MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XIX No. 2
November / December 2006
Student-Driven Activities at MIT
Financial Foundation for MIT's Future
Undergraduate Education Reconsidered
Stephen J. Madden, Jr.
MIT and Singapore
Teaching and Challenging Engineers . . .
to Engineer
Adèle Naudé Santos
Written in Pencil; February Lunch
First Response Education:
New Orleans Comes to MIT
Do MIT Students Ever Sleep?
The Implication of Mega-Partnerships
for MIT Faculty
Helping Students Become Better Writers
A Century of MIT at a Glance
MIT Faculty and Students (1900-2007)
Printable Version

From The Archives

The Implication of Mega-Partnerships for MIT Faculty

Robert B. McKersie

With this article we introduce a new feature, “From The Archives,” reprints of past Newsletter articles that speak to current topics of interest. Both the editorial in the September/October 2006 Newsletter, “The Need for Increased Faculty Involvement in Major Institute Initiatives,” and Tom Magnanti’s piece in the current issue, “MIT and Singapore," reflect concerns addressed in this article.

The following is a reprint from the September, 2000 MIT Faculty Newsletter (Vol. XIII, No. 1)

This piece deals with the "sacred" territory of faculty workload norms and how we relate to our employer, the Institute. Hence, some of the items in this piece will be seen as quite controversial.

Currently, most of us, as faculty members at MIT, work under an explicit understanding that specifies our teaching requirements each year. Alongside this is an implicit contract that, in varying degrees, suggests that we will step forward to involve ourselves in a variety of service or outreach activities.

My proposal is that we need to make many aspects of what is the implicit side of our relationship to MIT much more explicit, in order to deal with some very big developments.

So, what is the challenge at hand? Over the past several years, various leaders at MIT (including the central administration, deans, research directors) have negotiated major partnerships with a variety of companies, governments, and even other universities. The list is growing longer by the month and includes partnerships with Microsoft, Merrill Lynch, the Government of Singapore, the sponsoring companies of Leaders for Manufacturing, Ford Motor Company, and Cambridge University. I have only focused on those arrangements that deal with the development and transfer of knowledge, in distinction to programs that are primarily educational (such as the new SDM Master's program).
Most parts of MIT have celebrated with enthusiasm the announcement of these large undertakings. But a growing number of voices from the faculty have been saying something to the effect: "My arm is being twisted to get involved in a particular partnership." Clearly, the workload is not evenly distributed across the faculty.

In a number of the partnerships it is the case that a high percentage of the work is done by people who are hired exclusively for the partnerships, in other words, the “bench” work is not being done by our regular faculty. This is true of first generation projects such as IMVP, Lean Aerospace Initiative (LAI), and Lean Sustainment. To be sure, faculty are in charge of these projects, but the extent of faculty involvement is not as large as originally envisioned.

A further difficulty that has developed in some instances (and I saw this first hand from my vantage point as Deputy Dean for Research at the Sloan School – a position that helped foster a number of these partnerships) is that given the difficulty in recruiting faculty to "come on board," sponsors feel short-changed. Further, the deliverables that were promised as part of the negotiations to establish the partnership are not always forthcoming in full measure.

Another problem can occur when these partnerships approach faculty as free agents and are successful at securing their participation, but do so without consideration of the consequences to the faculty’s home department.

For instance, the partnership buys out some of the faculty teaching load, leaving the department with a void. This inevitably results in conflict between the program and the department, and can make it even harder for the two to cooperate and coordinate plans. This is further exacerbated when the program, like the Singapore initiative, is a School-wide or Institute-wide activity that must draw upon faculty from multiple departments and Schools.

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So, what is the solution(s)? Actually, my main purpose in this piece is to raise the subject and to provoke discussion. But I cannot duck that easily. One thought would be to move toward an understanding between the faculty and the administration at MIT where a service or extension function is seen as a regular part of the explicit employment contract. I use the word "extension" in the historic sense, wherein land grant universities (and MIT for a while was one of these) assume a responsibility to extend knowledge beyond the clients who are in residence on the campus.

Before going any further, I'm sure someone is raising the question: Why do we have to have these partnerships if we are experiencing difficulty in staffing the programs and delivering the "goods?" Well, we are in a new era, and aside from the dollars that these partnerships provide, they connect us to interesting problems in industry and in a variety of organizations, and for a place like MIT, which is very much on the applied side as well as fostering basic research, they are a welcome development.
Returning to some of the practical questions as to how such a revision of our work norms would be defined, I would recommend that this part of our portfolio only apply to tenured faculty. It might work as follows:

In discussions between an individual faculty member and a department head/dean, an understanding would be reached as to what percentage of the workload would be charged to these extension-type projects over, say, a five-year period of time. It might be desirable, in some cases, to reduce the classroom teaching load so as to leave ample room in each faculty member's schedule for research and activities of his/her own choosing. And it would be desirable that these discussions be complemented with concurrent discussions with the leads for the partnership programs, so as to coordinate on how faculty are engaged in these activities and to assure that the same signals are sent on what is expected and encouraged.

Now, what are some of the advantages of moving in this direction, aside from the practical result that all tenured faculty would play their part in helping implement these partnerships? First, if faculty see these partnerships as part of their regular workload, then I am sure that faculty will insist on being involved at the conception and birth of these partnerships, and we will not be in a situation where faculty feel that somebody "at the top" is out prospecting for deals and then bringing them back with gusto to present to the various labs and faculty for execution. It is possible that we might engage in fewer of these partnerships, and that would not be all that lamentable. For sure, where we do sign on to deliver certain research programs and to generate new knowledge for a particular client, since we would do it only with faculty involvement, we would do it well, and the project would become part of the faculty’s social contract at MIT.

Right now, the partnerships are not embedded in our culture, and unfortunately too often junior faculty (who find it more difficult to say “no” than tenured faculty) sign on, only to find at tenure review time that their activities on some of these projects are not given high value. This is a very serious disconnect – we either need to cut back on partnerships or bring them into a tight embrace with senior faculty.

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