president chairing the meetings actually makes him/her accountable to the faculty. When the administration really angers the faculty, the president cannot duck but has to show up and face the music. Also, at divisive times, the president can play a calming role, as was the case, we are told, with President Howard Johnson in the late '60s.
Increase the size of FPC, and enhance its role in the coordination and oversight of entire faculty governance structure. We agree that we could and should improve the role and status of FPC so that it does a better job of coordination, communication, and oversight for the faculty governance system as a whole. Having liaisons to the standing committees and regular communication with these committees are very good ideas. If this would require more faculty on the committee, an argument could be made for that. Otherwise, we are not sure that an expansion of its role necessarily requires an increase in the size of the FPC, but we would want to ensure a high ratio of faculty relative to others on the committee. We also expect, given this greater role for the FPC, that there should be even more care and deliberation in choosing the composition of the committee, so that it is representative of the faculty.
Increase the role of the faculty chair in the nomination process. In particular, the report proposes that the outgoing chair would select the nominating committee; currently the president does this. This is potentially the most significant change proposed by the FPC. This idea would address a perception that the nominating committee is too close to the administration, but we don't fully agree with this perception. Nor are we sure that the faculty chair should be involved in the choice of his or her successor. Perhaps the nominating committee might be chosen based on inputs from the faculty officers. A less-radical change might have the president and outgoing chair work together to select the nominating committee.
In addition to these proposed changes, the document spells out the roles and responsibilities for the faculty officers. This is most useful as a guide, but we would hope to avoid rigid job definitions that might inhibit spontaneity and innovation. We would worry that having very explicit roles/responsibilities written "in stone" would reduce some degree of flexibility that we might like to have.
Finally, in light of the change of administration, we would encourage some patience in exploring these ideas. During the Vest presidency, there has been an extremely positive working relationship between the administration and the faculty governance system. We would expect to continue this with President Hockfield. As President Hockfield sets up her administration, she will need some time to learn about and appreciate our faculty governance system, its strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps it would be wiser to wait until this new relationship has been established before contemplating any major change.