Tom Kochan New Faculty Chair
Thomas A. Kochan will take up his duties as Chair of the Faculty this June after a year of apprenticing under outgoing Chair and good friend Bish Sanyal. Since Tom’s field is work and employment, he appreciated the opportunity to get a realistic job preview while “in training” this year as the faculty officers worked through a full plate of issues.
Kochan is the George M. Bunker Professor of Management and co-director of the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research. His interest in how work gets done started early in life, growing up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. Now when he finds himself up early in the morning working in front of his computer, he is reminded that one of his early goals in life was to get a job that didn’t require him to get up before dawn on cold winter mornings to go out and milk cows. With a cup of coffee in hand, he feels he got it half right.
Farm life taught him the value of hard work, cooperation, and community service that have guided his professional life ever since.
Small farmers had to work together and help each other out at harvest time and especially in times of personal or family need, while at the same time negotiating with each other and local businesses for fair deals on equipment and services. So it was a natural step for Tom to take up the study of industrial and labor relations in 1969 at the University of Wisconsin, the university where this field was born. At the time, the university was a hotbed of student protests, demonstrations, and strikes. One of Tom’s first experiences in labor conflict came with a strike of his fellow teaching assistants: “We were on strike for three weeks, settled for a little less than the University had offered before the strike, but won on principle!”
Kochan began his professorial career in 1973 at Cornell and was immediately thrown into the center of the public policy debate of the day: how to best resolve negotiations between public sector employees and employers. He organized a team of students and faculty colleagues to study this issue, evaluated an experimental arbitration statute, and, based on their research findings, made recommendations for changes in the law that continue to be in place today.
Since joining the MIT faculty in 1980, his research has focused on ways to update public policies and organizational practices to catch up with changes in the nature of work, the workforce, and the economy.
In recent years, he has argued that the social contract that governed employment relationships, i.e., that wages and productivity should move roughly in tandem, has broken down. He believes that a new social contract is needed to put the economy and workforce back on the road to recovery and a sustained, shared prosperity.
Tom was recruited to MIT in 1980 to help revive and rebuild the Sloan School’s PhD program in industrial relations. He takes great pride in the small, but premier, PhD program he and his colleagues built, having now placed more than 30 graduates in the top universities in the U.S. and around the world.
After chairing the committee that created the Minor in Management in 2005, Tom got his first exposure to MIT undergraduate teaching. He created a new “People and Organizations” course to teach students how to navigate and be productive in the world of work and organizations they will enter after graduating. He has come to love this course and the interaction with MIT undergrads. It is the one teaching duty he will not give up during his term as Faculty Chair!
In his activities outside of MIT, Tom works closely with business, labor, and government leaders, often serving as a mediator or facilitator in specific disputes or on longer-term efforts to build labor management partnerships. His views are often controversial – challenging prevailing practices of both business and labor organizations; but he says that, and his two beautiful little grandchildren, are what keep him young.
Now the question is whether he can apply these skills in rallying the faculty, administration, staff, and students to meet our challenges at MIT.