From The Faculty Chair
If you’ve been away from MIT this summer, you might be wondering why this column is being written by me rather than by Lorna Gibson. I am pleased to be able to tell you that Professor Gibson was offered and accepted the position of Associate Provost, effective immediately. Unfortunately, though, accepting this position left her unable to serve the remaining year of her term as Chair of the MIT Faculty.
According to the Rules and Regulations of the Faculty, the Nominations Committee acts with power in appointing a Chair for the remainder of a departing Chair’s term. The prior commitments of the other faculty officers made it difficult for them to be able take on the role of the Chair, and the Nominations Committee asked me to do so. Having already served as Chair of the Faculty from 2000-2002, and having enjoyed it enormously, I accepted and, as a consequence, I find myself unexpectedly writing this column.
We will all benefit from having someone with Lorna’s energy, talent, and experience in the senior administration, but the truth is that we will also miss her leadership as the Faculty Chair. Lorna brought a combination of wisdom and practicality that served all of us extremely well during the ongoing transition of senior leadership at MIT. She worked to restructure the operations of some of the key committees of the faculty, particularly in the area of graduate student policy and disciplinary reviews. She and President Hockfield also added an open question and answer session to the faculty meetings, bringing a sense of openness and spontaneity to the meetings that was badly needed. I have no doubt that her breadth of experience as Chair of the Faculty will make her more effective as an Associate Provost, but we will miss her.
Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons
Looking forward, I think that some of the most substantive work we will do this year will probably result from the report of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons. Under the leadership of Dean Robert Silbey, this committee of faculty, students, and staff has been working for the past two years.
Paraphrasing the Task Force’s charter, the members of the Task Force have been working to review MIT's educational mission statement, define goals from that educational mission, develop common curriculum requirements for all undergraduates, and recommend to the faculty the formal structure of the undergraduate curriculum.
Once the work of the Task Force is completed, the faculty will need to work with the Office of the Dean for Undergraduate Education to consider its recommendations and to make appropriate changes to the Rules and Regulations of the Faculty which establish the requirements for MIT degrees.
The governance of the educational commons is one of the central tasks of those of us who teach at MIT. It is in the Rules and Regulations of the Faculty that we set forth the requirements for MIT degrees, including the General Institute Requirements. Ultimately, any changes in these requirements must be voted on and approved by the faculty. In a very real sense, we define our beliefs about what a technological and science centered education means through our degree requirements. Our decisions about the educational commons will influence not only the lives of all our undergraduates, but will also be seen as a model for other universities around the world.
Though we as a faculty must approve any changes in degree requirements, any changes in our undergraduate program forward will involve various groups, including the officers of the faculty, the Committee on the Undergraduate Program, the Office of the Dean for Undergraduate Education, department heads and deans, the Chair of the Task Force, student representatives, and much of the senior administration. The translation of the difficult and time-consuming work of the Task Force into concrete actions will occupy many of us in the coming year and beyond.
I hope we will have a vigorous and constructive debate about what changes in undergraduate education are best for our students.
This will require a willingness to question the status quo and a vision that transcends the localized interests of any one department or School. During this process we should be mindful that the report of the Task Force is the result of extensive research, consultations, and deliberations. While each of us may not agree with every one of the changes proposed by the Task Force, we should view their recommendations as reflecting the best judgment of some of our most deeply committed colleagues.
My goal is to move this process forward in a positive and systematic manner so that any changes may be approved by the faculty during this academic year. The complete implementation of whatever changes we agree upon is likely to require several more years that include development of new courses, new governing structures for the various requirements, and a significant commitment of faculty time and funds to whatever new teaching commitments arise from the new requirements.
Of course, our work on the undergraduate commons is not the only thing on the faculty agenda for the coming year. Some of the other topics we will deliberate on include:
If history provides any guide, the list of issues we as a faculty need to discuss will likely get longer rather than shorter over the year.
For me, the start of the academic year always has a feeling of renewal and continuity. New students and new faculty arrive, and we move again into the annual cycle of teaching and research. Although certainly unexpected, I find myself looking forward to the coming year as Chair of the Faculty with unabashed enthusiasm. As always, I look forward to working with my faculty colleagues on the many things we all care deeply about.