The State of the Institute?
The recent State of the Institute presentation by the President, Provost, and Executive Vice President and Treasurer presented a uniformly rosy outlook on all aspects of Institute life. We have not polled our colleagues, but are aware of junior and senior faculty, undergraduates, graduate students, and staff who either face – or perceive they face – difficult times ahead.
We reprint here parts of one response from an undergraduate, which though perhaps anecdotal, gives a sense of the malaise probably felt by many individuals in our community. The following excerpts are from an opinion piece published in The Tech Jennifer Nelson ’09. [The Tech, October 3, 2008, Vol. 128 No. 44.]
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The Institute of Perfection
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We have begun our editorial with Jennifer Nelson’s opinion piece for several reasons. First, what students think is important, especially MIT students, who hold us to high standards, the same high standards we try to instill in them. Second, rather than an unhelpful “flame,” the style of the article is serious and thoughtful. Even the signature is measured – Nelson characterizes herself as “marginally dissatisfied.” Third, and most important, is the letter’s message.
We understand the rationale for going with a positive “State of the Institute” address. For one thing, pointing out the Institute’s strengths might make an alumnus more inclined to donate generously.
But we also know there’s more to be said about where the Institute is right now, and presenting only an upbeat view is not very satisfying to faculty, staff, or students.
The MIT faculty should be seriously discussing many problems currently facing us. Examples include: 1) the proposal to increase the size of the undergraduate student body with no increases in size of faculty or support staff, despite an evolving teaching philosophy at MIT that puts more and more emphasis on faculty/student interactions, especially in the freshman year; 2) the impact of almost certain sharp cutbacks in NIH/NSF budgets on the ability of graduate students and postdoctoral staff to secure good research opportunities and challenging, well-paying jobs; 3) continuing problems in formulating and implementing diversity policies and articulating specific goals, including directly addressing the blow to MIT’s reputation following the James Sherley case; 4) student unhappiness over MIT’s handling of the Star Simpson ’10 case; 5) the Institute’s plans for financial constraint as highlighted in the November 17 e-mailed “Letter to the Community on MIT Finances” by President Hockfield and Provost Reif.
We applaud President Hockfield’s recent appearance at the MIT Undergraduate Association’s Senate meeting on November 4, 2008 (The Tech 11/4/2008, V128, N53), which concluded with a discussion of the administration’s handling of the Star Simpson ’10 case. This is the sort of frank exchange that gives credibility to the administration, and we wish for that sort of forthrightness in all of the administrations’ communications with the broader MIT community.
With the current historic global financial crisis expected to last a year or more usual sources of Institute funding will certainly be affected; industrial research support, government funding, financial contributions and other gifts, student tuition payments, and more will likely suffer. Serious and honest discussions between faculty and administrators regarding MIT’s budget and potential areas for savings need to occur, with particular emphasis on how this can be achieved without affecting MIT’s role and mission while maintaining our commitment to student support.
Perhaps the “State of the Institute” forum is inevitably going to be a public relations production, perhaps not, but in any case there should be some forum where the faculty and administration can discuss the many difficult issues facing the Institute – frankly and candidly.
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