MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XIX No. 5
March / April 2007
The Saga of the Struggle for Survival
of the Faculty Newsletter
The Management of Change: Institute Facing Key Issues in the Immediate Future
The More Things Change
the More They Stay the Same
Getting More Learning
out of Lecture and Recitation Time
Why Diversity Matters
The Martin Luther King, Jr.
Visiting Professor Program
Desired End State: Reaching the Goal
MLK, MIT, and Me: A Personal Essay
Recruiting Underrepresented
Minority Students to MIT
Filling the Pipeline
Faith vs. Fact in the Pursuit
of Fairness at MIT
Ode to William Wells
Stephen M. Meyer
CMI – A Bold Experiment
in International Partnership
Response to Prof. Sussman's Call
for Interdisciplinary Research
Appreciation for Special Edition
Faculty Newsletter
Cutting the Pie of Undergraduate Education
Getfit@mit with the FNL
Underrepresented Minorities at MIT
MIT Faculty:
Women and Underrepresented Minorities
Printable Version

From The Faculty Chair

The More Things Change the More They Stay the Same

Steven Lerman

One of the interesting things about serving a second term as Chair of the Faculty is the opportunity to look back on some of the articles I wrote for the Faculty Newsletter during my first term and ask whether anything I argued for or against has changed. As I started to write this column, I read through several of the pieces I wrote during my earlier term six years ago, and I realized that some of the problems I wrote about are still very much with us today.

In those earlier articles, I expressed my concerns about such seemingly diverse topics as the growth in the size of the graduate student body, the inappropriate uses of e-mail, the expansion of the time and energy needed to secure adequate research funding, and the growing bureaucratization of MIT. The unifying theme of these trends, though, is that they all create additional competition for the already scarce time of the faculty. Collectively, these forces make it ever more difficult for us to spend time on teaching, mentoring, and research, the reasons we chose to become professors in the first place.

My unhappy conclusion in reading through those earlier pieces is that the trends I discussed in those articles have for the most part either not improved or worsened, and that collectively they present a greater challenge now than ever before.

I think it’s useful to revisit them from today’s perspective and explore which of them are potentially remediable and which are forces beyond our control.

Competition for Time

Consider the growth in the size of the graduate student body. I noted in an earlier article that between 1991 and 2000, the number of full-time graduate students (not including special students) had grown from 4854 to 5566, an increase of 15%. Since that time, the graduate student enrollment has grown to 5973, another increase of 7.3%. In the same 2000-2007 time period, the undergraduate enrollment has declined slightly, by 3%. While the size of the faculty has grown some since 1991, the number of graduate students per faculty member has increased from 5.05 in 1991 to 5.98 in 2007. To a first approximation, each of us on the faculty has on average one more graduate student than we had 16 years ago.

It’s important to note that, for the most part, we didn’t plan this growth. It happened as the result of largely independent decisions made by individual departments. In many cases, the growth in the number of graduate students was the result of increases in research funding, which in turn created a need for a greater number of graduate research assistants. However, because we didn’t plan for this growth, we never made any conscious decisions about how, given all the other things we each are doing, we would find time to advise and mentor the additional students.

Another trend is the growing time we must devote to securing research funding. The percentage of proposals funded by agencies such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health has declined over time, and as a result many of us find ourselves writing more proposals and cultivating alternative sources of research funds from industry, foundations, and international programs. At one level, this diversification of our research sources is healthy, in that at least in some areas we’re less dependent on a single funding source. However, anecdotal evidence from my conversations with many of you suggests that this diversification often comes at a price – particularly the additional time we spend preparing proposals and traveling to our research sponsors.

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E-mail represents yet another arena in which we seem to spend an ever-expanding amount of time. Part of this is the result of the huge expansion of asynchronous communication that e-mail has enabled. It is easy to send copies of electronic correspondence to many people, particularly when we use mailing lists. A positive aspect of this is that we often know about things more quickly than before; the negative consequence is that we sometimes spend hours on our correspondence every day.
As with many technological innovations, whether e-mail is “good or bad” for us depends far more on how we choose to use it than on any intrinsic properties of the technology itself. As I argued earlier, the conventions that have grown around the use of e-mail have some dysfunctional elements that we need to eliminate from the MIT culture. One of these is the expectation of immediate response. E-mail speeds the delivery of communications, not the time it takes to read someone’s message, think about the issues or questions that message raises, and compose a response.

E-mail can also encourage a less-than-collegial style of communication. In my experience, e-mail is a terrible medium for dispute resolution. It tends to produce escalation rather than compromise.

A minor problem can become a major one in less than a day, and we end up spending a huge amount of time dealing with a deluge of angry messages. Often, the only way to end these exchanges is to have a meeting of the involved parties, once again burdening all of us with yet another meeting. These e-mail firestorms not only consume our time and energy, they undermine the mutual respect that is the foundation of collegiality among the faculty.

My final factor that contributes to the competition for our time is the large number of small pieces of institutional bureaucracy. These seem to fall into two categories. Some are mandated from outside of the university, as is the case with various government reporting requirements, training on environmental safety, conflict of interest statements, and additional procedures for submitting grant proposals. Others, such as surveys from various parts of the administration, additional committees to provide input into various decisions, and meetings to present information that we might find valuable, are entirely well-intentioned efforts to further engage the faculty in the huge spectrum of activities within a modern research university. We need to recognize, however, that the sum of these small demands on our time collectively, inevitably takes time from something else we should be doing.

Some Modest Suggestions

Given all of the above and the lack of progress we have made on these same issues, it is appropriate to ask whether the expansion of faculty’s time commitments is inevitable. My own sense is that this is only partially true. There are things we can do, but they require some changes in decisions we either implicitly or explicitly make. Here is my modest list of proposals:

  • Departments that have expanded their graduate enrollments should look seriously at the option of decreasing their size. This is something we, the faculty, control locally. In the long run, MIT is in the business of quality, not quantity.
  • If we decide to continue to expand the graduate population and, as currently planned, to add to the undergraduate population, we should undertake a modest expansion of the size of the faculty. This will require careful planning to decide where new slots are most needed as well as substantial new resources for salaries, space, and, in some cases, laboratories.
  • MIT may have too many committees for our own good. We should try to separate areas where the faculty has an important and fundamental stake from those that might best be dealt with through purely administrative processes. In some other areas, we might do better having a single person making wise decisions than requiring constant consultation with a committee. It might also be better to have fewer committees, each with a broader charter.
  • Let’s all agree to use e-mail more wisely. It works best as a way of communicating information, and worst as a way of airing grievances. We need to read the messages we send through the eyes of the recipient, and avoid writing things we wouldn’t say to someone face-to-face. This will ultimately save us all time and reduce emotional stress. It will also give our students better examples for how they communicate with each other.
  • We should weigh the value of any new bureaucratic process against its full cost, including the time it takes all of us to use the process. Wherever possible, we should find ways of reducing the unproductive burdens of the operating processes needed to run the university.

The forces that have stretched the demands on the faculty have been with us for a long time. Most of us enjoy our work, and few of us are looking for less to do. The real issue is how we should allocate our time. Some of the things we faculty now do isn’t the best use of our time, either for us individually or for the university. We need to become far more deliberate in our decisions about how our choices change what we spend our time on. The day is still only 24 hours long, and everything we do more of means there will be something we will do less of.

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