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

Some Further Thoughts on the FPC Suggestions
on Faculty Governance

Steven Lerman

The proposals for changing faculty governance published in the September/October issue of the Faculty Newsletter (Vol. XVII, No. 1) and the comments by Professors Bailyn, Graves, and Vandiver in the subsequent issue have stimulated a useful discussion about how we, the faculty, organize ourselves to be a part of policy decisions at MIT. As a former Chair of the Faculty, and in the spirit of encouraging continuing dialog within the faculty on this matter, I thought it useful to add my own views to the debate.

In thinking about the merits of FPC's recommendations, I found it helpful to first reflect on the intended and actual roles of faculty governance at MIT. My overall sense of what faculty members want from their governance system is as follows:

  1. Most of us want a governance system that allows the faculty a significant voice in major policy decisions without taking a great deal of time away from the core mission of teaching, research, and service. In the absence of the rare major schism between the faculty and administration, most faculty members are content to have a small number of us represent our collective interests.
  2. We want the administration not to over-manage research and educational directions. The success of MIT largely rests on faculty members pursing research and education in a way that is minimally directed by the administration. The real work of the Institute is largely accomplished in individual faculty members' labs, departments, and research centers. This does not preclude the administration's coordinating and directing initiatives that require such central leadership, so long as this does not limit individual initiatives. And, the faculty clearly wants the administration engaged in developing the resources needed for many of the initiatives we view as important.
  3. Faculty members see certain decisions on matters such as grading policies, academic requirements, and major student disciplinary questions as mostly within the domain of faculty governance. In these areas, we want our governance system to lead rather than follow.
  4. The faculty, for the most part, wants policies in areas other than those covered in point 3 above to be formulated and implemented by the senior administration, trusting that this administration will seek input from faculty leaders to inform such decisions. To a great extent, we trust that the administration will make policies and budgetary choices that are in the best interests of the university.
  5. In the rare situations in which the administration considers or makes decisions that run contrary to strongly-held views of a substantial fraction of the faculty, we want a governance system that can be mobilized to have a major voice in those decisions. In short, the faculty wants to be able to provide a balance to administration decision-making in those situations where the issues are important enough to warrant our time and energy.
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With these broad goals in mind, I concur with the views expressed by the Faculty Policy Committee (and Professors Bailyn, Graves, and Vandiver) that in general, our governance system meets our needs and for the most part, serves us well. Nevertheless, I think some of the FPC's proposals would improve the system in important ways.

While I understand the arguments of Professors Bailyn, Graves, and Vandiver against increasing the term of the Chair of the Faculty from two to three years, I nevertheless support that FPC recommendation. During my own experience as Chair, I felt that by the time I reached the point where I was comfortable in the position, the incoming Chair and I were already thinking about the transition to the next Chair's term in office. A third year, which could be optional, would allow for the faculty's major representative in administrative decisions to be much more effective.

I agree with Professors Bailyn, Graves, and Vandiver that increasing the size of FPC isn't necessary, and that doing so might make an already large committee unmanageably large. The FPC (led by the Chair of the Faculty) is the only representative body that can legitimately speak on behalf of the entire faculty; enlarging it could make it difficult to reach consensus.

The idea that the Nominations Committee should be appointed by the faculty rather than by the administration is one I personally endorse, even though it would probably not substantively change that group's decisions. If nothing else, having the Nominations Committee formally independent of the administration would enhance the perception that the leaders of the governance system are representatives of the faculty.

One of the recommendations of the FPC that I think would improve governance considerably is to find ways to better coordinate the work of the various faculty committees.

Even more importantly, the work of the faculty committees should be better coordinated with the various committees, councils, and task forces that are appointed by the administration. Too often, we find the same issue being worked on by multiple groups without any communication among them. In addition, I believe that some of the issues that have been handled by these various administration-appointed committees should be part of the agendas of existing standing committees of the faculty.

The expansion of the resources available to the Chair of the Faculty, within some reasonable boundaries, would also be useful. Professors Bailyn, Graves, and Vandiver point out that they had adequate resources to be effective, and my experience was similar. However, it was always clear to me that these resources were provided completely at the administration's discretion rather than as part of a clearly defined budget. The people who support the work of the Chair don't report to the Chair, and their services can be withdrawn at any time. It is just good overall operating practice that individuals who have responsibilities to accomplish specific tasks have an allocated budget for doing so. Having a budget for the office of Chair of the Faculty allows the office holder to make tradeoffs in how that budget is expended rather than constantly asking administrators for the time of other staff to help with various things.

I would propose a compromise between the current practice in which the President chairs the meetings of the faculty and the FPC's proposal that at times this responsibility be given to the Chair of the Faculty. Specifically, I believe the President and Chair of the Faculty should co-chair the faculty meetings. Agenda items that fall most naturally into the domain of faculty governance such as new degree programs, grading policies, GIR requirements, and agenda items brought forth by the standing faculty committees should be led by the Chair; those items outside that domain, such as reports on the budget, administratively-directed changes in policies, or items arising from Academic Council, should be led by the President. The agendas for the faculty meetings should continue to be set jointly by the senior officers of both the administration and the faculty.

Finally, I concur with Professors Bailyn, Graves, and Vandiver that we should take our time in implementing any changes in how we govern ourselves. This is indeed a time of adjustment to a shift in leadership. Certainly we have every reason to believe that the strong, cooperative relationship between the administration and the faculty that has long characterized MIT will continue, and that this will remain a source of tremendous strength for the Institute. However, each MIT president needs and deserves adequate time to build this collaborative relationship, and we run the risk of putting this process in jeopardy if we change the faculty governance system abruptly during this transitional period.

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