MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XX No. 3
January / February 2008
Finding Polaris and Changing Course: A Closer Look at the December Faculty Meeting
The Power of Technology for Transparency
Deliberations Without Resolutions: Is it Time for a New Format for Faculty Meetings?
Teaching this spring? You should know . . .
How Do We Know if Students are Learning?
Not Just Another Survey . . . !
Online Subject Evaluation: One Step Toward More Effective Teaching
MIT Should Establish a Standing Committee on Investment Responsibility
Top Ten City of Cambridge Tax Payers
Reading the Newspaper By the Open Window
Introduction to the Campaign for Students
MIT Historical Society is Proposed
MIT's New Adoption Assistance Program
The Institute's Future
Teaching this spring? You should know . . .
Select Student Admissions and
Financial Aid Numbers
Printable Version

Finding Polaris and Changing Course:
A Closer Look at the December Faculty Meeting

Kenneth R. Manning

Faculty governance at MIT works through committees forging deals and agreements, before business reaches the floor of the faculty. Our faculty meetings consist mostly of reports of one kind or another. Usually there is little discussion, let alone vigorous debate. The Provost’s report on the status of minority recruitment and retention given at the December 19, 2007 faculty meeting is a case in point. After speaking at some length on what is considered a very important issue for MIT, the Provost retired to his seat without a single question being asked.

Rarely do concerns emerge and percolate upwards from faculty at the grass-roots level. So it is not surprising that when an issue comes up in this way, the presiding officer and officers of the faculty seem taken off guard and baffled as to how to handle it in a smooth, seamless manner. Something needs to be done, I would suggest, to encourage and facilitate substantive input by rank-and-file faculty.

The resolution on the Star Simpson case came directly out of the faculty ranks, from Professor Patrick Winston and me, in response to an action by the administration that caused us concern – specifically, use of the epithet “reckless” to tag in the media a member of our community who had found herself in possible legal jeopardy.

Our resolution referred in part to the concept of checks and balances so fundamental in democratic practice, and ironically, the very process of bringing the resolution forward for discussion and reflection revealed a need to enhance such checks and balances in our own system of governance. Judging by what was said at the December meeting, our faculty resonates with such issues and concerns. Even though many expressed interest ahead of time and disappointment at being unable to attend the day before the start of Christmas vacation, the meeting was still well attended, totaling approximately 150 people, better than so many in recent memory. A number of faculty members came, they said, because of just one agenda item: our resolution.


When Professor Winston and I tabled our resolution at the October 17, 2007, faculty meeting, we did so to allow for a fuller discussion within the community before bringing the matter up for debate and a vote at the ensuing faculty meeting. To that end, we were invited by the Chair of the Faculty to discuss the substance of the resolution with colleagues at the Faculty Policy Committee (FPC). He remarked that our resolution was important and that he wanted to get it before the FPC. We had been assured that only FPC members would attend. But one day before the meeting, after asking again specifically about the attendees, we were surprised to learn that various administrators and the Institute's chief lawyer would also be there. Professor Winston attended without me, gave a presentation to the group, and discussed the substance of our resolution. We got no feedback on any ensuing discussion or position taken after Professor Winston left the meeting. The Chair of the Faculty then tried to dissuade each of us, Professor Winston and me, from raising the matter again at a faculty meeting; attempted to split our co-sponsorship of the motion; and, when we declined, labeled our action “hostile.”

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Planning For The Meeting

Determined to carry on regardless, we sought to contribute to planning the agenda for the faculty meeting, recognizing that a joint effort between us and the agenda planners (the President, Provost, Chancellor, and the Officers of the Faculty) would be required to bring about a smooth meeting. We wanted the motion discussed and voted on. We knew that the only parliamentary requirement for taking a motion from the table was for one single item of business to be transacted, and that the motion to accept minutes of previous meeting(s) – the way our faculty meetings normally open – would constitute that single item of business. We then would have a good shot at an early discussion, hopefully while a large number of faculty members were still present. We therefore asked to be placed on the agenda immediately after the motion to accept the minutes was brought.

But we were met with opposition all along the way, the agenda planners insisting that presentations by the Provost and the President must precede our motion. No amount of appeal on our part to correct parliamentary procedure, or to fairness, could divert them from a decision made, essentially, by fiat. After intense efforts, we accepted what was clearly a fait accompli. We also failed to get our item listed simply as “Motion To Take Motion From The Table,” which would have been clear to every faculty member. Instead, the confusing and obfuscating phrase, “Discussion About The Institute’s External Communications,” signifying nothing about a resolution being taken off the table and voted on, was placed on the agenda. The notion that the agenda itself is something that faculty members can help develop, beyond representation by faculty officers, seemed to carry no weight. We decided not to bring forward the agenda itself as the focus of discussion at the outset of the meeting, even though it would have been well within our parliamentary right to do so.

A parliamentarian was announced and introduced at the outset, no doubt to help deal with what the administration considered a set of complex issues. The parliamentarian was called on by the President, in her role as presiding officer, for assistance in making rulings. The responsibility, of course, for knowing and interpreting the rules of basic parliamentary procedure, and for ruling accordingly, still resides with the presiding officer.

We were surprised when the President announced that items on the agenda would be reordered closer to our original request – this after the Chair of the Faculty had spent weeks standing in the way of our request. This reversal would have saved everyone a lot of trouble had it occurred earlier. Had we not been thwarted on this point alone, we could have spent valuable time on other more important issues, such as speaking privileges and the method of voting, both of which are critical to fairness and justice in any democratic process.

Discussion At The Meeting

The President stated that while she had an opinion of her own on our motion, she would refrain from saying what it was in order to preserve her neutrality as presiding officer.  To concede partiality while staking out a claim for detachment seemed unusual, but in any event, after Professor Winston and I presented our motion to take from the table, the President called on the Chancellor to comment and to offer a substitute motion. [For the complete texts of my and Prof. Winston's introductory comments to the discussion of the motion, please see:]

We had no notice of the proposed amendment from the Chancellor, with whom we had met just a day earlier at his suggestion to explore possible amendments, except that we had managed to obtain a copy distributed to department heads after their meeting the previous week. While we would not have accepted it as a friendly amendment, the option was never afforded us through appropriate channels in any reasonable and timely manner. In the end, the faculty voted not to substitute for our resolution either the Chancellor’s motion or two other motions.

With the resolution under discussion, I raised a point of parliamentary inquiry about speaking privileges for emeritus professors, asking specifically whether or not emeritus professors have speaking privileges.

The President and officers of the faculty responded, in obvious confusion, that the question of emeritus professors voting had been settled “fifteen years ago,” “three years ago,” and “three weeks ago.” It was categorically asserted that professors emeriti “have speaking but not voting privileges.”

This conclusion is not supported by the Rules and Regulations of the Faculty. According to Rules and Regulations, posted for all to see on the MIT Website: professors emeriti are not members of the faculty (see and professors without tenure (retired) have speaking and voting privileges (see But professors without tenure (retired) are not the same as professors emeriti. According to Policies and Procedures (see, professors emeriti are 100% retired, while professors without tenure (retired) are still active at a no more than 49% level.

The point of parliamentary inquiry that I raised was about professors emeriti, not about professors without tenure (retired) – not on account of any particular case, but as a general point of order. I had already advised several professors emeriti, who had inquired of Professor Winston and me, that my informed opinion was that they would not be allowed to speak according to the rules, as I had always understood the rules and explained them to faculty during my tenure as Secretary of the Faculty. I had an obligation, I felt, to these professors emeriti and to others at the faculty meeting to raise the parliamentary inquiry – on behalf of those who had canceled plans to speak because of what I had advised them, and to other professors emeriti present, because I was confident that they would want to follow correct procedure and play by the rules. We had asked the Chair of the Faculty ahead of time for names of people who would be granted speaking privileges at the meeting, also that these names be announced at the outset, as is the usual practice. We received no response.

My intention was not to prevent anyone from speaking at the meeting, as noted in my inquiry. In fact, everyone who wanted to speak at the meeting, spoke. But I would have preferred in fairness that all professors emeriti (and students as well) had been granted speaking privileges at the outset.

The question of who is a faculty member and who may (or may not) take the faculty floor is a critical one, and the presiding officer and officers of the faculty need to understand the rules and carry them out uniformly and fairly.

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The Voting Members

The question of who may or may not vote is equally critical and should be announced just prior to calling for a vote, especially since our faculty meetings are open to the wider MIT community. Only members of the faculty may vote, including some ex-officio members. MIT makes no distinction, for voting purposes, between faculty who are not administrators and those who are. One attractive feature of the MIT administration is that many administrators also have MIT faculty experience. As our colleagues move into administrative positions, the rationale goes, such experience helps them become better administrators.

The Chancellor, the Provost, the various associate provosts, the vice presidents, the academic deans and their associates, together with the non-academic deans and some of their associates, and the department heads with their associates in some cases as well, number between 50 and 60 people, out of a faculty totaling 996 members. As full-time administrators, they leave their teaching, service, academic salaries, and voting privileges in the departments behind, yet they continue to vote at our Institute-wide faculty meetings and did so in healthy numbers at the December 19 meeting. Just the previous week, they had been mobilized by the upper administration not only to vote in opposition to our resolution  – suggesting a more cautious approach to the way the administration portrays members of our community to the media – but also to encourage faculty in their departments to do likewise. Department heads are mandated to attend faculty meetings; attendance is part of their job description, which is not the case for the rank and file. Rank-and-file faculty have no organizational means or incentives to mobilize supporters in this way.

Casting The Vote

The faculty officers and president hold responsibility for ensuring that the means chosen to carry out voting is appropriate to the circumstances. In other words, they should weigh carefully ahead of time what process – voice vote, hand vote, stand vote, or secret ballot – would best promote participation and fairness.

Arguably, a vote by secret ballot would have been best suited in this case. It would have protected junior faculty members from fear of retribution or a sense of intimidation, as well as senior faculty members who might worry about being called “hostile” (or worse) by the administration or faculty officers; it would also have eliminated any temptation for some to seek personal benefit for voting a certain way.

Who knows, some department heads might even have felt able to express in secret – out of view of the upper administration – a position different from the suggestion or mandate given them at the meeting the previous week.

There is precedent for voting by secret ballot at MIT. The most recent case I can think of was three years ago, when the nominations slate for three committees was contested by minority faculty. All the candidates for these committees, including the candidates seeking alternate nominations, were presented on a secret ballot. The method of voting was arranged by the Chair and the Secretary of the Faculty as the appropriate means to carry out a sensitive vote, making certain that only bona fide members of the faculty voted. Neutral colleagues were selected by the Secretary to tally the votes cast. The process went ahead smoothly and without a hitch. But then, for some undisclosed reason, the incoming Chair of the Faculty set up a committee to consider the (ir)regularity of this process. After months of review, the process was determined to have been conducted appropriately.

Counting The Vote

Appropriate counting of votes is critical for a closely contested motion such as ours, yet the President and the Secretary of the Faculty took charge of counting the votes. As part of the administration and, consequently, an object of the resolution, it seemed odd, to say the least, that the presiding officer should assume this role. She strained to see who voted how. At one point she asked for a revote, asking that members voting against the resolution raise their hands higher, so that she could see them more clearly. Had the president and officers of the faculty selected neutral counters of a secret ballot, the process would have been more just, more fair, and ironically – in view of the secret ballot – more transparently sincere. This is not to impugn anyone’s integrity, but simply to recognize the need for a system of checks and balances that ensures maximal protection of the voting privilege.

Interpreting The Vote

The 36 to 31 vote against the resolution should send a signal to the administration that around half of the faculty that voted (without even taking into account the large number of administrators voting as faculty, or the unknown position of the remaining faculty who, for whatever reason, chose not to vote) is dissatisfied with the administration’s handling of the Star Simpson event and wishes that the Institute would refrain in the future from making hasty characterizations of the behavior of members of our community. Faculty evidently feel that the basic constitutional rights of members of this community are important enough for the administration to protect.

What turned out to be most promising about the meeting of December 19, 2007, was that faculty and administrators came together to discuss an important matter and did not shut down debate.

When the faculty was presented with a motion to table the original motion indefinitely (an attempt to kill the original motion, to be sure), the gathering voted not to do so. The faculty insisted on bringing the original resolution to a vote, and MIT is the better for this.

What we need now is a public statement of the administration’s interpretation of the vote and of its plan, considering the closely divided result, to move forward on the concerns expressed in the resolution. It would also move the Institute further along if the administration and faculty were to work together on addressing the concerns outlined herein. As with Star Simpson, the stars are on our side. In order to adjust our bearing, we need to look around us, find Polaris, and change course.

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