MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XX No. 2
November / December 2007
A Beacon Beyond Our Borders
M.I.T.'s Real Assets
A Call for Nominations
Disagreements and Community Building
Should MIT Increase the Size of the Faculty?
Avoiding a Rush to Judgement:
Implications of the Star Simpson Affair
The purpose of faculty meetings?
Not the Way to Treat Family
The MIT Energy Initiative: One Year Later
Faculty Renewal
Can't Stop Laughing
Making a Mountain Out of a Molehill: Understanding the U.S. News Rankings
Faculty Quality of Life
A White Paper on How MIT Should Think About Institutional International Exchanges
The MIT Office of Admissions:
Choosing the Best Candidates
and Handling Them With Care
A Meeting with Disaster: Planning for Emergencies and Extended Outages
The Pitfalls of Digital Rights Management
Student Global Experiences
(IROP and Survey Results)
Student Global Experiences
(MISTI Participation)
Printable Version

The purpose of faculty meetings?

Michel DeGraff

My enthusiasm was kindled by our new Chair of the Faculty's first public comments at our first faculty meeting of the fall, on September 19, 2007. Professor Bishwapriya Sanyal proposed various constructive ways to make faculty meetings more relevant to the faculty and to issues we care about, and he asked for suggestions on how to increase attendance at faculty meetings and, more generally, how to improve communication between faculty and faculty officers. According to the minutes, Professor Sanyal stated, among other things:

“...what underlies the ability of the officers to perform their roles is their ability to convey your wishes and concerns to the administration. Communication is essential in order that the Faculty Officers really represent the broad view of the collective faculty.

MIT Faculty Meetings have lost their luster as a locus for serious discussion. Attendance is generally quite low.”

In this light, I was puzzled by Professor Sanyal's (and other administrators’) response at our second faculty meeting of the semester (on October 17) to the important resolution proposed by Professors Kenneth R. Manning and Patrick H. Winston (see the faculty meeting minutes for details of the debate). There, Professor Sanyal stated that he felt it more appropriate that the Manning-Winston resolution first be discussed within the Faculty Policy Committee (FPC) rather than on the floor of the faculty meeting. Yet the October faculty meeting was unusually well attended, so it was a good and timely opportunity to gauge “the broad view of the collective faculty” on the critical issue at stake in the resolution.

My own impression was that most of the opposition to the resolution at the October faculty meeting came in unison from past and previous members of the administration, while the rest of the faculty in attendance remained silent, perhaps ready to vote. I myself certainly was, and so seemed nearby colleagues, until the resolution was tabled by Professor Winston after the administration voiced its opposition to the proposed vote.

In addition, the FPC is comprised of only 14 members, as compared to the large numbers in attendance at the October faculty meeting, which was virtually standing-room-only at the time the resolution was introduced.

I still fail to understand why it needed to be first discussed off-the-record at the FPC, especially considering our faculty officers’ objective to make faculty meetings more relevant to faculty concerns. Such extra relevance, it seems to me, should be accompanied by more transparency and more accountability.

The Manning-Winston resolution, as introduced at the October faculty meeting, was the perfect occasion to foster “a locus for serious discussion.” And if the Manning-Winston resolution deserves serious discussion, then why should the discussion be delayed and pushed away from faculty meetings, to a 14-person committee that is not so fully representative of the larger faculty?

When it comes to critical and time-sensitive issues that affect our community as in the handling of the Star Simpson case, the key choice points here are these:

  • Should these issues be promptly debated and acted upon in transparent and participatory fashion at faculty meetings in the presence of all interested constituencies from our community? (This is the view advocated by the authors of the Manning-Winston resolution.)

    • Or should these issues be discussed behind closed doors and off the record at the FPC before reaching the floor of faculty meetings? (This is the view advocated by the Chair of the Faculty and other administrators at the October faculty meeting.)
    • Though these questions have been made most salient in the context of the Manning-Winston resolution and related comments at the October faculty meeting, I hope that the ensuing debate, if any, can substantially address the above procedural issue as a matter of principle.

      This note is written in the spirit of transparent and constructive communication that Professor Sanyal has advocated. May it convince a larger number of our colleagues to enter into an open and fruitful debate about “The purpose of faculty meetings” for the sake of the objectives advocated by the Chair of the Faculty on September 19, 2007.
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