MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XVII No. 3
January / February 2005
Initial Impressions
Food for Thought:
Issues for the Next 10 Years
An Open Letter to the MIT Faculty: Maintaining Integrity at MIT
Themes On Love; Like This;
Within Another Life
Some Further Thoughts on the FPC Suggestions on Faculty Governance
Aimee Smith Found Not Guilty
Quality of Life Issues at MIT
What's All This About Export Controls?
In It But Not Of It:
Nine Years in the MIT Administration
Nuclear Engineering Department
Changes Its Name
An Update on the Cambridge-MIT Institute
Teaching this spring? You should know . . .
Research Expenditures By Primary Sponsor, 1997-2004
"Please rate the following dimensions of your program" [from the Graduate Student Survey 2004]
Printable Version

From The Faculty Chair

Food for Thought: Issues for the Next 10 Years

Rafael L. Bras

MIT works - and it did so at its best during the selection of Prof. Hockfield as our new president. The process that evolved and the seamless collaboration among the Corporation Committee on the Presidency, the Faculty Advisory Committee to the Corporation, and the Student Advisory Group, was exemplary. It is a story and a process that should be shared, perhaps another day. At the center of that process was the joint committee's outreach to the faculty in their different academic units, the students' compilation of their thoughts and opinions, and the seemingly endless hours of general discussions.

Following are some of the issues that were raised that many in the community believe will be most important during the next decade. I do want to emphasize that this is my personal interpretation and in no way represents the opinion of anybody else involved in the process of selecting the new president. Furthermore, the issues I present in what follows are not in any particular order, nor do they represent a comprehensive list.

The next decade will not look the same as the last 14 years. As successful as the last 14 were, the next decade will require new approaches, processes, and even organization.

MIT, at all levels, must maintain its nimbleness, novelty, and willingness to evolve within the broad confines of its research and education mission. Evolution does not refer only to what we do but also to how we do it.

Many on the faculty and staff feel that communication among the various parts of the institution – faculty, students, corporation, and administration – needs to improve . Some expressed the opinion that some significant academic and policy decisions had been made without sufficient consultation.

Improvement in governance is one of the mechanisms to deal with improvements in communication. It is not only an issue of the "administration" communicating with the faculty and the community, but also of the faculty governance structure (and the faculty officers) communicating better with the faculty and offering opportunity for dialog. There is a need to engage the faculty better and have them "buy into" major decisions and initiatives.

There is no doubt that concerns about participation were amplified when the financial winds turned sour. Getting a handle on the financial situation and reassuring people that we are out of the woods, (or on the way out), is terribly important. People at MIT are "doers" and hate pessimism; they like an optimistic, problem-solving attitude. The challenge of taking advantage of exciting opportunities, however difficult, is better received than messages of doom and gloom.

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There has been significant progress in the recruitment of women, but we are far from declaring success. The recruitment of underrepresented minorities to the graduate student body and the faculty lags behind; in fact it is very bad . Last year's faculty resolution and Faculty Policy Committee white paper on the subject of minority recruitment and retention has energized the community. Now there is a great opportunity for positive action.

We have capitalized well on the move to a knowledge-based World economy. Technology and science are driving productivity and we have the leadership, with excellent but limited competition. This situation presents three challenges. First, how do we satisfy the demand we helped create and the implication of (necessary) growth and corresponding resources? Second, how do we keep the advantage and deal with the unavoidable increasing competition? Third, how do we resist the temptation to become a single-issue institute of technology (or a few issues, e.g., biology, information technology, management) versus a university with the responsibility to maintain excellence in social sciences, humanities, and yes, other less glamorous fundamental sciences and engineering (e.g., environment, physics).

MIT generally acts responsibly, and through knowledge creation, should impact positively on generations to come; but should it have a more explicit agenda for social responsibility?

Outside of OpenCourseWare and other isolated initiatives, the Institute has no position on social responsibility. One example would be efforts on sustainability and environment; another would be activities to improve health and reduce poverty in developing countries.

A review of the educational commons is under way. It is unclear how it will ultimately shape up or how deep into the total educational culture will it go. Nevertheless, this review has the potential for triggering dramatic changes in MIT and its culture. This is just what happened 50 years ago in a similar effort; all attempts since then have failed. If this review is going to be a constructive exercise it will need to engage the faculty in serious debate. This could be a vehicle for positive change or the source of divisiveness and unhappiness. The challenge lies in distilling the uniqueness of the MIT undergraduate education and maintaining it, while discarding those elements that are obsolete or have a net negative impact on the undergraduate learning experience. On a related issue, we must deal with the need for more and better undergraduate residence alternatives if we are to bring back the undergraduate population to the levels that existed in the past and that the academic system is able to support.

Our ability to attract the best of the world is threatened by outside, sometimes valid, barriers related to homeland security. MIT must work to maintain the principle of open scholarly pursuits and educational opportunity for all .

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The cost of research must be kept under control . This could come with increasing emphasis on graduate fellowships. The recently completed fund raising campaign fell short in that dimension. At the same time, attention to the well being of graduate studentpostdoctoral fellows must increase. There is a need for more centralized monitoring of what goes on in graduate admissions, particularly in relation to the recruitment and retention of underrepresented minorities and the size of the graduate student body.

MIT has been a wonderful community, generous to its employees and to the fellow citizens living nearby. Keeping that tradition is an important challenge. Top on the list of concerns is the need to get a handle on medical insurance benefits, as well as to maintain what has been a much valued and cherished benefit by active and retired employees .

Despite the fact that over one-third of the faculty has been hired in the last 10 years, many academic units are aging rapidly. The majority of these units are heavily tenured. Most of us love our job and MIT, and thus the lack of mandatory retirement within the existing tenure system is an invitation to stay as part of the active faculty as long as possible. There is no incentive to do otherwise. The problem is not lack of productivity and contribution to the education and research agenda by the older faculty. Generally we are more than capable of holding our own, even in advanced age. The omnipresent issue is how to bring fresh blood into the system at the pace that a trail-blazing institution requires . The young are not brighter and not necessarily better, but they are different and bring new ideas. They also have the energy and fresh ambition to carry those ideas to fruition.

As I said at the beginning, the above set of issues arose during the presidential search and I find them compelling. I have not attempted to develop the ideas, let alone suggest approaches or solutions. I do hope that they can spark debate in the community that will result in improved collective wisdom about potential solutions, clarification of concepts and, I am sure, even more important issues.

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